Purple crocuses in the snow
New beginnings. Image  ©

Erik Andres Reynoso, Unsplash used under license and adapted from the original.

February 2021

It’s a pleasure to introduce myself as Interim Chief Executive of the British Council at the start of what promises to be another challenging year (to say the least).  

I’ve worked for the British Council for over twenty years. Each of my roles – including managing our Peacekeeping English Programme, a posting as Tanzania Country Director, and most recently as Director of our Global Network – has allowed me to further the mission of the British Council. 

Whether it is negotiating a trade deal or building the alliances needed to address international challenges like climate change or COVID-19, it is crucial to be recognised as a trustworthy partner, willing and capable of working with others for the common good – in other words as a force for good in the world. 

The British Council plays a vital role in building the trust and the connections and networks that are the preconditions for international co-operation. We do this by building human and social capital, both internationally and across the four nations of the UK. Our programmes bring people together, through the arts, education, and English language teaching, to share and understand one another.

The British Council and COVID-19

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the British Council’s international operations. We are all extremely grateful for the help and support of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) through this challenging period. 

The experience of the pandemic – lockdowns; theatres, libraries and schools closed; cancelled examinations; and the resulting loss of commercial income; and the rapid shift to online classes and events – has revealed both the necessity and the positive potential of changing our ways of working. If we learn those lessons, we can build resilience and secure a sustainable future for our organisation. 

We should also learn from how other countries approach international cultural relations in order to understand better what works. Recently published research by International Cultural Relations (ICR) commissioned by the British Council, explores the evolving role of international cultural relations in this time of challenge. 

One of the crucial findings of the research is the underexplored potential for digital approaches to expand cultural reach and impact. 

The British Council can claim to be something of a pioneer in this space with successful programmes like Connecting Classrooms – which we deliver in partnership with the FCDO –  and the innovation award winning Ceibal en Inglés offering a roadmap to the future of international cultural relations.

The role of international cultural relations

The ICR report also highlights the important differences between short-term interventions designed to explain policy decisions and increase awareness (for example government communications and marketing campaigns) and the long-term trust-building work of cultural relations. The researchers concluded that the countries with the most influence invest in both. 

Cultural relations are typically delivered via arm's-length bodies like the British Council and the Goethe-Institut, working with, and drawing on, their countries cultural and education institutions and resources, to compliment central governments’ communications work. Interestingly, the ICR team noted that China has recently announced moves toward this model. 

In an increasingly complex world, with many powers seeking to increase their regional and global influence, the networks and trust fostered by cultural relations will be ever more important to a state’s security and prosperity. 

As Joseph Nye (originator of the term soft power) has stated: ‘In a world of growing complexity, the most connected states are the most powerful’.

The UK’s international credibility and capacity to effect change depends as much on the soft power of diplomacy and the social and human capital of international networks as it does on the hard power of the economy and military might. 

Realising the Prime Minister’s vision for Global Britain will depend on strategically aligning both hard and soft power to maximise impact – what Nye and other foreign policy experts refer to as ‘smart power’. This crucial insight will surely be at the heart of the thinking behind the UK Government’s forthcoming Integrated Review.

The UK is a world leader in soft power. Our 2020 soft power perceptions survey found this country was the most attractive in the G20. But it also revealed that the gap between leading countries is narrowing, with many other states vying to secure the multiple benefits of being a soft power superpower. 

Other countries, notably China, France, and Germany, have been investing heavily in their soft power networks and institutions. One example of this investment is the massive expansion of China’s Confucius Institute: globally there are now 641 institutes, twice as many as there were in 2013. Confucius Institutes now outnumber the offices of the British Council three to one, giving it unprecedented global reach.

A force for good

The UK’s soft power success relies upon its reputation as an open and tolerant society that acts as a global force for good. If we are to maintain our lead, we must invest in and build on our international relationships and continue to champion the values we are seen to represent through support for the rules-based international system and multilateral institutions. 

Trust and attraction are part of the conditions for cooperation which enable us to take a leading role in promoting collective action on global issues such as climate change, COVID-19, human rights, and girls’ education. 

As we all begin to look forward to the easing of COVID restrictions and to the renewal of personal friendships and family connections in our own lives, so too will we look to the future of the British Council.

We have been building the trust, connections and networks that underpin the UK’s influence for more than eight decades. We will reflect on the lessons learned from the past year and adapt our ways of working, without ever forgetting the human connection at the heart of any successful relationship.  

Kate Ewart-Biggs OBE, Interim Chief Executive, British Council

See also