Hogwarts train in countryside
‘Hogwarts Express: the magical soft power of the whole of the UK’ Photo  ©

Unsplash, reproduced under licence and adapted from the original

February 2020

The debate about the UK’s international influence has for long been focussed at the level of the nation state and its national assets, many based in the capital.

We look at new research which points the way to a greater focus on the international reach of the UK's nations and regions.

Much of the public discussion about soft power concerns the grand designs of great nation states. Policymakers and international relations experts often focus on the impact of UK-wide initiatives or on the ‘sharp power’ of the governments of China and Russia on global affairs.

Yet while the initiatives and stratagems that central governments pursue to give their countries the edge in the 21st century’s Great Game are important, there are many other actors in the soft power space that we ignore at our peril. One group of actors in particular are worthy of greater consideration.

The diverse nations and regions of the UK have huge soft power potential. This potential, properly tapped, can deliver great benefits for those areas, but also for the UK as a whole.

Similarly, the overall soft power of the UK reflects in turn upon and benefits its constituent parts. These areas therefore deserve more focus in the soft power debate.

Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland

A new report, Gauging International Perceptions: Scotland and Soft Power, just launched by British Council Scotland would be a good place to start. Building on the Wales Soft Power Barometer published by our Welsh office in 2018, the report seeks to set out the unique soft power value of what are often referred to in government-speak as ‘the nations and regions.'

The reports use the methodology established by Portland Communications for their annual Soft Power 30 analysis, to compare the soft power of Scotland with that of nine other devolved regions, including Catalonia, Corsica, Flanders, Quebec, Northern Ireland, and Wales. 

The resulting rankings draw on data from polling in key markets like China, Germany, India, and the US, as well as a range of metrics, including everything from the Value of Foreign Direct Investment to the number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the region.

The report finds that Scotland takes second place overall, behind Quebec, but ahead of sixth placed Wales and Northern Ireland in eighth. The author notes:

'Among the ten regions, Scotland puts in a strong and consistent performance across the objective sub-indices, coming top in Education, Digital, and Enterprise, and among the top five in Engagement, Culture, and Government.

However, it is somewhat let down by low polling scores, resulting in its overall second place, which warrants a deeper exploration and thinking as to how a gap between objectively measured soft power assets and international perceptions can be closed.

Scotland then is a ‘regional soft power superpower’ in terms of its ‘soft power assets’, but seems to underperform in public perceptions relative to the strength of its international offer.

This suggests there may be room to build on the soft power of Scotland and of the UK’s nations and regions as a whole.' 

Scotland is certainly well known internationally - albeit it can be more for a Brigadoon-ish stereotype of kilted Outlanders and cartoon Nessies than it is for the Scotland of Dolly the Sheep and Red Dead Redemption.

A 2018 survey undertaken for us by IsposMORI found that, when asked what they most strongly associate with Scotland, young people across the G20 identified: landscape, whiskey [sic], Loch Ness, delightful accents, bagpipes, kilts, and haggis. 

For Wales the equivalent picture was amazing views, countryside, football, Gareth Bale, Ryan Giggs, dragons, and ‘rainy’. The appearance of footballers is noteworthy. Sport clearly has a vital role to play here.

A follow-up report on Welsh Sports Diplomacy, due out soon, builds on the findings of our original barometer to focus on how the sportspeople and sporting culture of small nations have the power to generate a hugely positive, truly global profile. 

For Northern Ireland the associations in the minds of those surveyed by IpsosMORI were beautiful scenery, hospitality, St Patrick’s Day, castles, landscape, clovers, and Guinness. 

England and its Regions

The survey’s equivalent results for England were also interesting. While England shared with Wales a focus on football (with David Beckham making the list), and with Scotland a focus on food (fish and chips replacing haggis  - even though arguably the best chip shop in the UK is in Anstruther), it was also seen as ‘culturally diverse’. Similarly, for London, ‘multicultural’ emerged alongside the more predictable cultural references like London Bridge and double decker buses. 

Both London and England were revealed to be significantly better known than the other parts of the UK, with 86 per cent of survey respondents saying they know a little or a lot/a fair amount about London, compared to 75 per cent for England, 65 per cent for Scotland, 57 per cent for Northern Ireland, and 51 per cent for Wales.

That greater familiarity may well be responsible for the emergence of societal factors like diversity in people’s perceptions, alongside the hackneyed tropes about Big Ben and Buckingham Palace.

Lack of real familiarity may be a key determining factor in the underperformance in positive perceptions relative to the objective strength of different areas’ soft power assets (already noted, for example, in the Gauging International Perceptions report).

This could lead to people having only a partial understanding of what all the different nations and regions of the UK have to offer internationally, resulting in an underappreciation of those places overseas.

There are of course notable exceptions. The Hogwarts Express has done wonders for visitor numbers to Glenfinnan. The cultural phenomenon that is Harry Potter is used to market British universities to international students. Cultural factors also drive interest in specific parts of the UK.

Artists have often been closely associated with place. Today you can visit Constable Country, Austen Country, Dylan Thomas Country, and so on. Tourists flock to experience the landscapes and architecture that inspired Wuthering Heights, and the lochs and glens that informed the creative vision of Sir Walter Scott. People from around the world want to play pooh sticks in the ‘Hundred Acre Wood’, and seek out Aslan in ‘Cair Paravel.' 

Manchester is perhaps best known world-wide as the home to two great Premier League rivals. City and United put Manchester on the map, with the local derby hugely popular with international audiences. It has made the City’s Mayor a go to for other civic leaders from around the world looking to learn from Manchester’s success.

Manchester’s music scene has also made it international fans. And of course nearby Liverpool has its famous associations with the Beatles as well as a globally beloved football club, making Merseyside an essential part of the soft power of the region and of the UK as a whole. 

Even if many of these popular associations inspire intense local pride in the UK’s nations and regions, others are as liable to make the native populations cringe. 

There is a real role for policymakers in Westminster and across the UK to increase familiarity with the county’s constituent parts and to complete the picture of the nation, so that the world sees both the historic and culturally rich side and the modern and innovative side. 

The same lesson needs to be learned in Holyrood, Cardiff Bay, Stormont - and across the towns and cities of the UK. Leaders there and in the capital need to understand and respond to the important role of soft power in the prosperity of all the UK’s communities - whether national, regional, or local – by identifying their key assets and supporting the development of the international links that build familiarity.  

Some of this work is already underway. For example, in Wales the British Council is delivering Global Wales Discover for the Welsh Government: a £1.3 million pilot fund for Welsh undergraduate students to study, work, and volunteer overseas in priority markets. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, where we have been operating from dedicated national offices since 1947, we have been involved with the Belfast International Arts Festival and the Edinburgh Festivals.  

We also support scholarships and cultural exchanges between Pakistan and areas of the UK with large diaspora populations (including Scotland and Birmingham). Initiatives to strengthen the international outlook of young people through programmes designed to connect classrooms, e-twin with schools overseas, provide language assistants, and many more, are also already underway across almost a third of schools throughout the UK’s nations and regions, though there is much more that can and should be done.

City showcasing, such as through the successful Cities of Culture approach seen to such effect in Derry/Londonderry and Hull, and due next year in Coventry, has an important role to play. There is also much that can be done internationally in terms of city-to-city connections.  

A brand made up of brands

The British Council/Portland reports talk in positive terms about nation branding. There is definitely a place for a campaigning approach to increase familiarity, and even for greater co-ordination of the country’s diverse offer to the world.

But there is only so much either the local, national, or UK Governments can usefully do without undermining the attractiveness and trust generated from their soft power assets. 

The evidence is very clear: where governments seek to instrumentalise soft power they end up detracting from the attractiveness and trust that assets, like arts and educational institutions, generate. Government’s role is to nurture these assets, to support the infrastructure that underpins their success and enables their international activities, but then - crucially - to get out of the way.

The global attractiveness and influence of a country like the UK depends upon more than the actions of HM Government or the British Council. The appeal of places as diverse as Camden, Cornwall, and Caerphilly, of great cities like Glasgow, Manchester, and Newcastle, but also gorgeous villages like Luss in Loch Lomond, and of top attractions like the Titanic Belfast or the Ironbridge, all contribute to the attractiveness of their region and of the UK.

The culture of the UK - from the ruins of Skara Brae to Cornish pasties, via Dua Lipa, Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Mo Farah, Mind the Gap, and Birmingham’s space age version of Selfridges - is rich, diverse, and essential to the country’s soft power as a whole, which in turn benefits the country’s diverse constituent parts. 

Devolved and local government in themselves are important, as how a society organises itself is crucial to trust and attractiveness. From the debates in the Senedd, Stormont, and Holyrood, the actions government takes to deliver equality and justice, and the very act of voting - whether it’s in parish council elections or in national elections and referenda, the latest evidence shows that these are things of great meaning and resonance to people around the world. 

In essence the UK ‘brand’ is actually the compound of many different brands: regional, local, and even individual, which make the whole more than the sum of the parts.

Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the great municipalities of the Midlands and the North of England are all core parts of the UK’s global appeal, as well as benefiting in turn from it. 

Understanding and celebrating the UK’s rich socio-cultural diversity and presenting it to the world is vital to the success of both the communities in these different regions and to the UK as a whole. 

Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Advisor, British Council

See also