Mexico - Day of the dead
Day of the dead. Photo ©

Rebeca Anchondo, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

November 2015

James Bond’s latest adventure in Mexico is not the only example of current UK links with the country. 2015 is the ‘Year of Mexico in the UK and the UK in Mexico’. It is the latest in a line of similar UK bi-lateral seasons overseas. But what is it trying to achieve? And do such initiatives work?

Paul Howson looks at the ingredients for successful bi-lateral years and what they can do for the UK.

Years of success

It all started several years ago in China. Thomas Heatherwick’s UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo was a startling piece of architecture which became a defining image. It also transformed the fog-bound perception of the UK in China, and helped turbo-boost economic relations. The success of the Expo project was born out of close collaboration between the FCO, UKTI and the British Council, and the active participation of private sector partners BP, Diageo, GKN, Barclays and AstraZeneca. This triggered a new way of working.

To capitalise on the attention it generated, and on London’s position as Olympic city, in 2012 the British Council launched UK Now: a year-long cultural festival across China. Again, private sector partners were instrumental in its success (it reached 4m people): with their help, and in-kind contributions from venues and other supporters, the total value of the programme was over £10m from British Council funding of just £1m. UK artists and promoters learnt much about China, and Chinese audiences showed growing interest in British arts and design.

The ripples from these seasons are still spreading. The model was developed and extended elsewhere, notably in Brazil, South Africa, Qatar, Russia and – currently – Mexico, with the 2015 dual year encompassing culture, education, science, innovation, trade and investment.

Canning Plan

For many decades the UK’s contact with Latin America has been understated. The government’s policy of re-engagement with the region – the ‘Canning Agenda’ – aims to revitalise the relationship, with Mexico central to the strategy.
As major players in their own geopolitical spheres and as cultural leaders in the Spanish- and English-speaking worlds, Mexico and the UK are well placed to influence the changing relationship between Europe and the Americas.

Mexico is the largest country in Hispanic-America, a major oil exporter, and 13th in the world for GDP. The UK is already the largest overseas destination for Mexican Government-funded scholarships (many of whose recipients return home to leadership positions). Reforming Mexico’s massive education sector is critical to building the skills the country needs to realise its potential: the British Embassy, the British Council, BIS’s Higher Education Unit, UK universities, and private companies are all engaged in a range of projects with the sector. And of course both countries have a rich cultural history – a highlight of the Mexican programme in the UK was the exhibition in Liverpool of Mayan culture dating back to 1000BC.

The ‘Dual Year’ celebrates a new era in UK-Mexico relations. It aims to build a legacy that will underpin a deeper future relationship through scholarships, research and education exchanges, public exhibitions and events as well as on policy issues. On the UK side, different diplomatic, commercial and cultural strengths are being brought to bear by the British Embassy, UKTI and the British Council working in unison, with the close involvement of Shell, HSBC, EY and Diageo from the private sector. UK objectives include co-operation in education, science and innovation, broadening access to knowledge and research through the Newton Fund.

The aim is also to use arts and culture to create opportunities to work together

As was the approach in China, the aim is also to use arts and culture to create opportunities to work together, breaking down stereotypes on both sides. In the UK’s programme, new work by emerging artists complements new interpretations of the classics, and diversity and marginalisation are celebrated and examined, including through a showcase focusing on arts and disability at the Cervantino Festival – one of the most important cultural festivals in the World.

The culmination of the UK’s programme in Mexico is its role as Guest of Honour at the Guadalajara International Book Fair in late November. This is the second largest Book Fair in the world after Frankfurt, and a major cultural festival attracting over 800,000 visitors from across Latin America. The 200-strong UK delegation includes novelists, poets, children’s authors, publishers, illustrators, scientists, academics, musicians, architects – and Shaun the Sheep. It will sum up the simple message the UK wants to deliver to potential tourists and students, entrepreneurs, young influencers, and senior decision makers: the UK is a creative and welcoming country – and we want to work with you.

Disabled theatre company Graeae will be performing Reasons to be Cheerful
Part three. Disabled theatre company Graeae will be performing Reasons to be Cheerful at the Guadalajara International Book Fair on 3 December. Photo ©

Alison Baskerville.

Building on success

There is an increasing demand from UK Missions and foreign governments for such high-profile programmes

Looking beyond 2015, there is an increasing demand from UK Missions and foreign governments for such high-profile programmes highlighting the UK’s creative economy, to celebrate a strong relationship, or to strengthen a less developed one. These may form part of an on-going series, or be a one-off in response to significant world event like the Olympics.

There are two fundamental considerations. The first is to focus on using seasons as platforms for delivering cost-effective impact for all sectors of the UK, public and private. As Sir Alan Parker, Chairman of Brunswick, has said: “Our culture and its export can help create the bridges for the rest of us to cross and help us ply our daily trades. It creates the understanding that brings people and organisations together, building the common bonds on which successful business is created.”

The second consideration is using seasons for longer-term collaboration in capacity-building, skills, policy work, education, science, English language, society and creative projects, which will hopefully prove to be of great benefit both the UK and our international partners.

Paul Howson, Project Director, Festivals & Seasons, British Council

See also