Image of Hogwarts
Hogwarts: a British Embassy in the Muggle world. Photo ©

Pixabay, reproduced under licence and adapted from the original.

August 2019

Why Harry Potter is a leading emissary of British attractiveness and values – and his little-known link with the British Council.

Resisting Fascism with Books and Wands

In 1938, with Europe in the grip of competing totalitarian ideologies and hurtling towards war, the British Council opened its oldest continuously occupied office. Located in Portugal, and with others opening the same year in Warsaw, Romania, and Cairo, the organisation’s purpose was to support friendly knowledge and understanding between the peoples of the UK and the countries in which they operated, and hopefully to counter the growing influence of fascist propaganda and reach across the continent. The organisation, which received its Royal Charter in 1940 at the moment of greatest threat from fascism, has continued ever since to build bridges overseas through culture, education, and the English language.

After a stint working as a British Council English language assistant, Joanne Rowling - now better known to the world as J.K. Rowling – created the best-selling book series of all time

Decades later, after a stint working as a British Council English language assistant, Joanne Rowling - now better known to the world as J.K. Rowling – created the best-selling book series of all time, which has become in itself a phenomenal asset for the UK and for the values it seeks to support. After working with the British Council in Paris, Rowling wrote much of the first Harry Potter book in Portugal whilst teaching English language classes in the evenings. [She subsequently returned to the UK to finish the book, with the help of an £8,000 grant from the Scottish Arts Council.] Sure enough, some important echoes of her time in Portugal can be found in the books. These include the name of the series’ original villain, Salazar Slytherin, who leaves a monstrous basilisk in a secret chamber of Hogwarts to purge the ‘mud-blood’ members of the school, in line with his beliefs that only ‘pure-bloods’ (i.e. descendants of magical parents) should be allowed to survive. 

Rowling has confirmed that she chose the name Salazar after Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the fascist dictator of Portugal

Rowling has confirmed that she chose the name Salazar after Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the fascist dictator of Portugal from the time the Council opened its first office in the country until the Carnation Revolution many decades later. Indeed, the whole Harry Potter series can arguably be read as an anti-racist metaphor, as Harry and his friends resist Salazar’s ‘heir’ in the house that he founded from establishing an authoritarian and ‘pure-blood’ supremacist regime. Rowling herself has suggested this interpretation, and described how ‘The Potter books in general are a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry’.

Universal – yet unmistakeably British

The phenomenal international success of Rowling’s Potter franchise, then, is not just down to her creation of a compelling fantasy world. Audiences everywhere have identified with the struggle of her heroes and heroines against the malign authoritarians who ultimately take over the ‘Ministry of Magic’ and attack Hogwarts. The story is not simply an escapist tale of the battle between good and evil, but a politically savvy and socially relevant saga rendered marvellous and enchanting by its magical setting. Its millions of fans see Harry Potter as something universal, and yet at the same time unmistakeably British. 

This is arguably a product of how Harry Potter embodies traits associated with the best of the UK’s culture: from standing up to bullies, support for the underdog, and cheeky snooks cocked at authority, to eccentricity, good humour, and of course its setting in a souped-up vision of the UK. That vision combines real locations (Kings Cross and the various sites from Oxford to Durham to Scotland that are moulded in the Warner Brothers film adaptations to form the visuals for Hogwarts) with a fantasy pastiche of what the UK might be like. This combination is no doubt important to Harry Potter’s global audience. In 2014, British Council research found that the UK’s historic buildings and attractions were the aspects of its arts and culture which particularly contributed to making the UK attractive to people overseas. More recent research showed that our perceived openness, valuing of diversity, and respect and tolerance of others were leading drivers of trust in the UK amongst young people in other countries.

One secret of the series’ success, then, is that it combines a charming British heritage backdrop with a cast and guiding morality that is international and cosmopolitan, where one without the other might either fail to appeal beyond the UK’s borders or alternatively fail to be seen by its international fans as attractively and peculiarly British. 

Perhaps this winning combination is part of the reason why Harry Potter has sold around 500 million copies in some 80 languages. It has been a huge direct success for British creativity, with a professor at LSE estimating that Harry Potter was worth £4 billion to the UK economy in 2016 alone. 

Rowling was one of the five top mentioned individuals and (after Shakespeare) the 2nd most mentioned writer associated with the UK’s arts and culture which people around the world were personally interested in

Harry Potter has also been an important indirect success as a driver of the UK’s attractiveness. In research conducted by the British Council, Rowling was one of the five top mentioned individuals and (after Shakespeare) the second most mentioned writer associated with the UK’s arts and culture which people around the world were personally interested in. In 2017, research into social media analytics conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for the British Council found that by far the most-mentioned British education establishment on American social media was ‘Hogwarts’. It is a striking illustration of the huge impact Rowling’s fantasy world has had in other countries that her school for witches and wizards attracts even more attention than world-leading real educational behemoths like Oxford and Cambridge. 

In its combination of the traditionally British and the cosmopolitan, the world of Harry Potter is perhaps a useful aspirational metaphor for the UK to pursue in an important attempt to present itself as open and tolerant, with historic assets yet forward-looking, unique yet internationally connected, and as a supporter of values that people all over the world see as important. In his charming yet determined resistance to bigotry, Harry Potter has proved himself a hugely successful cultural ambassador for the UK, and his creator has done more than almost anyone to symbolise the values and aspirations we also believe are important. 

Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Editor, Insight

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