Photograph of the outside of the British Museum
Individuals may form communities, but it is institutions alone that can create a nation. British Museum. Photo ©

Ham licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 and adapted from the original.

July 2017

On July 12th 2017, think tank ResPublica published a report, Britain's Global Future: Harnessing the soft power capital of UK institutions. The authors make a powerful case for a UK that is proud of its values and acts as a force for good in the world. 

Our institutions exemplify our values

The report highlights the critical role of British institutions – Parliament, the monarchy, our world-leading universities, museums and galleries, the professional societies, trade unions, the tabloid press – in the UK’s soft power. 

At times conservative and traditional, at others iconoclastic or even ribald, the UK’s institutions continue to be internationally influential

The UK’s particular, some would say peculiar, institutional landscape is familiar to people around the world. At times conservative and traditional, at others iconoclastic or even ribald, the UK’s political, cultural and educational institutions, have, and continue to be, internationally influential. Why? Because people who do not enjoy the political freedoms and economic opportunities we all take for granted look to the UK as an exemplar, a template for the kind of fair, stable and open society they want for themselves and their communities. They admire the non-partisan work of globally-influential institutions like the BBC; they respect the integrity of our courts.

Our institutions exemplify our values, although as the report itself acknowledges, what exactly “British values” are remains disputed. What we can be sure of is that our institutions serve an essential function. They defend our freedoms from state control and autocracy, providing the public space in which dissenting voices can make themselves heard, while guaranteeing social and economic stability. We take these institutions for granted but as the Government’s own Building Stability Overseas Strategy points out, 

In fragile states the complex web of institutions that provides the basis for trust and confidence – from the police and legal system, to civil society organisations, religious groups, government departments or banks – is too weak or poorly functioning to cope. The political system may lack the strength and legitimacy to manage the crisis peacefully. People may lack confidence in key institutions, especially those responsible for security and justice.

That confidence, that faith the British public have in our institutions that paradoxically guarantee both order and freedom, is fundamental to the social, economic and political fabric of the UK. It is this function of the UK’s institutions in upholding the values others admire that makes them so important to the UK’s soft power. Strong, independent institutions are the infrastructure on which society depends. In states with weak or failing institutions, where graft or an overweening executive undermines the independence on which public confidence depends, trouble is never far away. Where people’s political rights are curtailed and economic opportunity retarded, social tensions build. And tragically, as we have seen Syria, Sudan and Libya, where left unchecked those societal stresses can fracture leading to civil unrest or racial or sectarian conflict. 

Institutions paradoxically guarantee both order and freedom

The authors argue that the UK should share the British institutional model internationally through bodies like the BBC World Service and the British Council to “help encourage a climate of cultural expression, political liberty and civil society to grow in parts of the world where, for various reasons, instability and autocracy have for too long taken hold.” They believe that by strengthening civil society in fragile states, it is possible to relieve the underlining pressures on communities under stress. Sharing the expertise of British institutions to support the development of educational, cultural and political institutions opens up the chance for people to engage effectively in society and the economy, helping them to build a better future for both their countries and our own.

The authors argue that the UK should share the British institutional model internationally

This last point is important to the on-going debate on the foreign aid budget; spending British taxpayers’ money on international development is not simple altruism. Calls for spending on “our own” people instead of “wasting money” on foreign aid are short-sighted. In helping others we can indeed help ourselves, investing in and supporting the institutional infrastructure of fragile states is one important way we can reduce the risk of societal failure that is the cause of the instability and strife that is contributing to mass migration and also radicalisation. As a bonus this kind of activity can also build up trust in the British people and our institutions, helping to grow lasting relationships that help the UK realise its wider foreign policy objectives.

The report authors recognise that government has a duty to ensure public money is spent efficiently to deliver the maximum value to both the recipients of aid and UK taxpayers. In calling for the overseas aid budget to be spent in a smarter way that focusses on the UK’s institutional strengths in education, culture and civil society, they advocate a policy shift that could deliver significant benefits to the UK through both new investment in our universities and cultural institutions and increased international influence. 

Specific proposals for the new fund include the creation of 5000 Global Britain Scholarships for international students to study in the UK and a further 10,000 transnational education bursaries for foreign students studying with British institutions in their own countries, to create economic opportunity and give future leaders the chance to experience for themselves the benefits of the UK’s unique institutional model. This proposal will be controversial; there are continued debates in the development sector of the merits of investment in scholarships and higher education. The priority has rightly been on delivering universal primary education and investment in secondary education to spread opportunity as widely as possible. But societies need leaders - the professionals and entrepreneurs, the artists, provocateurs and political activists - to drive economic growth and bring about the changes in society that open up opportunity to the many. In expanding the provision of scholarships the UK could also look to prioritise women, the disenfranchised, the bringers of change, rather than just the privileged scions of repressive regimes. The benefits to the UK would be considerable, the evidence shows that those who have studied here are more likely to trust and favour the UK, creating opportunities for business and international co-operation. This is the soft power capital referred to in the report’s title.

The authors of the report – Philip Blond, James Noyes and Duncan Sim – deserve thanks for a provocative intervention in the debate on soft power and overseas development assistance. Their arguments for the importance of our great British institutions and the role of civil society in creating a freer, fairer world come at an historic moment of change for the UK. 

Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Analyst, British Council

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