Soft power is a state’s ability to achieve its international objectives through attraction and co-option – including education and culture – rather than through coercion (e.g., military force). As states invest more and more in their soft power, experts debate global trends in London on 18 June 2013.
This is the transcript of the debate of 18 June 2013, with John Holden (Demos, author of the report), Martin Davidson (Chief Executive, British Council), Ruth MacKenzie (Director, Cultural Olympiad, London 2012), Sarah Sands (Editor, Evening Standard), and Lord David Howell (Chair, House of Lords Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence).
Good evening, everybody. If we could start, I'm Martin Davidson, Chief Executive of the British Council and it is a very great pleasure indeed to welcome you all here this evening to the launch of Influence and Attraction, a report on soft power commissioned by the British Council and written by John Holden of Demos.
There is a copy on your seats. I very much hope that you will take it home, read it and indeed give us your thoughts in due course about what it actually says.
I would also like to thank Demos for their very generous sponsorship of this evening’s event. Just a couple of housekeeping things before we begin: I need to tell you that this evening’s event is being filmed and a short video will be published on the British Council’s website in the next couple of days.
You should also I hope be inspired by the debate. Indeed we encourage you to tweet your comments to @BritishCouncil or #SoftPower and they are both up there [referring to slide in the room] and we hope to begin a wider debate about the nature of soft power and why it’s important.
I would like to start by saying just a few words about why the British Council is interested in soft power, and indeed we on the whole don’t tend to use that piece of language; we tend to talk in terms of cultural relations instead.
And then John Holden, the report author will speak about his findings, after which he will join our other three distinguished panellists for this evening’s discussion. At the close of the panel session there will be a reception and I hope that you will stay to continue the discussion with our speakers.
But just a few words about why we are here. In 2004 Jo Nye coined the term ‘soft power’ when he said it is ‘a state’s ability to achieve their international objectives through attraction and co-option rather than through coercion’.
As the name of our new publication suggests, soft power is all about influence and attraction which in the end we believe are far more powerful than coercion. If we draw people towards us because they respect our values, because they are excited by our visual arts, because they admire our universities, then the relationship is going to be far stronger than if it was based on any other factors.
People overseas who have cultural interaction with us, which can be anything from visiting an exhibition of British art to coming to the UK to study, have a higher level of trust in the people of the UK than those who have not and we produced a report about a year ago which looked specifically at the issue of trust and trust between the UK and other countries, both in the people of the UK but also in the government of the UK.
Not surprisingly, the evidence from that report showed very clearly that those who had a cultural relationship with the UK had a higher level of trust both in the people of the UK and in the government of the UK, though the overall trust in the people of the UK was significantly higher than trust in our government. That is replicated across most other governments, and again that report does show some comparisons with other countries.
We in the UK are very fortunate in soft power terms. Our country has developed deep and lasting relationships and friendships with countries around the world. Those are based on history, cultural reach and perhaps most importantly, the spread of English as a de facto language of international business.
Other countries, including Germany, commit far more government funding in support of their international cultural and educational ambitions than the UK does but still rate, not by our assessment but by others’ assessment, as below us in recent indices of soft power.
But we in the UK are no longer the only players in the field. Governments right around the world are increasingly coming to understand the power and value of soft power, and Western European nations which have traditionally been at the forefront have now been seen to be stepping back from this agenda, whether that is through reductions of geographical spread or reductions in funding, unlike high-growth nations of Asia and elsewhere.
So Brazil is more than dipping a toe in the water with its Science Without Borders Student Mobility Programme which will get 100,000 young Brazilians qualified at universities around the world by 2014 and of course hosting the major sporting events, including the World Cup and the Olympics and Paralympics.
Qatar is a major new force in international broadcasting, pouring funds into its international higher links, arts and cultural sector to position itself as a major sporting nation. It seems to be extraordinary if you think back to Qatar a decade ago that it could be seen as one of the major soft power players in the world at the moment.
And then of course there is that significant new force, China. During our 79-year history the British Council has set up 196 offices. Our Chinese counterpart, or at least partially counterpart, the Confucius Institute has established 322 offices in less than ten years.
There is something of a great game in soft power unfolding around the world. It is being played out in theatres and language labs, in art galleries and on the internet.
We in the UK have a head-start, we have some huge natural advantages but we can’t rest there because there is a significant connection between cultural engagement and prosperity. The term ‘soft power’ is perhaps a misnomer.
Its effects are real, they are hard, they are measurable, they are not soft; indeed they are hard power in a particular way.
So we wanted to really gain a better understanding of different nations’ approaches to cultural relations as they seek to flex their soft power muscles and that is why we commissioned John and Demos to conduct an analysis for us of international cultural relations around the world today looking at the motivations that shape them and the different models the countries are adopting.
Some of those approaches, as you will hear from John in a moment, are very different from the UK’s view of effective cultural relations. For us, it is an arrangement of mutual benefit that takes place with a high degree of independence from government. We do have to ask the question ‘Is that indeed the most effective way in which this activity can be undertaken?’
As globalisation takes hold, implications for our prosperity and security, both individually and nationally, become ever more important and there is increasing recognition that we need to understand others just as much as we need them to understand us, so mutual advantage and mutual engagement is at the heart of what we believe to be cultural relations but not necessarily what others do.
It is that thought which I hope we will explore this evening and now I would like to hand over to John to introduce his report. And just a word or two, John Holden, Visiting Professor at City University, London, an associate of the think-tank Demos and his publications include Democratic Culture, Culture and Class, Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy and the co-authored Cultural Leadership Handbook. He is also a member of the European Expert Network on Culture.
Presentation by Professor John Holden
Thank you very much indeed, Martin, and thank you everyone for coming along this evening to the report launch.
History is important so I thought I would start with a little of the back story of how this report came to be written and I traced its origins back to a time when I was walking across Central Madagascar over a decade ago.
Several days’ walk from the nearest road, hadn’t heard an internal combustion engine or an aeroplane flying over for four days. Every evening around the camp fire, people would come out with home-made musical instruments made from cardboard boxes, wooden boxes and wire and we would sing and dance around the camp fire.
One night I thought ‘I know that tune – it’s very familiar’. It was Rock My World by Michael Jackson and a kind of penny dropped in my head and I thought ‘There’s something really, really interesting going on here’. This story has some of the elements going on that I want to talk about tonight; not just tourism, trade, economic effects like that or indeed just the pleasure, the sheer pleasure of music and dance and interacting with other people through culture and this idea of digital communication transforming the way that we interact with each other across the planet today.
So fast-forward a little to 2007 when my colleagues and I at Demos produced a report called Cultural Diplomacy which, unusually in this field, came not from an international relations perspective, but from a cultural perspective. That was my background and the background of my co-authors.
What did we identify then? Well, first of all, this very important point that tourism, migration, 24-hour news, the internet were transforming the ability of people to meet physically and virtually and that there was a whole new level of peer-to-peer mass contact beginning to emerge in the world.
The content of much of that interaction was and is cultural. Therefore, we concluded, culture would become an increasingly powerful factor in relations between states. Conclusion; that governments needed to be aware of what was going on, not to interfere in it but to act sensibly and to understand these trends in global cultural development.
We also suggested that cultural relations had added layers over the centuries. That first it had been elite-to-elite ambassadorial contact, second it had been elite-to-mass broadcasts and propaganda and thirdly we were entering into this age of peer-to-peer contact.
Now all those three continue to exist and continue to play a role in international cultural relations. Our tagline at the end of it was that we are all diplomats now; that we all have the potential now to be citizen diplomats.
The reaction to this analysis was quite positive. It was debated in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, all three parties gave it a positive reaction and there was a lot of media interest.
Following it the subject seems to prompt an interest that surged once more in 2012 last year when there were two major conferences, one in Salzburg and one in Ditchley on the subject of cultural diplomacy. I was at the Ditchley one. Martin was there, it was chaired by Vernon Ellis and the conclusions of that were really that there wasn’t enough data and research in this field, the subject lacked credible frameworks and typologies and that the language and the terms that we were using to debate were not shared.
So I took this up and said ‘Really, I would like to revisit that Demos pamphlet from 2007, look again at what has been going on and try and tackle some of those problems about data and typology.
The result is the report that you have in front of you tonight for which much, much thanks to the British Council for making it happen and huge thanks to my Demos colleague, Chris Tryhorn who was invaluable in doing all the research for this report. Thank you, Chris.
So what did we find? Well, first of all, the internet revolution hadn’t just redefined communication between people; it actually redefined what culture itself meant and that the boundaries between what we thought of or used to think of as art and commerce and the much more democratic production and consumption of culture, what we call home-made culture, had created a new type of culture.
In fact, in this report we have drawn what we mean by culture very, very widely indeed. We have included language, sport, education, food to a certain extent, broadcasting, so all these things which affect this cultural arena.
Second, we found that the cultural players have expanded in type and number, so as well as national governments being involved, we have supranationals, agencies, cultural organisations and beyond that cities increasingly having a role on their own, businesses, private arts organisations, individual philanthropists, artists themselves, collaborating across borders even more than they used to.
The third thing, the interesting development that culture and communication together are becoming important factors even more than they have been in social change and I think this is likely to increase and that they are going to become more important. So right across the world from Cambodia to Egypt to China to the US to Spain we found examples of artists, theatre people being at the forefront of social change.
Then the fourth finding, and very important one, is the striking rise of non-Western nations and the interest in this subject right across the world. Hu Jintao gave a speech at the beginning of 2012 to usher in the New Year and he said that:
"We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernising and dividing China and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration. The overall strength of Chinese culture and its international influence is not commensurate with China’s international status. The international culture of the West is strong while we are weak”. – Hu Jintao, 2012
Now those are pretty hard words for soft power, I would suggest, but the numbers show that the financial crisis has led most Western nations to reduce their funding of the arts and cultural relations at just the time when the BRICs [Brazil, Russia, India, China] and many countries in the South and in Asia are rapidly expanding. While we in the UK have been cutting back the Arts Council and the BBC World Service, China has been massively increasing its cultural presence.
The next thing that appears in this report is different ways of looking at cultural relations. One approach we have taken is to think about the forces that shape a country’s approach; their foreign policy objectives, their desire to make a good impression and the factors with which they work, their history, their ideology, their resources, the cultural assets which they command. For example, China clearly has enormous historic collections whereas Brazil in its cultural relations relies more on Samba and football and contemporary art.
Language, commerce, these are all important and these all go into the mix of creating the environment in which international cultural relations take place.
The second thing we looked at, a typology of cultural relations actors. I have mentioned some of these already; nations, cities, independent cultural broadcasting, educational institutions and so forth.
The third way that we thought you could cut the cake is to think about country profiles where we thought there are four main groups operating here, the sort of large and well known that we are familiar with; UK, Germany, France, those sorts of people; the fast-emerging, the Brazils, the Chinas, the Indias of this world; the small and established nations, people who have a quite distinct cultural global profile like Norway but also emergent ones like Jamaica and Mali who are known on the world stage for music and then fourth, an enormous number of small emergent countries who have very, very rich cultures in their own right but find it difficult to make that count on the world stage.
And then finally we thought about inward and outward-facing cultural relations, the way that traditionally culture has been seen as something you project to others have increasingly, certainly in Western countries, it has been seen as something which is a two-way street where you learn, where it is a space for dialogue and interaction, not simply projection.
The next section of the report looks at the rationale for cultural relations, particularly for the UK but for other countries as well where we identify the commercial tourism, the economic impacts of all this cultural interaction.
We see it as an important space for dialogue, an important space for creating dialogue where many global problems demand multilateral solutions and they need to be based on some kind of cultural understanding if we are to make any progress in talks.
The third real rationale is that we need to keep culture itself lively. Culture renews itself through interaction. You can see this from the history of the Silk Road, you can see it in Cubism. If we don’t have that type of cultural interaction in the UK we will start to diminish our own standing in the creative industries and in our cultural profile. This is very, very important. This is something which is very often overlooked in the international relations literature I feel.
And finally we thought there is one other rationale which is to create global citizens because it is nations with culturally intelligent as well as intellectually and emotionally intelligent citizens who will prosper in the future.
Where next with all this? Well, I have mentioned that I think this is going in the direction intellectually in the West of moving from the idea of simple projection about power, about economic advantage, about a licence to operate to this idea of mutuality; of exchange, of learning, of trust-building. I am not sure that is the case in other countries in the world, who take a different view of these things.
One big, big phenomenon that I think is going to continue is the rise of cities bypassing national governments, making alliances amongst themselves, having very, very strong cultural connections between each other. New networks will arise and as ever the consequences of those new networks will be somewhat unpredictable.
Peer-to-peer contact will continue to increase inevitably and individuals and the private sector will play a greater role.
There are some recommendations, not very specific to government about what they should do; kind of general recommendations about enabling cultural contact to take place whilst maintaining an arm’s-length stand. There is nothing worse than a government directly interfering in culture in our view but an arm’s-length relationship properly funded, promoting networks is the right way to do it.
The final thing I suppose is that culture itself as a means of interaction is going to become ever more important. We are increasingly seeing a situation where politics and culture are in a symbiotic relationship with each other. Politics in one sense creates some of the operating conditions for culture. It provides the laws within which we trade cultural goods, it provides international treaties, it provides censorship, it provides funding and so on but, equally important, the cultural world creates the operating possibilities for politics.
We should concentrate therefore on long-term relationship building rather than simply thinking about this as a short-term transactional advantage.
Let me finish just by mentioning that the Today programme yesterday, I was thinking about what I was going to say tonight and wondering if there would be any hints in the contemporary news. I switched the radio on and the first thing I heard was the news of the Iranian election. Who did they interview? They interviewed an artist from Tehran on the subject.
The next thing that came up was Yoko Ono talking at Meltdown just over the River to a member of Pussy Riot, one of the two unincarcerated members talking about what they were doing here in London.
So culture is alive and well in mainstream media and it is having a distinct influence on politics today.
I hope you find the report interesting, enlightening. I hope it prompts a great deal of debate. There are the Demos website and the British Council website where we will have blogs. I think there is a bit of media interest so we should be prompting some debate in the wider world as well.
Thank you very much for listening and I look forward to what you have to say later. [Applause]
Martin Davidson: John, thank you very much indeed. We will now move into a panel debate and very much also involving members of the audience in that but let me first of all introduce our distinguished panel.
Moving from my left onwards, first of all Ruth Mackenzie CBE. Ruth as the freelance creator, producer and consultant, she has held leading roles at the Scottish Opera, Manchester International Festival, Chichester Festival Theatre and as many of us know recently, Director of the Cultural Olympiad, the official cultural programme for the London Olympic and Paralympic Games and Curator of the London 2012 Festival.
Beside Ruth is Lord David Howell who has had a long and distinguished career in government under three different Prime Ministers, most recently as Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He now chairs the new House of Lords Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence.
The third member of the panel is Sarah Sands, Editor of the Evening Standard and long-time observer of the cultural scene in London in particular and the UK’s competitiveness in the global economy.
Thank you all very much indeed for being here this evening. I will kick off perhaps with a first round of questions before coming to the audience. If I could, David, start with you.
It is quite unusual for the House of Lords to establish a committee on something as specific as soft power and the UK’s influence. Why? Why have you done that and what do you expect to achieve from that?
Lord Howell: Well, the practical reason is the House of Lords is stuffed with ex-Foreign Secretaries, ex-Ambassadors, learned professors, a vast store of knowledge of the world and how it is working and changing.
But I think more specifically a huge and very rapidly growing feeling that the entire international landscape is being transformed as we have just heard. It is being transformed of course by the informational revolution, by what Thomas Friedman calls hyperconnectivity and this is really beginning to alter the complete fabric of relations between nations and raises all sorts of question marks about all the institutions we have inherited from the 20th century; suddenly they look out of date.
So I think their Lordships felt that the House of Lords oddly enough hasn’t had an international affairs committee. It has had a distinguished group of EU committees focusing on various areas, including one focusing on defence and foreign policy but there was a very strong feeling that while that is so important, that just looks at the world through the prism of the European Union and quite suddenly with the rise of Asia, the rise of Africa, the rise of Latin America, the feeling that the world is upside down and we are borrowing their wealth rather than us lending wealth to them, on this island we really needed to think very hard about repositioning ourselves in the internet age.
That repositioning obviously was going to involve a huge amount of focus on persuasion, influence, what other people think of us and how we establish our reputation, promote our prosperity, our survival actually; it is going to be extremely tough out there in the highly competitive world and ensure our security through methods which are not the traditional ones of overwhelming force and throwing in the gun boats.
So behind this decision there is a huge hinterland of opinion that has grown up saying that really we are moving to a completely new age where the techniques of soft, and indeed as Jo Nye says, smart power because obviously in the age of counter-insurgency and regular warfare I am afraid there is going to be violence as well but all these things melding together require us to redefine how we are going to get our purposes, how we are going to give direction to this country, how we are going to answer the question; who are we and how do we fit into the world; where are we going?
Martin Davidson: Thank you very much indeed. Ruth, can I come to you because you just led that extraordinary cultural event around the Olympics and in my introduction I talked a little bit about Qatar and Brazil.
How important in this whole endeavour are big events to attract people to you, or are they simply an excuse to have a party?
Ruth Mackenzie: Yes, you promised me a nice easy question. Thanks for that. I think one of the things that we learnt during the Cultural Olympiad and I am going to talk about the ceremonies, although I was not responsible for the ceremonies, as well as for the Cultural Olympiad and its finale, the London 2012 Festival was that we could get a huge amount of hard economic benefit as well as soft power, the phrase of the night, from doing something that actually we turned out to be rather good at; so showing off not only our own extraordinary artists but artists from around the world.
I am going to pick up just on a couple very quickly of the values of the Cultural Olympiad and of the ceremonies for the Olympic and Paralympic Games which I think might be particularly useful for tonight’s discussion.
The first one is picking up, John, on your inward and outward point. Kofi Annan rather beautifully said that one of the great benefits of the UK holding the Olympic and Paralympic Games was that the athletes from every country would find community members who lived here in the UK whose origin had come from the countries that were campaigning and competing in the Games.
We made a determined effort to have artists from every country competing in the Games in the London 2012 Festival and that was a very important signal I think of the values of this country in terms of welcoming artists and cultures from round the world and a signal that was reflected throughout the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Secondly we made a very determined effort to showcase the work of disabled and deaf artists, both through the scheme Unlimited, the largest commissioning scheme in the world ever, we think, which was a partnership between the British Council and the Arts Councils of each of the nations and a host of other partners – forgive me if I have left them out. That offered disabled and deaf artists the chance to think big, to showcase their talent at a greater scale to the whole of the world and it was mirrored by the first ever opportunity for the Paralympic Opening Ceremony to be led by disabled artists, a game-changer for disabled and deaf artists and something that I think this country should be very proud of which will have a considerable legacy.
Thirdly I think through our embracing of a free programme and of a programme that encouraged artists to lead audiences outside cultural institutions to public spaces, to unusual spaces, to all sorts of venues around the UK, we reminded the world of one of our most brilliant ideas which was to make our national museums free and to put culture at the vanguard of tourism. As Munira Mirza wonderfully says, and I am always quoting her ‘As sun is to Spain, so culture is to London’ and it was one of our great campaigns: 80% of the opportunities to participate in the London 2012 Festival were free. That was a very important message.
And finally and I think this is the most important of all, we allowed our artists free expression and when you come to read this report you will read about Danny Boyle and the Opening Ceremony. Throughout the Opening Ceremony, throughout the London 2012 Festival you see artists expressing themselves in ways that absolutely demonstrates an arm’s length from government, from any official messages.
This is absolutely vital to the success of cultural relations and of cultural collaboration across the world and it is something which perhaps we can return to later in this discussion.
Martin Davidson: Ruth, thank you very much indeed. Sarah, we were just talking a little bit earlier and John made reference in his introduction to cities as opposed to nations within this space.
Is it the UK that is a cultural superpower or is it actually London that is the cultural superpower?
Sarah Sands: Obviously London. It is then a question of do you treat it like a city state and there is a temptation to do that and say that it has no relation to the rest of the country. It is interesting, running a paper which used to be called local and now noticing that it is London and the bits round the edges and that when advertisers or people who want to come to deal with us, when they want to deal with us they deal with us as a sort of world power now. That’s of course a very important thing about London is its cosmopolitanism and that comes back to its great strength which is it is confident rather than fearful. That’s the difference between London and the London policy and the national policy, and I know we do have this sort of berserk blonde cheerleader who is insatiably optimistic. We had a picture of him today trying to demonstrate what he had done for men’s fashion. In fact they just had a very indignant call from him where he said ‘I seem to be quoted saying that the suit is for London what Parmesan was to Parma’, and he went ‘Obviously London didn’t come out of a suit’, ‘Well you said it’.
But somehow in all the sort of sense of optimism, it is based on a welcoming of the world and so whereas immigration is seen as a threat in other parts of the country it has so obviously been a benefit to London. You only have to look at I think it is Professor Lovelock who is always saying that it is the end of the world. I think it’s quite soon – I can’t remember the last date – a projection of a few years to go but he said ‘Who will be left? They will be the immigrants because they are the ones that were resourceful enough and curious enough’ and you do get that sense in London that it has altered everything.
It’s not just that it has made people open to ideas. It has made London much more meritocratic and if I can say something on behalf of the City safely, it is that it is one of the most meritocratic bits of the country. You come from anywhere in the world and you are just chosen for your brains. It may be that the criterion is just making money but they are not interested in anything else; where you went to school. That’s a very, very great thing for London.
The lesson, if London could teach the rest of the country, it is about being open to ideas and then somehow combining economic power and creative power. Earlier this afternoon I went to the Burberry show and Burberry is an interesting example of a heritage brand reinventing itself, becoming colossally successful. The money that was there this afternoon, I am slipping away, ‘I’ll crawl out of this room unnoticed to go and see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. It is a really old story but somehow, as with James Bond, you can just reinvent things if you are prepared to be open to ideas and inventive.
What I am interested in is where power is going and we have talked about hard power and political power versus economic power of someone like China but I think it ends in the power of invention is going to be the strongest thing.
I went quite recently to a Google conference and that’s all they care about; who has the next big idea because that’s where the power is and that’s where London has been very strong.
Martin Davidson: John, coming to you are we just comfortably complacent in this country or are we actually doing the right things to keep us relevant in 15 years’ time, 20 years’ time?
John Holden: Can I just say something about London before I answer that question?
Martin Davidson: You can.
John Holden: I think London does have an obvious kind of pre-eminence but I wouldn’t put it on the pedestal that you do. There is a great quote from Melvyn Bragg who said that London should be a reservoir, not a drain and I think that’s very true culturally and so let’s hope London can play that role.
Interestingly, London’s cultural pre-eminence might have come about almost by accident because when the Mayoralty was set up, the Westminster politicians were so terrified of the Mayor having any power that they constrained him in very many ways but culture was one of the few areas where he was left to do things. Both Ken [Livingstone, ex-Mayor of London] and Boris [Johnson, current Mayor of London] have been absolutely brilliant and have had a fantastic team at the Mayor’s office at exploiting that gap and have really grabbed the reins and done a fantastic job of London.
That aside, are we complacent? There is a great danger of being complacent, because we do have a lot of real cultural strengths, not just our historic collections, our incredible heritage, our long legacy of literature, but in contemporary arts as well: contemporary dance, contemporary visual areas, in theatre, in fashion, in film, in production skills, in conservation; right across the board we have enormous strengths in this area. We are absolutely wrong if we think we are the only creative people on earth. We are also absolutely wrong, I think, if we believe that a particular kind of Western aesthetic will continue to rule the global stage. Chinese, Thai, Indonesian aesthetics are on the rise and we have to take account of that. It is something we should celebrate, something we should be proud of, something where we need to take the right kind of action to maintain the strengths that we have. It is certainly a wonderful way in which we can offer a lot to the rest of the world and give a lot to the rest of the world, but we must absolutely not be complacent about this.
Audience votes on biggest competitors in soft power
Martin Davidson: I am going to come to the audience, but before I do, I thought we would just have a little bit of a show of hands in terms of who you think are the big competitors in the global space, in this whole area of soft power? I am going to give you four choices. I would like you to just stick your hand up. Who in the audience thinks China is our biggest competitor in this space? A few; not very many of you. Who thinks France is? Poor old France, it’s not doing well at all. Who thinks Brazil is? Who thinks the US is? It is a pretty hefty vote in terms of the US, isn’t it? Who doesn’t know? Interesting.
David, before I go back to the audience for some questions one thing I would like to ask you is what is it, in your view, the government should do in this space? Is there limitation in government action, which is one of the key themes which John puts in his report and if there is, what is the right role for government here?
Lord Howell: Just before on your question; it is fascinating that we feel American culture is the powerful thing, yet America is one country that is very averse to promoting internationally through government expenditure its culture.
Martin Davidson: Is that true if you think about Hollywood? There is pretty good evidence that the government puts a lot of money into Hollywood.
Lord Howell: The government plays its part and we can all think of better ways of spending such money as the poor government has got, but the whole joy of the scene is as predicted in this marvellous report, that the face and promotion of this country and the way we are looked at by others and the way we look and respect other cultures, particularly the rising superior cultures of Asia and so on, is substantially a non-government thing. It is non-governmental in the sense that the British Council are non-governmental; it is non-governmental in the sense that its science, its arts, its professions all knitting together in a way that has never been practised before in history. One reason I am a promoter of a not very fashionable, but I think it is going to be more fashionable, cause of the Commonwealth, 54 nations – working language English; all the DNA of the working language built into it, is because there is a fantastic, like an iceberg, below the water set of linkages between schools, universities, museums, all the culture we are talking about today – every kind of business arrangement. There is a quiet boom going on in trade and investment flows between Commonwealth countries, all conducted in English, all governed by our legal practices more or less orchestrated from the Middle Temple here. We have 530 Commonwealth universities, all presided over by the Association of Commonwealth Universities in Tavistock Square. There is a fantastic quiet, non-governmental soft power arrangement on power and pulsation going off in this country and that is doing fine.
Whether the government should add to that and how much they should add is a very fascinating question. One can always think of more ways of spending money, but you have to be very careful. Joe Nye warns us to be careful that if things are too governmental, too financed governmentally, too much have the officialdom behind them, the tinges sound like propaganda. Once you are into propaganda, you are finished, because no-one believes propaganda; it is incredible. You have to be very careful in gaining the support of official authorities and using public money to ensure that you don’t get tired and tarnished with a crowd of these people that are just puffing up their own official line; they are just promoting their national front, their national propaganda. That would be absolutely fatal. The subtlety and glory of this nation’s soft power situation, particularly with the lucky lickers who we have of the Commonwealth, is that it is all very much quieter and doesn’t sound like it is led by a lot of flag-waving bureaucrats and officials. I hope not anyway!
Martin Davidson: Ruth, you were going to add something. Could I just ask you to add into that answer to what extent is shortage of money going into culture now? Cultural organisations are finding it more difficult, is that likely to undermine our capacity as a country?
Ruth Mackenzie: I think it is. Of course you are right that arguably the greatest legacy of Keynes, when he set up the Arts Council, was to invent the arm’s-length principle precisely because he had watched the way that governments in Germany and Russia had tried to control artists. It is incredibly important for us to be careful about the plurality of funding sources that underpins precisely the understated benefits that you are talking about. The fact is that every museum gets money from its local authority, but Danny Boyle, if he were born now and brought up in Bolton, as he was, the chances are he wouldn’t have the infrastructure in place from that fragile mix of local funding going into his local theatre, his local museum, his local state school, to give him the introduction and the excitement that got him ambitious to work in the theatre and that there wouldn’t then have been the ladder of opportunity that would have got him a training opportunity at one of the best theatres in the country. We are at real risk at the moment of destroying the chance for any talented young person anywhere in the country – not only in London, to develop their creative talent, to aspire and to learn – to get to the point where they can be the next generation of incredible artists that we will need to keep up this advantage.
What is happening at the moment for local authorities and for cultural institutions that do depend on a mix of public and private funding is quite serious. There is a danger that the advantage that we have enjoyed we won’t enjoy in 20 years’ time and it will be too late. You can’t then go ‘Where are all the Danny Boyles?’ – it is too late in 20 years’ time.
Martin Davidson: Sarah, do you feel that is right, looking at it from a London perspective? What are the barriers? Are there any barriers for London making the most of its cultural relations assets?
Sarah Sands: That is right and I can’t understand why. On the whole I am very pro private enterprise. Normally what I think you get with private enterprise which you don’t in the state is a sense of risk and freedom. Somehow that doesn’t seem to work in the arts, that when the banks give money to the arts they want something all finished and ready made into assured success and they know what the result will be. I do absolutely agree with the seabed principle that the state has to then come in that level. Yes, I think that is true.
Question & Answer Session
Martin Davidson: I am going to come to the audience. There are some roving mikes, so could I ask you to wait for the mike. If we could start with the gentleman on the end here.
Question: Thanks very much. Building a bit on what Ruth Mackenzie said, I will just ask the panel how far they think that the de-communalisation, the hyper-mobility of modern British life is leading to a homogenisation socially and culturally, both within this country and indeed across the world that is inimical to Culture with a capital “C”.
Martin Davidson: I am going to take two or three questions. Over here.
Question: Could I ask the panel what they think Britain’s pre-eminence and its influence and attraction are based on the use of our language throughout the world and whether we would have even a quarter of the influence in all the other fields in which Britain has been so attractive if, say, this country spoke Swedish and everyone else spoke English?
Martin Davidson: The lady up front here. Sorry, could I ask you to say who you are as well?
Yvette Vaughan-Jones (Director, Visiting Arts): My question is I too chaired a meeting at Ditchley Park and that was about new technology. It wasn’t very long ago. It seemed to me then that the emphasis on peer-to-peer new technology was still about how to get messages across, new ways of getting messages across. Recently I was in an arts event in a Somalian immigrant’s flat and what was very striking was in their flat they had a very large screen tuned into Somalian television. They had computers skypeing Somalia and mobile phones where they were talking directly to Somalia. It seems to me, I want to ask about this non-Western view of cultural diplomacy now, that when people come to Britain there is no longer the assumption that they need to learn about what is happening in Britain because they can remain in a Somalian bubble if you like. Therefore, even in your very good document, you still talk about different ways of us showing our culture through new technology, but isn’t there a need to incentivise people even to look at these new cultures around them when there is no real need to?
Martin Davidson: Thank you. Homogenisation, would anybody be bothered if we spoke Swedish and technology allows us to stay in our own safe space; who would like to kick off? Ruth.
Ruth Mackenzie: I’ll have a go. I don’t accept homogenisation. Let’s take Akram Khan – and this addresses Yvette’s point as well – here is one of our foremost choreographers; again he played a key part in the Opening Ceremonies – his work is absolutely culturally specific, but his work is about who he is and what his influences are. It is about Pakistan, it is about the UK. It is also, as it happens, because it is brilliant, speaks to people from anywhere in the world it would seem. He is one of our most successful choreographers; he tours around the world. He is an ambassador for the UK; he is a brilliant collaborator. He works with Juliette Binoche, he works with all sorts of people. He is a very, for me, good symbol of how the opportunities today allow more people to express cultural specificity and yet to find ways to speak across those barriers. I don’t accept your point about the Somalians, in other words. It is important that we are porous and these communities are porous. Their cultural influences do go most successfully in two directions.
It is important that we have a tremendous secret weapon – the English language, but again, I would argue against complacency. There are an awful lot of people who are offering the English language and we don’t have a monopoly on it any more. We are not necessarily getting the greatest advantage from the English language – we are being outpaced and outrun. You probably have a more expert view of that than me.
Martin Davidson: There is certainly a piece that you hear from time-to-time that one of the most ineffective international meetings is when you have Brits there, or Americans speaking English and it gets in the way of people understanding, even though everyone else is speaking English too. Would anybody else like to pick up on any of these points?
Lord Howell: There is some homogenisation. Every shopping mall in every greater Asian city looks depressingly the same, with quite often the same brands paraded down the long and marble-lined corridors. There is a bit of that, but there are immensely powerful forces working the other way. The more that people feel are overloaded with globalised information, the more they try and develop their own surroundings, community and identity within it and look for more pride or purpose in the culture or country they are living in. Like many technologies it emphasises and amplifies the two trends going in opposite directions – one the feeling of total globalisation and the other the great desire to establish your identity locally. That is right.
Someone was saying the other day, there are so many things that have been reversed by the hyper-connectivity revolution – one of them, oddly enough – I hope this isn't too tangential – is that we now have instead of the worry about zombie children wedged upstairs in the bedroom in front of the internet and the blogs and so on and the games, we are getting a world where children come home to do their work and their studies through their iPad or whatever it is and go to school for their social, leisure and meeting pupils; it is upside down. It is a bit like that on this subject as well. Homogenisation yes, but the opposite as well.
Language: it is obviously the language of the internet. 80 per cent of all stored data is in English. It must help. It is not just the working language, it is the DNA inside the language; it is the customs and attitudes, the jokes, the humour – particularly the humour, what makes people laugh. Very important. Language helps, but it is not delivering the goods for us. This country, we are supposed to be the great performer in the export markets – 40 per cent exports; we are not doing very well. We are arriving in China or somewhere and finding our so-called partners, but in fact our rivals, the Germans, have got there first. In market after market we are running second or third or fourth. I was always struck by the statistic that Switzerland exports more to China than we do! We have a long way to run. If we are going to see the beef come from our cultural and soft power pre-eminence, which is undoubtedly there, the world loves the Brits on the whole. I always love the way I am told the Mr Mugabe has his afternoon team is Worcester China and is waiting for an invitation from Buckingham Palace to have tea. I don’t think it will ever come, but he appreciates that side of English culture, but it doesn’t do us any good on the trade, or sometimes on the political side either. We have to, as you say quite rightly, we can’t be complacent. We have to use the lucky legacy of the language link and the lucky legacy of the Commonwealth, which happens to contain now 13 of the richest and fastest growing – or the fastest growing, not the richest – countries in the world, we have to use that.
As far being all wired up and Somalians watching television, this is the new reality. Eric Schmidt says that there are more mobile phone subscribers than there are human beings. You can work that out, but apparently it is so: 6¾ billion; 2½ billion people openly go onto the worldwide web every morning; every morning: 400 million of them in China. I am told at least 300 million are gambling on the stock exchange! This is a world where everyone knows everything about everybody else. Transparency is a marvellous thing in that it has opened up the old closed oysters of all sorts of dark regimes. Even the Myanmar Burmese had to come into line. Perhaps it will even get us Kim Jong-un, or whatever he is called! The pressures from outside are enormous. The attempts of governments, particularly rogue and tough authoritarian governments, to pile on the filters and keep it all out and argue that it is bad for the people are enormous, but the information pressures and the electronic pressures and the microchip pressures are gradually winning. It is a fascinating struggle. It is going on all the time; we have it here.
Martin Davidson: Thank you. I am going to come back to the audience for a very quick round, because we are beginning to run out of time and I would hate for Sarah to miss Charlie, but a question here in the middle.
Charlie Jeffrey (University of Edinburgh): Thank you very much. Charlie Jeffrey from the University of Edinburgh, busily resisting British homogenisation. I wanted to ask a question about language, which is a bit of a double-edged sword for us. John, you have talked very convincingly and written convincingly about the shift from conventional international relations through government institutions where we used to have brilliant and rigorous linguists engaging in other countries in the language of that country. We now have a situation where cultural relations are democratised, carried out through many different actors and individuals, yet we don’t have linguistic capability fully to experience other cultures, precisely because of the pervasiveness of the English language. How double-edged is that advantage?
Martin Davidson: Andrea, down at the front?
Andrea Rose (Director of Visual Arts, British Council): The back of your brochure carries the legend ‘Culture is GREAT’. Do you think that this is the best way for Britain to be promoting its culture overseas, the GREAT campaign?
Martin Davidson: Thank you. Lady in the middle here then, I’m afraid, we will go to the answers.
Indra Adnan (Director for Soft Power Network): This is a question for John. Isn’t soft power as much about political behaviour as it is about culture? When we are talking about Chinese soft power, for example, to use the most obvious example, isn’t it as much affected by the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei as it is about the art of Ai Weiwei?
Martin Davidson: John, do you want to kick off?
John Holden: Yes, to take that last point first. You are absolutely right. I mentioned that in the pamphlet somewhere. Soft power is thought by some people to be a veneer that papers over the cracks of political behaviour. It shouldn’t be thought of in that way at all. There is no amount of 17th century poets and fantastic football teams who are going to cover up the fact that you have human rights abuses, for example. Thinking about soft power in that way, as some people do, is a big mistake. Yes, cultural activity produces as many problems for politics and for power as it does solve them as well; it is a complex field, absolutely.
Language, yes, you are absolutely right. It is one of the biggest worries in the humanities at the moment, the decline of language teaching, the decline of languages in schools, because it is through a language that you really understand another culture and you can really empathise with other people in other places. This is very interesting.
Just to go back to the English point, one of the most interesting things that is happening to the English language is the way that it is like a river going into the sea and there are very many different channels now – Chinglish, Franglish, Hinglish and my Demos colleague, Sam Jones, at the back, wrote a pamphlet about this – it is very interesting the way that English is diverging all over the world.
Martin Davidson: David, is it just the Brits that are embarrassed at saying that we are good at something, or is GREAT just too aggressive?
Lord Howell: I feel rather mixed about this. I have what is now called a ‘privileged’ education – I was sent to a prep school where you didn’t boast too much. If you didn’t boast you knew all about it in the playground afterwards. I was a little queasy on it, but it seems to have caught on amazingly through the diplomatic network and there are all sorts of demands around the world to have Great Britain parties and so on. I feel mixed about it. I am not going to say it was the most wonderful PR campaign ever, nor am I going to rubbish it and say it struck the wrong note – it is something in-between; that is a real politician’s answer!
I want to just say a word on the behaviour thing because I think that is so important. It is absolutely right that small acts of behaviour inside your own country can do appalling damage; I am just thinking about Pussy Riot that we mentioned earlier. Mr Putin gave a great lecture the other day to his assembled cohorts about the need for Russia to improve its soft power image. They were getting the wrong message out into the world and they didn’t understand the glories of Russian culture and so on. We do understand the glories, but we also understand that they can be very rough and they seem to get some things badly wrong and certainly some of the ways they treat their internal citizens does enormous damage to their soft power image and makes us think twice before we want to be dealing with the Russians. It is the same with us here.
In our witnesses for our committee studies, Jonathan McClory, who I think is here, who is a great soft power expert – is he around? Yes, I can see him at the back – produced a marvellous picture. He said ‘Here is a picture of all the countries that Britain has never invaded in the world, and they are marked in yellow’. He put on the map; there are no countries marked in yellow, or there are about four or five – a tiny little assortment. The Brits have invaded everywhere else in our time. Therefore we have a lot of behaviour pattern to adjust; a lot of historical baggage to live down and a lot of ground to make up.
Just coming from the general Pacific I thought the other day the way the decision went on the compensation for Mau Mau atrocities was really rather good for Britain. It was slightly resisted by the official machine and there were lots of legal questions – was it too long ago and so on. It came out, to my mind, in a good way. hat is the right sort of behaviour. That sends a message saying ‘These people are balanced'; perhaps there is grumbling about ‘What about all the Africans that the Mau Mau killed?’ – fair point. Basically we were trying to make good our bit of the story. Behaviour is very important and we have to live with the fact that as you go round the world people say ‘You are very interesting, you Brits – you have a lot of things going for you – your culture is very exciting and so on, but why did you get mixed up in Iraq? What do you think you are doing in Afghanistan? Did you get Libya right? Are you just a poodle of Washington? Are you just a lapdog of Brussels or are you a serious, brilliant island force that is coming along in the world and can make a contribution?’ Those are the sort of questions I have to face and, of course, it is the way we answer them that establishes that we are a serious nation with serious goods to sell, a serious message to make and a serious contribution to add to the human race.
Martin Davidson: Thank you. I am going to bring us towards an end now because there are drinks next door and I hope you will stay and have some of those and continue the conversations. Just giving each of our panellists a couple of minutes just to – I’m not sure – summarise, but make a few final remarks. Ruth, what are your thoughts?
Ruth Mackenzie: Terribly well said, may I say. I just wanted to add to the answer about the GREAT campaign because I agree with you it is nicer to be praised than to have to praise yourself. It is good to behave properly and that includes a generosity and a sense of place and a sense of relationships. We have just opened the British Pavilion triumphantly again at the Venice Biennale with Jeremy Deller’s fantastic piece, which again applauds and celebrates the ability of us to enable British artists to criticise us. I was very struck by the fact that the British Pavilion, for those that have never seen it – there may be a few here, is an incredibly grand building.
Ruth Mackenzie: Yes; it is a grand building that has something to say about the historic place of the UK. On either side of it is the French and German pavilions. The French and the Germans decided to swap pavilions this year, so the French worked in the German pavilion and the Germans worked in the French pavilion. The Germans, as they have done before, invited artists who weren’t German. Ai Weiwei was in the German Pavilion, which was in fact the French Pavilion, if you follow me! That sense of collaboration and humbleness and sharing was fantastic. It was great that the Germans thought it was important to offer Ai Weiwei a voice. I would love to see the Brits offering the Pavilion to another country, perhaps a country that didn’t have the resource, the ability to put on a good show themselves, because we would get attention wherever we went; the British Pavilion could be anywhere. In fact the British Pavilion is no longer quite the British Pavilion because there is a Scottish Pavilion, a Welsh Pavilion and sometimes a Northern Irish Pavilion as well, but wouldn’t it be nice if we invited an artist who wasn’t British, or a country to come and share? Wouldn’t that be a good way of showing the values of the country?
Martin Davidson: No, we are not going to have a discussion around the nature of the British Pavilion in Venice, but Andrea is the curator in that.
Ruth Mackenzie: In every sense I think it would be great; that is all I would like to end with.
Lord Howell: I want to file a comment about this marvellous report. The super-sensitive good thing was the mention of never mind what face we are putting on things and presenting them and never mind even what other countries think of us, but how are we presenting to other countries – it sounds complicated, their view of what we think about them? Do we sound as though we are strutting around telling everyone ‘We are really superior; we know about parliaments and values and so on and you need to learn from us’, or do we sound as though we are not so much erstwhile or would-be leaders, but partners and we want to exchange and learn from other countries as well as share a few ideas with them? This has become even more so now that frankly we are seeing Asia race – I wrote a pamphlet for Demos 15 years ago, which they kindly published, saying that Asia was not only going to win out economically and technologically and innovatively and all that against us, but was achieving higher moral standards as well than the West, in terms of commitment to family, commitment to the next generation, some higher values and standards in certain areas – respect for ancestors, respect for older people I thought was a very good one! We had to be careful about going round lecturing and talking as though we are the superior power generously lending our great knowledge to them. I thought the bit touching on that, how other countries think we are looking at them, that is really important. I was fascinated by that.
Just one final word – I am sorry Sarah Sands isn’t here, but she would love this – I had to talk to a group of very high-powered Japanese at the end of a tour of Britain that they had had, which was absolutely deluxe; they had had been everywhere – to every palace, great house – Blenheim, Buckingham Palace, Edinburgh; they had seen culture, they had been to theatres. I said ‘What was the most important thing?’ and the chap piped up and said ‘Burberry’. His visit to Burberry was more important than everything else. Sarah would like that. I don’t know whether that is soft power or hard power, but it is certainly promotion and trade prospects, isn’t it?
Martin Davidson: Thank you very much. John, last word to you?
John Holden: Thank you. One thing that has been touched on but hasn’t come out fully is the role of government. We all say government has to be hands-off, do things at arm’s length, but one of the interesting things about this is that the way that we traditionally think about government in terms of international relations here, DCMS [Department for Culture, Media and Sport] there, Home Office over there, is not a good way of coping with this subject; it is so inter-related – visa policies about allowing students and scholars to come in and artists indeed to come into the country is important. That is in the Home Office. Funding of the grass roots is in the hand of local authorities. Funding of the major arts organisations is in the Arts Council; there is an awful lot of co-ordination that needs to go on across government, not to interfere on what is going on, but to make sure the thing is networked properly, funded properly and co-ordinated properly.
Martin Davidson: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you all very much for taking the time to come this evening; I hope you found the discussion interesting. Certainly from our perspective we hope that this report will be the start of a discussion in the UK amongst ourselves about why this area of work, whether we call it soft power or cultural relations, why it is important and much more importantly what we should be doing to make sure we make the most of the extraordinary range of resources which this country has available to us in order to be able to engage with the rest of the world. It is ultimately about engagement, not about presentation. It is ultimately about listening as well as speaking and it is about receiving as well as sending.
I hope we will engage in a really fruitful conversation about this and I hope, David, it is a contribution also to the work of your committee. Thank you all very much indeed. Could I ask you to thank John Holden, Lord David Howell, Ruth Mackenzie and Sarah Sands?