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UK Soft Power

Volume 655: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2019

We should be proud of the UK’s soft power and the contribution that independent institutions such as the BBC and the British Council make to it. That is why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has trebled its investment in Chevening scholarships since 2015, helped to fund the biggest expansion of the BBC World Service in 70 years and provided additional funding for the British Council’s work in developed countries. It is also why my Department is developing a cross-Government soft power strategy to further project our values and advance our interests overseas.

The Minister rightly mentioned the BBC World Service. Will he join me in celebrating the excellent work that that organisation does, given how important it is for expressing the UK’s soft power overseas, and in calling on the BBC to expand and enhance its reach?

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in recognising the excellent work of the BBC World Service, which brings the UK and its values to the world at large. Since 2016, Her Majesty’s Government have been funding the World 2020 programme, which has seen the World Service undergo its biggest single expansion in the past 70 years, with 12 new language services opened in 2017-18, and I have been very proud to watch some of that excellent work in India.

The plays of Shakespeare have been translated into many languages and performed in many countries around the world, including China, so does the Minister agree that Britain has amazing cultural and linguistic assets that we can use to project our soft power around the world and to support democratic values, freedom of speech and creativity, as we build a new relationship with the world?

I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend. For example, in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was marked by an HMG-funded cultural programme called Shakespeare Lives, which was jointly delivered by the British Council, the GREAT campaign and the FCO, involving the BBC and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and his colleagues on their excellent work to co-ordinate better our soft power effort, but does he agree that it is very important that there is a proper plan to follow up on some of the very successful royal visits overseas with a very well co-ordinated effort, particularly in soft power?

I thank my right hon. Friend. We have already had questions today on Shakespeare and the BBC, but he is absolutely right that our royal family is one of our greatest soft power assets, and we will do our level best, through the GREAT campaign and elsewhere, to ensure that strength continues.

An important part of our soft power is our commitment to tackling global poverty and to international development. Will the Minister therefore take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to 0.7% spending on overseas aid and to the Department for International Development as a stand-alone Department, independent of the Foreign Office?

And a former DFID Minister, too.

I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), and this is a matter not just of soft power, but of hard power. There is little doubt that the 0.7% commitment has an important part to play. I see it in all parts of Asia, not least in Pakistan and Bangladesh, which have the two single biggest DFID budgets. It is important for aid and development and, indeed, for the prosperity fund, which will allow British companies to prosper in the years to come.

Over the past three years, this Government’s chaotic approach to Brexit has shredded our international credibility and diminished our soft power. Whether Brexit goes ahead or not, there is an important job to be done to repair our international standing in the world and build alliances, so will the Minister have a word with the Defence Secretary and ask him to cut out the foolish rhetoric, which has real consequences?

I obviously represent Asia and the Pacific abroad, and whenever I go to that part of the world, I always come back much more uplifted about the UK’s brand. We find that many countries in that part of the world—indeed, this applies globally—have had strong dealings with the UK for decades, if not centuries, and they recognise that we will have strong connections in the years to come. They know that there is obviously a small amount of uncertainty with the Brexit arrangements that are taking place now, but the positivity of the UK’s brand, our reliability as a partner and the sense that we project international values are important.

The Minister is right to point out outside organisations. Will he, like me, pay due credit to the brave non-governmental organisations that do fantastic work and enhance our soft power in some of the most difficult conflict environments in the world, not least Yemen? Today, the United Nations is appealing for £3.2 billion to help organisations such as Saferworld and International Rescue Committee. Should that not be our focus, rather than the £4.6 billion we spent on arms?

We have announced only today, in the aftermath of the Sharm el-Sheikh negotiations, that we will be putting a further £200 million into Yemen. It is important to recognise the tremendous contribution made by so many British citizens and British NGOs across the globe. That is one aspect of soft power that will enhance our standing in the years to come. It is in this sort of area where I hope we will continue.[Official Report, 27 February 2019, Vol. 655, c. 2MC.]

I welcome the Minister’s commitment, but that is outstripped by our arms sales. The UK could be a serious player for peace in the region. Will we move away from arming combatants and move towards finances that will help to prevent poverty and migration, because that prevents conflict—not arms sales?

We have made agreements—not least the negotiations that have taken place in recent months in Stockholm—to try to work together to ensure that the worst offenders do not have arms sales. It is not the case that we do not have an eye on the ethics and the moral values that are close to the heart of many of our constituents across the country. We will continue to work closely and utilise as much soft power as we can in the years to come.

May I urge the Government to use their soft power and diplomatic network to enthusiastically support the efforts of Cypriots to deliver a negotiated settlement for a free and united Cyprus?

I am happy to answer that in short order: yes. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas has worked tirelessly in that regard and we will continue to do so. I think that those in the diaspora in the UK, both Turkish and Greek Cypriots, recognise that it is important that we put 45 years of great difficulty behind us. I think that the UK has had an important part to play in helping to bring those sides together.

We are discussing soft power. I want to ask the Minister about an issue where the exercising of that power is growing long overdue. When we gather for the next Foreign Office questions on 2 April, it will be six months to the day since Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul. Will the Minister ask his boss, the Foreign Secretary, to guarantee to the House that before we reach that sad milestone, he will present the Government’s findings on who, ultimately, is responsible for that murder and what actions the Government are taking in response?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be going to Saudi Arabia this week, and I hope that there will be progress in relation to the very serious issues the right hon. Lady raises. She will be aware that we will be hosting a conference in this country in July—again, a very important part of British global soft power—that will look at the dangers journalists face across the world. I think that the fact we are doing that will reflect well, and I hope that she and the Labour party will want to play an important part in that role. We need freedom for journalists to be able to go about their everyday business. The situation with Khashoggi is the worst and most glaring example, but some 80 journalists were murdered going about their business last year and many hundreds have been locked up. Internationally, we need to come together to stand up for those values.

I thank the Minister for that answer. While a conference is important, it is hardly an answer to the question of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. There are no official answers and there are no official actions. Worse than that, the Foreign Secretary went to Berlin last week and told one of the few Governments willing to act on the Khashoggi murder, by banning arms sales to Yemen, that they are wrong to do so. May I ask the Minister to once more ask his boss the Foreign Secretary—it is a simple request—whether he will, by the time of the next Foreign Office questions, six months on from the Khashoggi murder, be telling us all the people he believes are responsible and what action they are going to take in response?

As I said, my right hon. Friend will be in Saudi Arabia and clearly, this issue will be discussed. I hope that he will be in a position to update the House on 2 April or, indeed, prior to that time. The right hon. Lady raised the issue of the arms trade. We are proud to build on the contribution made by Robin Cook when he was Foreign Secretary that means that arms sales regulations here in the UK are among the strictest across the western world, and they will continue in that vein.