Rainbows over the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Rainbows over the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Photo ©

Gregory Hayes used under license and adapted from the original.

July 2020

Last month we covered some of the headline findings from the 2020 edition of the British Council’s soft power survey. The focus then was on the trend data from across the G20 over the past four years.

However, this year in addition to surveying educated young people from the 19 member states of the G20 group, we worked with Ipsos MORI to expand the scope of the survey to an additional 17 countries.

These were: Colombia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain and Ukraine.

The expansion of the survey was undertaken for three reasons:

  • to look beyond the three G20 European Union states of France, Germany and Italy to examine attitudes towards the UK in the wake of the country’s departure from the EU;
  • to expand the scope to a broader group of Commonwealth nations beyond the five G20 member states; and
  • to capture data from other economically and strategically important countries outside these two blocks, i.e. Colombia, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

The UK ranks joint first (alongside Canada) for overall attractiveness across the average of the entire 36 countries surveyed, similar to the ranking given by countries in the G20. 

When we look in detail at the rankings from individual states the UK is first in just five of the 36 countries we included this year:

  • Kenya (where 88% of respondents scored the UK 6-10 out of ten for overall attractiveness)
  • Nigeria (85%)
  • Saudi Arabia (74%)
  • South Africa (86%)
  • and Ukraine (88%).

It is second in:

  • Australia (76%)
  • Canada (76%)
  • China (81%)
  • Hungary (78%)
  • India (85%)
  • Kazakhstan (67%)
  • and joint second in the Czech Republic (77%). 

There appears to be a clear affinity for the UK in Commonwealth countries with young Malaysians giving the UK third place (76%) and their Pakistani and Singaporean counterparts placing the UK fourth (74 and 80% respectively). 

It is notable that the United States also ranks the UK fourth (66%) while in Egypt it is joint third (75%). This is a sign of the enduring strength of the wider 'Anglophonie'. 

The UK’s relationships with former colonies are laden with considerable and, all too frequently, deeply uncomfortable historical baggage.

The fact that it is viewed as attractive by a young generation in countries like Kenya and Pakistan therefore warrants greater recognition and investigation. 

The evident positivity felt by young people in countries where English is either a first language or at least widely spoken is important. There is real potential for collaboration and the deepening of links with countries that the UK shares close cultural and historical connections.

Onwards and eastwards

The UK also performs relatively well in Asia. As well as the positive results from China, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Singapore, the UK ranked third in Indonesia (85%) and fourth in Japan (55%) and the Republic of Korea (66%). 

These findings might alleviate the scepticism of some over the UK’s proposed accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Looking beyond CPTPP, the UK is in a strong position with an attractive offer to potential partners across Asia and Oceania, whether that’s for bilateral trade deals or multilateral collaborations with established blocs like ASEAN.

Across the Pacific it is a more mixed picture. The further south in the Americas one goes the lower the UK’s rank: fifth in Mexico (82%), sixth in Colombia (84%) and seventh in Brazil (75%) and Argentina (80%). 

Of more immediate importance as the UK gears up for a new era of international trade and engagement is that across Latin America other European countries, specifically France, Germany, Italy and Spain, consistently outperform the UK on attractiveness. 

This suggests there is a task for the UK government to invest in raising its profile and forging new connections. It also makes accession to CPTPP and engaging with multilateral fora like Mercosur and the Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa sound strategic choices for the UK as they offer readymade vehicles for strengthening the UK’s connections in countries where it is perhaps less familiar.

Lukewarm Britannia

The positive results from Hungary and the Czech Republic noted above mark them as outliers among EU states. The UK ranks fourth in Greece (77%); fifth in France (70%), Romania (78%) and Spain (78%); sixth in Italy (78%); eighth in Slovakia (66%); ninth in Germany (63%); tenth in Poland (66%); and twelfth in Ireland (61%). 

Looking at the trend data we have from young people in the G20 EU states the UK has fallen in all three. Surveyed before the 2016 referendum the UK ranked fourth in France and third in both Germany and Italy. In the weeks after the vote the ranks were fifth, third and fourth respectively. There was something of a recovery in 2018 (third, fourth, third) but in 2020, again for comparison purposes we are just considering the dataset from the G20 states here, the UK came fifth in all three.

The results in 2018 were at the time seen as encouraging, suggesting that the shock of the referendum result might only have a temporary impact on perceptions of the UK. That the UK is now in a worse place with its European neighbours than before the vote is therefore highly significant.

This is about far more than the very real risk of another humiliating nul points at Eurovision.

Perceptions shape behaviour so, should the evident loss of affection prove to be the new normal, Europeans that might once have chosen the UK, for study or trade (say), may look elsewhere, whether it’s another European country, or an alternative Anglophone destination like Canada. 

This is especially true in the one country with which the UK shares a land border. Not only did young people from the Republic of Ireland give the UK its worst ranking in the survey, they also gave it the highest ‘unattractive’ score. 

Fully 24% of Irish respondents found the UK unattractive (i.e. they scored the UK 0-4 out of 10 for overall attractiveness). The only other country to score the UK close to this was Turkey (21%), and young Turkish people still ranked the UK fifth for attractiveness. 

The degree of negativity is unusually high relative to the average score for unattractiveness for the UK across the 36 countries which stands at 11%. Even in places where recent history would suggest that the UK might be seen as unattractive the actual scores track much closer to the average. For example, despite recent tensions in the bilateral relationship with the government of Russia, only 12% of young Russians rated the UK unattractive, with the UK ranked fifth for attractiveness (73%). 

Instead it is again in the European Union that we see parallels. The UK scored well above the average for unattractiveness in Germany (17%), Poland (17%) and Slovakia (16%). There are complex historical reasons for the results from Éire that are far deeper and more profound than the small print of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol. However, hurt and anger over the European issue cannot be discounted from the results.

If the UK is to avoid a permanent loss of strategic influence, attraction and connection with its essential allies in Europe it will need to work hard to renew strained relations.

The British Council, an organisation that exists to promote a ‘friendly knowledge and understanding’ between the people of the UK and wider world, is uniquely placed to help restore relations through collaborative work in areas of shared interest - the arts, education, science and international development.

Global Britain?

The Government is absolutely right to pursue the many opportunities available from closer ties with Asian and Pacific states that, for all the pain and disruption caused by COVID-19, will be important economic and strategic partners in the years ahead. 

Old friends in the Commonwealth in Asia, Africa and Oceania are likely to prove much more important to the UK in future. The world is getting more complex with the balance of power shifting to faster growing economies with large populations in Asia and Africa. This is an opportunity, and a challenge, for all European and North Atlantic powers. The UK has an advantage in places where it is already well known and viewed as an attractive partner.   

And beyond the usual suspects like Australia and Singapore there is also potential for deepening ties with important regional powers that are perhaps less well known in the UK. The expansion of the survey beyond the G20 increases our insight into opportunities for the UK in countries like Colombia, Egypt and Kazakhstan.

Exciting ideas for new collaborative groupings of democratic states like the C-3 (Australia, Canada and the UK) and the D-10 (the current G-7 members, plus South Korea, India, and Australia) hold real potential to increase the strategic influence and attractiveness of the UK.

Collaboration is key. The core of the UK’s international appeal is the perception that it is a force for good in the world. That it is a country that works with other states for the common good of humanity. 

But for all the buccaneering spirit evident in the thinking around Global Britain there remain real challenges – and opportunities – closer to home. The UK needs its European neighbours and they need an engaged and collaborative UK. There is difficult but essential work needed to renew relations with EU states and find a mutually beneficial new normal.

The diplomatic network and international agencies like the BBC World Service and the British Council that promote international collaboration and build trust and connections will be central to success. Whether that is in Poland, neighbouring Ukraine or the other side of the world in Malaysia.

There are reasons to be optimistic about Global Britain. Whether it’s talk of the D-10 or CPTPP this is an exciting moment in the UK’s history. Realising the many opportunities to be found beyond our borders will take hard work and potentially significant resourcing. It is, however, a vital investment in the UK’s future success.

Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Advisor, British Council

Technical details

Ipsos MORI interviewed a sample of 37,158 adults aged 18-34 across the 36 survey countries between 7 February and 27 March 2020. Interviews were conducted online in 34 of the 36 countries, and face-to-face in two countries (Pakistan and Kazakhstan). Data has been weighted for each individual country to the known offline population proportions for age within gender, and each country has been given equal weighting within the dataset. All surveys are subject to a range of potential sources of error.

Ipsos MORI have published the detailed data tables that underpin the findings of the survey covered in this article on their website. These can be reviewed here.

See also