The Rt. Hon. the Lord Howell of Guildford, Chair of the House of Lords International Relations Committee, talks to the British Council’s Siobhan Foster-Perkins and Alasdair Donaldson about the UK’s soft power and future role in the world.

Brexit and the global tidal change in international affairs

This week sees Parliament returning after a knife-edge election and also marks the beginning of Brexit negotiations. You’ve said that ‘trade no longer follows the flag – it follows soft power’. What is your view of the current strength of all the UK’s Soft Power assets, taken together, and what can we do to make the most of them as we seek to negotiate new trading relationships with other countries? 

It is necessary for those who peer into the future to present to the public an analysis of the way the world is going and to point out that Brexit, along with many other trends in society, is part of a global tidal change in international affairs. If we understand that trend we can contribute to it and position ourselves in it. This isn’t about Britain trying to isolate itself. The bigger story is that this is a networked world and in a networked world you have to use new relationships, and new forms of power, in order to preserve your prosperity and security and play your part in global stability. That’s where the maximum use of soft power assets becomes essential. We need to look for areas where there is a common understanding of our values (which we shouldn’t be pushing down peoples’ throats). 

The hope for democracy, good government, the rule of law, and the projection of our values through soft power is increasingly going to have to be through the rest of the English speaking world, in other words the Commonwealth

By lucky chance we have excellent opportunities for communication & connection through the English speaking world. People think that means America and the Commonwealth. But these are two separate things. The US is not going to join the Commonwealth (regardless of what you may have read in certain newspapers recently). Indeed, America is busy withdrawing from its commitment to the liberal international order. The hope for democracy, good government, the rule of law, and the projection of our values through soft power is increasingly going to have to be through the rest of the English speaking world, in other words the Commonwealth, which happens to consist a third of the human race, cover every inhabited continent, all faiths, many of the world’s fastest-growing nations, and as is becoming a more and more important network through which we can help either uphold existing liberal institutions or create new ones. 

Speaking of the Commonwealth, in your book, ‘Old Links & New Ties’, you argue forcefully that, in a digitised, networked world, the UK is in a great position to prosper – and that the Commonwealth in particular represents a huge potential asset. But what should the UK do to make the most of that opportunity?

To my intense pleasure, all the things I hoped for when I wrote the book three years ago are now actually happening. It’s taken Brexit and Trump to bring the reality I talk about in my book to the fore. Increasingly, ministerial statements use the phrase ‘old friends and new partners’, which seems to echo my title. How do we realise this vision? Well the government is now doing some interesting things. It’s dawning on policymakers that the Commonwealth is a network containing many of the richest, fastest-growing countries in the world. At the centre of that is the gigantic Indian sub-continent. It happens serendipitously that the next meeting of the Commonwealth leaders is due to assemble at the Commonwealth Summit early next year in London. Brexit has made us realise how important this is. The job of organising it has been taken from the Foreign Office, where 6 people were working on it, to the Cabinet Office, where 80 people are now working on it. The Commonwealth Games is also becoming more important. Crucially we need to get knowledge of the Commonwealth into our schools to reach children, who know nothing about it. Whenever we have tried to spread the message we’ve found a vast welling up of interest in every aspect of the Commonwealth. It’s the world’s biggest professional network, already operating in the fields of science, medicine, education, culture, governance, and many more. 

But in this connected age this won’t be a government-only story, though it will require statesmanship. Like many important trends, it will happen organically, as the benefits of the single language and vestiges of common culture become more and more valuable and obvious. 

But to flip the question, can Government get in the way of these ‘organic’ processes? You have argued that the UK should have renewed confidence and a better-defined national purpose. But Brexit has shown the profound divisions in the country and, some have argued, even an ingrained defeatism in the political, media, and cultural elites. As negotiations with the EU begin, are we in danger of a self-fulfilling narrative of decline? 

Yes. Foot-shooting is prevalent in many areas. What do we do about the divided nation? People are utterly bewildered. How do you provide some vision and narrative? I do see a way forward. I voted ‘remain’ because, although the EU is a mess, I wanted us to be in there to prevent a really big crash. But anyway Brexit is only a minor feature of major world changes, so I actually don’t think that matters all that much. Much more important is to think of Brexit as a new and huge strategic opportunity to begin to put some life into the moribund WTO and to build bi-lateral trade relationships. In the digital age these will be far more efficient in terms of getting results than negotiating with huge blocks of countries – that never gets anywhere. Japan has been trying to negotiate with the EU for a free trade agreement since 2011. 

But to answer your question, there are things that government can do to get in the way. Take immigration: there is a very strong view that students should be taken out of the immigration figures so they don’t take the full brunt of our attempt to reduce overall numbers. We’ve borne down so hard that we’ve halved our numbers of students from India. There are so many brilliant Indian students now going elsewhere (like the US and Germany). This is pure self-harm. It undermines our economic dynamism, and undermines our future relations with countries like India – as government delegations have found when they go there. 

Old links, new ties

In the context of Brexit, the British Council’s latest report into international views of the UK (From the Outside In, published this week) suggests that the referendum has thrown up risks (in Europe) but also opportunities (elsewhere, particularly in the Commonwealth) when it comes to British influence and standing, and indeed suggests that more young people across the G20 consider us to be a major world power than they did before the referendum. Do those results surprise you? And do you think those survey responses would have been different if the people carrying out our survey had had access to politicians and policy makers in those countries, rather than the general population?  

I’m pleased but not surprised. And yes I do think they would have been different. But policymakers and governments move more slowly. They have to look over so many shoulders and guard so many flanks. Normal people can be quicker to grasp things and are increasingly easier to reach – and of course they’re talking to each other. This is related to the fact that there seems to be a growing split between those who want to defend the institutions of the old 20th Century liberal order to the bitter end, and those who are happier to embrace the immense power of new technology and a connected world. 

As well as Europe and the Commonwealth, which other regions & countries of the world do you think are now the most important for the UK? How should we approach those countries in our new post-Article 50, post-election context?

China and Japan. These are the 2nd and 3rd biggest industrial economies in the world, they take very different approaches to diplomatic affairs - and unfortunately they hate each other. Nevertheless they are the major influence on affairs in Asia. Then Russia and the smaller rising powers of Asia are also vital. 

What China is trying to do is not to build a competitive but a parallel order to western institutions. They’re looking at those institutions and saying ‘well, we’re not necessarily going to play by all these rules ourselves’. They say they’re not going to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, but paradoxically they’re going to let their enormous economic might increasingly dominate the globe. They want the Renminbi as the global currency to replace the Dollar. They’re already everywhere in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. It’s on an incredible scale. You can’t find a country that doesn’t have major Chinese investment and involvement. 

Take the Caribbean, for example, which we’re now rediscovering having ignored for a long time: we’re finding that now when we arrive the Chinese are there already. It’s not necessarily something one always approves of, because they don’t ask any questions about human rights, just start spending money. Also the Chinese tend to bring in their own labour. This is very different from the Western approach. But we have to work with China, possibly holding our nose at some times. And we are working with it – subscribing early to the Asian Infrastructure Bank, though that managed to offend the Japanese. We have made a song and dance about trading with China. We’re delighted at the idea that a train coming all the way from China can pull into Barking station. We don’t want to be left out of ‘One Belt, One Road’. We want to make sure we’re involved in that (but hopefully without offending the Japanese too much). 

What about the Middle East? The International Relations Committee you chair has been undertaking an inquiry on the ‘Transformation of Power in the Middle East’. You titled the final report ‘Time for a New Realism’ . What is the soft power record of the UK in the region to date? How do you see a more developed relationship emerging? And how can the UK ensure that attention is not diverted away from MENA? 

There’s a lot of historical baggage here for Britain. The assumptions of recent decades that the US will underpin the Middle East was wobbly anyway, because of the difficulties of getting involved in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. Obama left a legacy of some confusion. Now with Mr Trump the US role is much more difficult and equivocal to assess. But the Atlanticists need to understand that this isn’t just a Western issue any more. Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, even China (much the biggest investor in oil in Iraq, by the way), are now key players too. We did some good things in the past. But now we need to work with partners including Russia and China when we can. We also have to work much more closely with the French. They know all about the region and are a vital neighbour and a serious force. We can no longer rely too much on the US. 

The demographics of the region are extraordinary. 60% of the people in the Middle East are under thirty. It is vital that we engage with them through education and cultural understanding. Universities and soft power organisations like the British Council (and I’m not just saying that because you’re here) must be the spearheads in the medium term, in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

Finally, Insight recently published a piece about the Soft Power of Parliament, claiming that it was one of the UK’s strongest soft power assets- though I understand that you take issue with the claim that the House of Lords may not be so well regarded. What is your view on this? 

My plea would be to see through the fashionable image of the Lords as full of aged, semi-retired, semi-redundant peers wearing red robes. A second chamber is a hugely valuable thing and is recognised as such around the world. As James Watt discovered in the context of steam engines: you need a cooling, second chamber, otherwise your engine blows up. And in fact the chamber of the Lords which you see in the British media is not the most important part of the Lords. There is a huge network of committees within the Lords and also many peers are involved in committees, charities, associations, and causes on the outside. This is very important, particularly now that hierarchical organisations are (inevitably in a connected age) seen as stuffy and elitist – and it is getting more important by the day. There are, from this body that is seen as so out of date, linkages and connections into popular movements and entities across the country and beyond on an immensely valuable scale. It is therefore, paradoxically, perhaps even more in-touch with the country than the Commons. 

Turning to the future, there is a problem with traditional – if you like analogue – Parliaments linking into a society that is almost totally connected, through social media and the communications revolution. Some of this came up in the recent election, where the main parties were seen as issuing grand, patronising views from on high to a society that doesn’t want that anymore. The traditional media is finding the same thing. This is only going to get more intense. Parliaments are going to seem old fashioned things. We’ll need a second chamber that can connect more widely with society and the wider world. This brings me back to my main argument: that along with gender equality, technology is the really transformative force in the world and is changing absolutely everything across the entire globe. We have to understand today’s interconnected world and be more confident about seizing the opportunities it throws up for the country. The age of the crowd has arrived.

Lord Howell, thank you for your time.

Thank you.