Globe Bauble on Christmas Tree
Looking forward to a new role in the new year ©

Alasdair Donaldson

December 2019

The UK looks forward to a new decade and a post-Brexit future. It should now be ambitious but smart as it thinks about how to conduct itself in a changing world.

A 2020 Vision 

The UK finds itself with a newly-elected government and poised to begin a new decade by leaving the EU. This will have inevitable repercussions for its global standing. The nature of those repercussions will be determined by how it projects itself on an increasingly competitive world stage. It has many things going for it. With the right approaches, these could support a renaissance in its global attractiveness. But it will have to tread very carefully if its influence is to thrive.

As it lifts its eyes to the world after years of often-fractious navel-gazing over Brexit, the UK will again face the force of Dean Acheson’s famous observation that Britain had ‘lost an empire but failed to find a role’. The answer of British governments since Acheson’s time was simple: to join the EEC (later the EU). As it prepares to leave that organisation against a very different international backdrop, the nation must again face the question – and this time produce a different answer.

One possible role is as a global hub of culture and ideas.

From ancient Athens to Islamic Córdoba to Medici Florence to Belle Epoque Paris, throughout history open and vibrant societies have had soft power influence far exceeding their states’ hard power. If it can solve the tensions between London and the rest of the country that the last few years have brought to the fore, a nation with such a flourishing cultural world-city as its capital – and with such great assets it has across the rest of its nations and regions – can realistically aspire to a similarly disproportionate influence. 

Today’s UK prides itself on enormous strengths in education, the arts and creative industries, civil society – and as a potential beacon of attractive shared values. Global polling data largely supports this sense of pride, although as we shall see it also signals important caveats which counsel against complacency. In our survey of young people across the G20, the UK ranked as the single most attractive country, and leading on a range of cultural indicators.

By playing to those strengths, and mitigating those caveats, the UK can project itself as a culturally and intellectually open, attractive society, at ease with itself and with much to offer its friends and partners around the world, as it did for example in 2012 at the time of the Olympics/Paralympics and Royal Jubilee. Importantly, the evidence suggests that doing so will help to increase the country’s diplomatic influence and attractiveness for trade.

Tower Bridge at night during London 2012 Olympic Games
Gateway to the World ©

Photo pixabay, issued under licence and adapted from the original

The UK is already a leading centre for education and science. As we report elsewhere, it now recruits more overseas students each year than any other country in the world, and the increased interest in UK university places from India and other countries in the aftermath of the recent post-study visa reforms has already been significant. Further openings for study and research should all be considered to build on this success, through further opportunities for outstanding candidates from overseas and across the UK, through a much-expanded program of international scholarships (including more at undergraduate level), and through offering to far more overseas students access to successful programs designed to give future leaders exposure to British political and cultural life and long-term alumni networks. 

In the cultural arena, the UK’s assets are a leading driver of its global attractiveness, and its booming creative industries – supported by the ever-increasing numbers of people (currently around two billion) who can speak or are learning English – point towards an influential success story that will need continued careful nurturing by policymakers at home. The country’s rich ecosystem of independent and arms-length cultural and civil society institutions, from domestic ones like galleries, museums and sporting bodies to internationally-facing ones like the BBC World Service and the British Council, all have a part to play in building and projecting an attractive vision of a culturally rich and diverse nation. 

The new government faces the same challenges as its predecessors when it comes to nurturing and harnessing that ecosystem, without the sort of overt control that might risk undermining the very things which make it attractive. As it celebrates 85 years as the UK’s leading cultural relations and soft power body, the British Council aims to do its bit for exploring international cultural engagement and for helping to coordinate the UK’s independent soft power organisations, through its education, arts, youth, and English language work, and by partnering in new and expanding initiatives such as the International Cultural Relations Research Alliance and the Soft Power Group

It will also be important to think further about spreading international opportunities to people and organisations across the whole country, and the British Council is looking at ways to help with this through, for example, international exchanges. 

The UK is at its best, and certainly its most attractive, when it is seen as a beacon for shared values that are widely admired. Those range from human rights and equality to democracy and the rule of law, to freedom of conscience, speech, and trade. Arguably, openness itself is a value that the UK can and should also claim to embody. Our research shows that perceptions of the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid is a leading driver of trust in the country and should continue. According to the recent ‘Audit of Geopolitical Capability’ by the Henry Jackson Society, the UK has more diplomatic leverage than France (with a broadly similar economic and diplomatic footprint), because of its larger international development budget. Yes there is some evidence that not enough people realise the scale of the UK’s commitment. It may have to do a better job of explaining its development contribution if it wishes to make the most of the soft power side-effect of its altruism. 

For young people across the world, the values of liberal democracies like the UK are highly prized. Equality and diversity, co-operation and tolerance, and peace are the top three values they think the world should encourage, according to recent British Council research; and the UK is widely associated with support for freedom and democracy. There is remarkable consistency across all countries on this, including those that are rated as not free or partly free by Freedom House

This is particularly important as, depressingly, Freedom House's latest findings from confirm a trend that has been emerging since 2007 – globally, the number of democracies have been in decline for over a decade. [Although the UK’s scorings following the referendum bucked the general downward trend and went up.] Democracy may be in retreat as political freedoms and civil rights are eroded by governments, including more assertive authoritarian powers, but the ‘march of the strong men’ is in many respects despite rather than because of changes in societies, where the underlying trends and preferences are toward democracy, not against it. 

The countries that best represent those values of freedom and democracy themselves seem to be viewed as more attractive and trustworthy by others.

This at least is good news for the world and for potential British influence in an uncertain age. As well as sharing the characteristic of high per capita income, another commonality of the countries in the upper half of the various soft power charts and rankings is that they are all liberal democracies, ranked ‘free’ by Freedom House. All the countries ranked as ‘partly free’ or ‘not free’ are lower down the rankings. The alignment between the Freedom House scorings and these rankings suggest that perceptions of a country’s human rights record are a significant factor in a state’s soft power. Survey data on issues and values is particularly salient in this regard. The countries that best represent those values of freedom and democracy themselves seem to be viewed as more attractive and trustworthy by others. In this way, countries like the Nordic states and New Zealand tend to punch far above their hard power weight when it comes to their international attractiveness and influence in an increasingly multipolar world.

But the UK will have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk if it is to support these values overseas and gain a corresponding soft power benefit as it competes with the growing assertiveness of ‘sharp power’ countries. Influence comes from a congruence between values and behaviours. Policymakers should consider increasing funding for initiatives like Freedom House, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy. They should also look at the funding, structure and geographical reach of the BBC World Service, as it continues its valuable role of giving people access to accurate news and a balanced range of narratives in a landscape increasingly threatened by censorship and propaganda. In the age of fake news, the UK should back itself to be a beacon for the truth. The UK will also need to ensure that it has its own house in order, as well as ensuring the right language and practice in its international relationships. 

The Impact of Brexit

The results of this year’s Portland Soft Power 30 make for interesting reading in this regard. On the one hand it shows that the US continues to fall down the rankings, pointing to the dangers of being perceived as turning inwards or as talking too brazenly about putting its own national self-interest first. It also highlights the continued underperformance of Russia, China, and Turkey (languishing at the bottom of the chart despite investing heavily in soft power), which face on-going problems with international perceptions as their soft power activities are viewed with suspicions that some may be linked to or controlled by Governments for self-interested, propagandistic or ‘sharp’ intent. 

On the other hand France has regained the top spot, which suggests that a slightly greater degree of coordination of soft power assets and more self-confident projection of culture can be a winning combination when combined with the right perceived values. Similarly, another noteworthy country is Sweden, which has risen to number four in the chart despite its relatively small size. The success of Sweden and the other Nordics may hold lessons for the UK, as they punch well above their weight by being seen as standard-bearers for globally-popular values and international cooperation. A nation with the size and heft of the UK could have an even bigger impact as a beacon for shared values.

Positive perceptions of the UK actually went up across most of the G20 in 2016, according to surveys conducted on either side of the vote.

The UK should consider these results carefully. Brexit poses a serious challenge to its reputation but by no means a necessarily catastrophic one. Indeed, it might surprise many Brits suffering from ‘Brexhaustion’ that positive perceptions of the UK actually went up across most of the G20 in 2016, according to surveys conducted on either side of the vote. That said, they did decline in Europe, where there is a clear need to rebuild bruised relationships – including, where possible, by continued involvement in existing scientific, cultural and educational joint programs. 

As painful and demoralising as they may be to the part of most of us that sympathises with politics-weary Brenda from Bristol, the debates at Westminster over the last few years have actually been appealing to many people around the world. In some weeks of 2019, more people were watching the BBC Parliament channel than were watching MTV. The democratic practices of the UK do have an attractive quality for many. The House of Commons was and remains for many ‘the home and citadel of free government’. Every week the most powerful person in the land must appear at the Dispatch Box to answer the questions of MPs: a model of accountability to which the vast majority of world leaders would never subject themselves. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union do valuable work with politicians and officials from other countries, drawing upon the experience and attractiveness of Westminster (and Stormont, Holyrood and the Senedd) to promote good governance and public accountability and deserve support. 

But if it is to retain its old position as the world’s leading soft power, and protect its international attractiveness and influence with all the economic benefits that go with that, the UK has to manage Brexit in the right way. It must stress that it continues to be internationally engaged, open, and cooperative. And in doing so it will need to continue to tread a line between un-coordinated soft power activity and anything that may be perceived as self-serving government control. It will also need to ensure that its soft power offer works with rather than against the grain of its hard power actions. To use Joseph Nye’s description of the ideal intelligent mix of hard and soft power, if it cares about either the UK must now be ‘smart’. 

These lessons must be at the forefront of policymakers’ minds as they seek to re-orient the UK after Brexit, so it can confidently step forward into the new decade and out into the world.

Alasdair Donaldson and Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Advisors, British Council

See also