Children sitting on floor around elderly gentleman
Torn between geography and history. Cartoon ©

Pawel Kuczynsk and adapted from the original. 

July 2016

The UK is leaving the EU. This carries risks but also opportunities. Now more than ever, the UK must pursue its destiny as an open and outward-looking country. Soft power and cultural relations can and should play a central role.

Promoting an open vision of the UK

The result of the EU referendum is still reverberating across the UK and the wider world, and will for months and years to come. And there is no doubt that the vote has significant implications for the UK’s international position. But, while the country now faces a serious set of challenges, there are also important opportunities to be seized.  

The result will of course mean a significantly changed relationship for the UK with the political institutions of the European Union. What has been less discussed is the future of the UK’s cultural relationship with Europe, and the impact of the UK’s historic decision to leave the EU on the country’s wider international influence and soft power.

Ahead of the referendum, to help explore some of these issues, the British Council asked a number of prominent cultural and educational figures to share their reflections on the potential impact of the vote. The results are set out in a collection of essays entitled The Morning After. As the authors highlight, leaving the EU undoubtedly presents a range of important challenges for the UK’s soft power and the future success of its cultural and educational sectors. These include the possible loss of EU funding for research (70% of international investment in UK research currently comes from the EU), potential barriers to the movement of artists, academics, and students (in 2014/15 there were nearly 125,000 EU students at UK universities), an expectation of reduced funding for EU-funded educational and cultural programmes - and the risk that people outside the UK will interpret the result as evidence of the country turning in on itself.

In this context it is an important priority to make it clear that the country will not turn inwards but will instead look outwards. It is vital that the UK prioritises its international engagement and seeks to make good any reduction in funding for the education and cultural sectors.

More fundamentally we must promote an open, positive, long-term vision of the UK and its place in the world and act accordingly. Outside the EU, the UK will still be a major influence on the world. We remain a permanent member of the UN Security Council, of NATO, of the G7, the G20, and the Commonwealth.  We will continue to have world leading universities, cultural and creative sectors, sports and society, the English language and institutions such as the BBC World Service and of course the British Council. These can all help to ensure that the UK will remain internationally attractive and influential. However, the essays featured in ‘The Morning After’ highlight the importance of a redoubled effort to understand the way the UK is viewed overseas and a renewed commitment to international cultural engagement, both with the countries of Europe and the world beyond. 

Having strong cultural relationships will be crucial at a time when we need to forge new trade agreements not just with the EU but also with major economies further afield

While the exact nature of our relationship with the EU is still to be determined, we will want the strongest possible cultural links with our European neighbours, as well as with other important partners overseas, including in the Americas, the Commonwealth, and East Asia. More than ever, having strong cultural relationships will be crucial at a time when we need to forge new trade agreements not just with the EU but also with major economies further afield. Partnerships will need to be strengthened and trust renewed. 

Soft power can make a serious contribution here. It should be seen as a crucial mechanism for maintaining ties with Europe, as well as for spearheading the UK’s engagement with old allies and emerging powers in the world beyond. 

The British Council intends to play its part in these efforts. We will continue to work in partnership with other European countries to build connections and engender trust, listening to how our EU partners in culture and education would like to work with us in the future. We believe that many of the existing cultural, educational, and scientific collaborations with Europe should be continued and indeed strengthened. 

Enhancing these links will take time and resources. We stand ready to work with our partners in the arts and education sectors, in civil society, and in Whitehall and Westminster to help ensure an even more open, inclusive, and internationally-connected UK. That UK must continue to make a positive contribution to the world. It must continue to play an important role as a global hub and meeting place for cultures, peoples, and organisations from every continent. Doing so will also be absolutely vital for forging the country’s new international role outside the EU and maintaining and growing the UK’s international standing.

A question of culture and identity

One final point is worth emphasising. Recent months have focussed the minds of people across the nations and communities of the UK more than ever on issues of national identity. Identity is at root a question not just of politics or economics but of culture and history. 

Perhaps now is also an opportune moment for the UK and its nations and regions to have a constructive conversation about how we see ourselves as a country and how we want to be seen by the world – a conversation that involves people of all backgrounds and viewpoints – as they seek to understand the implications of leaving the EU and heal the divisions highlighted over recent months. The arts and creative sector can play an important part in that national conversation. 

The UK has long struggled to come to terms with its European, Atlantic, and imperial histories and identities. We remain torn between our geographical location and shared history and culture with the continent, our ties of language and culture with the English speaking world, and our historical and cultural connections with the broader Commonwealth. 

Our greatest successes as a nation have come from periods of history when we have been outward looking and internationalist in our approach

Yet what is clear is that our greatest successes as a nation have come from periods of history when we have been outward looking and internationalist in our approach. We hope and believe that this is where the UK will decide its future lies. This should be true regardless of political arrangements with the EU. Culture, ideas, and ideals cross frontiers and borders and benefit from meeting, competing, and intermingling. This fusion has been at the heart of the UK’s great past intellectual, cultural, and economic achievements and contributions to the world. It should also lie at the heart of its future destiny as an open, outward-looking nation. At the British Council we are committed to doing our part to ensure that we grow and strengthen our international connections and continue to reach out to the world beyond our borders.  

John Dubber, Head of Policy and External Relations, and Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Policy Analyst and Insight Editor, British Council 

See also