I’ve been undertaking some work on British soft power, and in discussing soft power as a resource first and an instrument second, I found the British Council’s 2014 report, As Others See Us (available here - As Others See Us). This report - and others like it - lead me to the conclusion that the British Council, while a remarkable instrument of cultural diplomacy, does not understand what soft power is or how it works for the benefit of the UK.
As Others See Us is a useful guide to what is attractive about the UK, and reveals levels of international familiarity with British culture, politics, education, and society. It is less valuable to understanding soft power, and the notion that culture, historic attractions, cities, the countryside etc. should be ‘at the centre of thinking about the UK’s efforts to engage internationally’ is a serious error of judgement. The simple reason is that these are ways of making the UK more familiar. Soft power is what happens elsewhere. The report is wholly quantitative and provides no qualitative evidence whatsoever for its claims.
1. The report does not reveal any data about the background of the respondents, other than gender and age. As serious scholars of communications are aware, it is necessary to understand fully the cultural, political, and social contexts in which audiences overseas live, how their attitudes and values are formed, and from where they receive their information about the UK. Are these ‘opinions’ of the UK formed and transmitted via the networks in which they function? Are they taught in schools or by families? Are they shaped by local media reports or by listening to the BBC World Service, reading Twitter etc.? The opinions measured in this report are only meaningful if contextualised by their source. Hence, Chart 17 (“What people think the UK should be proud of”) reveals that the NHS receives quite a low score (16%). Do respondents understand what the NHS is and how it works? What is their level of engagement? We don't know, because the research does not tell us. We need to separate their familiarity with the NHS as an institution/concept, and their understanding of how the NHS reflects British values of equality. This may be a theme that the instruments of British public diplomacy need to engage with more systematically.
2. The report measures familiarity, not soft power. Of course respondents overseas are familiar with the Monarchy and Shakespeare. They are highly visible, more accessible stories, non-threatening, and certainly more “sexy” than difficult and complex political ideas, values, institution, and processes. However, this is very different from understanding, accepting, or rejecting the values these cultural icons represent or are seen to represent. A staunch Republican will most likely visit Buckingham Palace because it is a tourist attraction; she may enjoy reading about the Monarchy’s history, and appreciate the Palace as a fine old building. Yet, this does not mean that seeing Buckingham Palace will change her basic values about the concept of Monarchy. These values have been formed because of her interaction with many different social influences and the effect of cognitive processes that shape opinions. Perhaps this implies the British public diplomacy machinery needs to focus less on communicating the superficial aspects of the Monarchy - the pomp and ceremony, the Castles and Palaces – and emphasise more the political role that the Monarchy plays, its alleged contribution to democratic stability etc. It is the difference between the Monarchy as something that is valuable to the British political culture and soft power, and the Monarchy as a valuable tourist attraction. Similarly the House of Lords, which stood accused by Prime Minister Theresa May of being ‘unelected’ and as opposing the government’s Brexit plans when she called the 2017 General Election. However we think of the Second Chamber, it exists and it has an important role to play in the political life of the UK. To many in the international audience the House of Lords may seem little more than an example of British eccentricity, a quaint and charming throwback to earlier times. Do we make sure overseas audiences are familiar with the positive arguments for retaining an unelected House, and why even the Church, via the presence of Bishops, have a representation there? Do our public diplomacy instruments explain why a democracy has an undemocratic institution at its core?
3. In one area the data presented does chime with my overall approach to soft power. In Chart 10 (‘Comparison of the factors that influence UK attractiveness and the attractiveness of countries in general’) the survey demonstrates that the ‘current and past actions of government’ make the UK less attractive. This conforms to the proposition that how a government behaves affects how it is seen abroad. This may also explain the low score for the attractiveness of the UK’s system of democracy (Chart 17). Again this may be due to perceptions of political behaviour and problems; it does not provide a breakdown of the processes by which democracy is practiced in the UK (for example, transparency and accountability), nor does it convey the reality that political democracy also occurs outside Westminster - and indeed London – and often via civil society at very local levels.
4. I agree with the report’s recommendation 6 (p.13) that more needs to be done to encourage an ‘international outlook’ among young British people. However, this is easier said than done, especially after the Referendum to leave the UK and in areas of the UK where immigration and the ‘international’ is seen defined as a problem for local communities.
5. This British Council report concludes thus:
‘Much of the soft power literature and many studies to date have placed significant importance on business brands and the actions of governments as determinants of a country’s soft power. There is no doubt that these are important factors. However, this research has found that for young educated people in countries of strategic importance to the UK, these factors appear to be less important than culture, countryside and landscape, cities, and people in determining a country’s attractiveness. Given the importance attributed to them by young people across the world, there is a strong case that they should feature more prominently in future models conceptualising soft power and attempts to enhance the UK’s international engagement and standing’ (emphasis added, p.26).
However, these are problematic claims because the report confuses attraction and soft power, using them interchangeably. The actions of governments are determinants of soft power; culture and countryside are important for attracting publics to the UK. Understanding the former helps us to understand why values are accepted or rejected, and therefore how and why British public diplomacy may be influential overseas; understanding the latter helps us design campaigns to attract tourists, students, and investment. Familiarity and soft power are not synonymous. Surveys like those undertaken for As Others See Us may reveal high levels of acquaintance with British institutions among publics overseas, and this may translate into attraction; but such surveys say nothing about soft power. This confusion is common and limits the capacity for international influence, and it needs redressing if the UK wishes to move forwards in challenging times.