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Overseas Soft Power

Volume 657: debated on Tuesday 2 April 2019

We regard the UK as a soft power superpower, and this is widely recognised in independent international surveys and reports. [Interruption.] A few more tongue twisters and I will be anyone’s! This is the sort of thing you want to do at 11 in the morning, not 11 o’clock at night. The FCO vigorously continues to support the UK’s soft power through the funding of, among others, Chevening scholarships, the British Council and the BBC World Service.

The Commonwealth is one of the driving forces of UK soft power around the world. What plans does my right hon. Friend’s Department have in place to capitalise on these relationships to improve our power and security?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the UK has an unbreakable connection to the Commonwealth and the democratic, inclusive values that it upholds—we discussed earlier the importance of maintaining a rules-based international order, particularly in these uncertain times. The Commonwealth also proudly represents some of the fastest-growing economies and accounts for one fifth of global trade. We shall of course continue to work closely with all members of the Commonwealth to ensure that it realises its full potential in that regard, and to ensure a more sustainable, prosperous and secure future.

Royal Yacht Britannia played a key role in promoting UK trade around the globe during her years of active service. More than 50 Members of this House believe that such a role would be enhanced post Brexit and that a new national yacht would help to promote our international humanitarian role. Will the Government now support our campaign in this brave endeavour?

I fear that I may have to disappoint my hon. Friend, who represents a coastal constituency. As a regular visitor to Broadstairs in his constituency, I know what a wonderful part of the country it is, but I have to inform him that there are no plans to commission a new royal yacht for the royal family.

Can we include in soft power the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union? Will the Minister help us to breathe life into those organisations so that we can get meaningful dialogue on the issues that really worry us, such as the rights of Christians, including the persecution of Christians in Pakistan? Why are we not having that sort of debate here?

I say to the hon. Gentleman that, with regard to the CPA and the IPU, we do. I appreciate that, for many Members who wish to get more engaged, travelling is obviously difficult because of the nature of the electoral arithmetic at the moment. May I also point out the incredibly hard work that goes on at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, particularly with regard to getting constitutional change in many parts of the world? Many of those programmes are done on a cross-party basis, which provides a very positive stance for UK democracy abroad and will, hopefully, enhance aspects of the soft power to which he refers.

Can the Minister tell us what impact Brexit has had on the UK’s reputation, and whether a no-deal Brexit will be better or worse for that reputation?

Ironically, a recent UN report showed the UK rising up the happiness league, but I appreciate that some of these surveys cannot be relied on too much. On a serious note, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and it is a concern for all of us as Foreign Office Ministers who work abroad. It is very easy for us in this country to be a little bit self-deprecating about Britain and its brand abroad, but I am always very struck—certainly in Asia and the Pacific, and, with my new responsibilities, in the middle east—by just how respected the UK and its brand are. Those countries recognise that there are some uncertainties at the moment, but that view will continue.

I am glad that the Minister recognises the challenges, but as he might have said in “Jaws”, “You’re going to need a bigger yacht.” We have heard Pascal Lamy talk about the UK’s reputation being much diminished and Jürgen Maier from Siemens talk about the country’s tremendous reputation as an economic powerhouse being wrecked. We need to address that, as it is not good for any of us. Will the Minister recognise that before this Government take us down the route of a disastrous no deal?

It is incumbent on all of us not to talk the country down in what we appreciate are difficult times. We want to see progress—significant progress—in this regard. I am struck by the fact that we are experiencing slightly hyperbolic, frenzied activity in this House and, dare I say it, among some commentators. As I have said, what I see on the ground is that we have been respected for many, many decades and that a huge amount of work goes on, not least in the soft power area. I am sure that that will go from strength to strength in the years to come.

Lord Ricketts, the former head of the Foreign Office and an expert in soft power, said last month:

“The Foreign Secretary is making a big mistake if he thinks this…blame game over Brexit is going to change any minds in Europe.”

Does the Government accept that Lord Ricketts is right, and that the only ones responsible for this Brexit mess are this Government alone?

I had a chance to speak directly with Lord Ricketts in a radio studio a week ago. He recognises, I think, the difficulties that we face in dealing with the Brexit negotiations. I have been out not just to Brussels, but to the OECD in Paris recently. Again, I was very struck, as I worked with counterparts, by the fact that there is an important agenda, and that many European countries recognise the importance of the UK. We need to have the strongest of relationships. Clearly there are uncertainties about the precise nature of our departure from the European Union, but that is a part of it.

Will my right hon. Friend commit to speaking with his other partners in the Government to try to obtain more funding for the GREAT campaign, which plays an extraordinarily important role in promoting the UK—and our products and companies—globally?

The GREAT campaign is a fantastic success. Part of my role is to deal with communications, representing the Foreign Office on a cross-departmental basis. We recognise the importance of this particular campaign and work strongly on it, particularly with the Department for International Trade.

We are late, but if colleagues were in a caring, sharing mood, and were prepared to consider each other, we could get through a little more.