Skip to main content

Future of Soft Power

Volume 710: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2022

I will call John Baron to move the motion and will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of soft power.

It is a pleasure to be called to speak, Ms Rees. I thank the Speaker’s Office for selecting it and the Minister for Asia and the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), for attending. I know she is very busy.

It is fair to say that the west has relaxed its guard and enjoyed a peace dividend following the cold war. We thought the concept of democracy would sweep the field—that the very righteousness of the cause would sweep all before it—and it therefore required little investment. But democracy is a fragile concept; it needs nurturing, encouraging and protecting. Many in this world do not share our values. As Ukraine has shown, we are engaged in a new battle for democracy. If there was any doubt about that, we need only look at the recent UN vote on the cruel invasion of a sovereign country, where more than half of the world’s population as represented by their Governments did not condemn it.

In this new era, this new cold war, we need to talk softly and carry a big stick, if we are to defend our values. Our values have stood the test of time but, at times, have required defending. I suggest that we now require a significant and sustained increase in spending on both hard and soft power capabilities. Soft power was a key factor in our victory in the cold war.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It was President Roosevelt who said, “Talk softly but carry a big stick”—I understand it is an African proverb. If we are going to have soft power, we need to have hard power behind it to back it up, otherwise it does not work. I think we are at the stage where we have learned from our mistakes in the west. It is time to get it right.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have to do more to realise that democracy needs defending. We have to step up to the plate—not just this country, but the west generally—and commit sufficient resources, to ensure that we can talk softly, which we should always do first, but carry a big stick, because the big stick reinforces the weight of the soft diplomacy. We live in a hard world, but people will listen if they think we have assets that could be committed. I am an ex-soldier. War should always be the measure of last resort, but we need to talk and have the assets behind us to reinforce the weight of those talks.

This country should be proud. We have the BBC World Service, the British Council, our music industry, our culture, our values and the rule of law. There is little doubt—in fact, it has been shown through various measurements—that the UK is the world’s soft-power superpower, and we should be very proud of that.

During the invasion of Ukraine, the number of listeners to the BBC World Service in Russia went up three or four times. Listeners to the Ukrainian service went up to 5 million. Yet we are still debating whether the BBC World Service and BBC Monitoring budgets should be ringfenced. There is a question mark over their funding.

The British Council last year was in touch with more than 750 million people worldwide for education, arts and the English language. That is a phenomenal achievement. On the UK music industry, I will share with colleagues that I am not very good at contemporary music, but I am reliably informed that three of the top 10 artists came from these shores. That is punching above our weight and helps to create the positive view of this country—there is a lot to be positive about—but it also reaches out and makes contact with people globally.

There is, however, growing competition for influence. We cannot stand still. Individual states, many of them not democratic, are looking to invest and are investing to enhance their soft power around the world. Cultural institutes such as the British Council are an effective way of doing so, and one which truly global nations all employ. As chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group, I will confine my remarks to that wonderful organisation.

I remind the Minister that other cultural institutes of other countries receive far greater amounts and proportions of public funding, between 40% to 50% of their total income. Whether it is the Goethe-Institut, or Confucius Institutes, or whatever, they get around half their income from the state. The amount is only around 15% from the British Government, because the British Government have said that the British Council must rely on its own commercial activities to help fund its endeavours. That is fine, except when those revenues fall through the floor in a pandemic year. It is, therefore, with regret for many of us—across the Floor in this House, but also in the other place—that the Government did not fully compensate for the loss of commercial income by the British Council as a result of the pandemic.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for taking an intervention, and for his fantastic work for the British Council. Its work is crucial—he is highlighting the loss of revenue—but we often forget about the revenues it generates through its great work and the number of people it introduces to British education and infrastructure. People who go through the British education system become allies of the United Kingdom, and continue that in their businesses and the posts that they hold, including Chevening scholars. The British Council does a tremendous amount of work that is rarely recognised, particularly in terms of funding.

I completely concur with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Sometimes we talk about figures and percentages too much in this place. We need to step back and realise that the British Council does an awful lot of good work that reaches into people’s lives on a global basis.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his work chairing the APPG, of which I am a member. He makes the point around soft power and the value we get from that. The British Council really does punch above its weight, as does the whole UK, in terms of soft power, but there is a price for liberty, which we are seeing all too clearly around the world at the moment. That price is eternal vigilance. That means we need to invest in those assets, such as the British Council. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is vital?

I completely agree. I have been remiss in not thanking APPG members for being here today and contributing to the debate.

I am conscious that others want to contribute. I know we have half an hour, but I do not want to speak for the full 15 minutes. I want to address the issue of funding with the Minister, because funding the British Council was one reason I applied for this debate.

Let me be clear: the Government were generous in increasing the budget to the British Council during the pandemic, but the problem is that it was still £10 million short of fully compensating the British Council when it came to its commercial activities. For those who do not know—I do not think anyone here does not—its commercial activities essentially centre on teaching English in the far east.

Being £10 million short, it had to close 20 country operations, which is an ongoing process. Those countries were Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the USA, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta, Switzerland, Belgium, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Afghanistan, Chile, Namibia, Uruguay, South Sudan and Sierra Leone. That is a long list of countries, including the Five Eyes and others, where we should not be closing the British Council’s soft power operations.

The British Council wants to be ambitious about what it delivers for the UK, in partnership with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, when the world reopens for business and manages the shock of Russian aggression in eastern Europe. However, looking at the CSR—the comprehensive spending review—budget going forward, having the 20 closures in train, we were delighted to see a 21% increase in funding for the FCDO over a three-year period. The Minister will recognise that figure. Yet, we now find that further cuts are being proposed to the British Council, below the £171 million of annual public funding that the council needs to carry on its sterling work across the global network, when it put its bid in to the FCDO.

In other words, despite the FCDO receiving a 21% funding increase over the three-year period, the British Council was going to be cut. Those negotiations are ongoing. I implore the Minister to have a look at the figures and to try and ensure that there are no further country closures, because the British Council is already having to deal with 20 from the previous cuts. Any more would hardly fit with the ambition and concept of global Britain. We need to show solidarity with our friends and allies, not only to counter the rising threat of autocracy around the world, but to secure much needed trade deals for the UK. We stand less chance of doing that if we are cutting our soft power capabilities in key countries, many of them strong allies of the UK.

In conclusion, my questions to the Minister are threefold. First, will she confirm when the British Council will receive notice of its full allocation for the spending review period? I ask that because the organisation cannot be expected to make any plans given the uncertainty created by this lack of notice; it needs to know sooner rather than later.

Secondly, will the Government confirm that the current negotiations will not result in a further cut, itself resulting in further country closures? I hope the Government get it, in the sense of understanding that we need to strengthen the UK’s soft power capability during this moment of global stability.

Finally, will the Government stop touting the figure of a 26% funding increase? I have heard it bandied about so often, but it is misleading because it is comparing a pandemic year with a non-pandemic year. It is not comparing like for like. Despite a 26% increase in funding, the figure was still £10 million short of fully compensating the British Council for its loss of commercial revenue during the pandemic year, which is why it had to close 20 country operations. Hiding behind percentage increases does not mask the truth that we withdrew from the world stage, because there was a £10 million shortfall that resulted in those 20 county closures. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Order. This being a 30-minute debate, we do not usually take contributions from other Members unless they have permission from the Member in charge and the Minister.

Very briefly, there is never a reason to speak after the chairman of the APPG has spoken, because he is always so eloquent, particularly in describing the needs of the British Council, and some great work has been done for a long time in support of it.

The hon. Member talked with passion about the British Council, and I agree with him, because as I said in my intervention, it is not just a financial organ. I would caution the Government against knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, because value is what the British Council has provided. In Russia, for instance, it has provided a huge amount of access to education. In Commonwealth countries in particular, it provides a huge amount of access for people who would not otherwise have access to the type of education that those countries need to become better democracies and to build better communities and societies that we want to engage with. That is the value of the British Council: supporting people to do that and to go on to higher and further education. But on top of that, when people enter into education their mindsets change, away from other doctrines and towards democracy and valuing human life. That is one of the really important things that the British Council does.

The British Council also does a huge amount to support our trade, because when we have people understanding English and coming here to get their education at our universities, they build up links that they want to retain when they go back, whether they are in private or Government jobs, and the amount of connection that creates is of huge value. The £10 million shortfall over the covid period was a horrendous loss for those countries and their people’s education. It has had a huge effect on those people, who we want to be able to support.

I will be quick, Ms Rees, because I know that time is limited. We have to understand the value of this work. This is why we are all so passionate about it. We have to understand that it is not just about what we put in to keep those offices open; it is also about the value we get in return, because the soft power that the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) spoke about is hugely important.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who indulges me by allowing me to intervene a second time. Does he agree that it would be wonderful if there was some way of assessing the value of institutions such as the British Council, which is so much more than the money that goes in? If only the Treasury had a way of assessing the overall value to the United Kingdom, rather than just looking at the pounds going in, we would appreciate those institutions all the more.

I totally agree with the right hon. Lady, who makes a valid point. That sort of assessment could be made if we looked at the number of people who come to our universities to be educated and who then keep in contact when they go back home, and also through our embassies and our imports.

The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay made an important point about Brexit and having new deals and contracts with different countries. Once we have that heritage, people want to talk to us. Once we have that connection, people want to come back and talk to us, and to make sure that they retain that connection. That is really important for us. Certainly in the Maghreb countries, there are people who are moving away from France and want more English classes in order to understand English, so that is another issue we should look at. That would mean an incalculable amount of finance coming back into the country, so we need to look at that.

I will reinforce the case made by the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay by urging the Minister to ensure that we get a clear indication of the budgets that will be set, bearing in mind the losses there have been, and hopefully those will now be increased. Such an investment would be well made not just for the British Council but, most importantly, for us as the United Kingdom.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing the debate, which I am pleased to respond to, and I thank him for all his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the British Council. I am also grateful to the other Members who have contributed to the debate through speeches and interventions. I will try to address some of their points as well as answering the questions put by my hon. Friend.

The UK’s soft power is rooted in who we are, our democratic values and our way of life. It is central to our international identity as an open, trustworthy nation. Our strength in this area is widely recognised. In a recent British Council study, we ranked as the most attractive country for young people in the G20. Only yesterday, the latest global soft power index was published, placing us second out of 120 countries. Other countries trust the UK; they appreciate our values and they want to work with us. They are enthusiastic for our culture, from our premier league football to our music. Of course, there are our brilliant products, from cars to fashion and food.

We must never take our soft power for granted, especially now that freedom and democracy are under attack and we see disinformation all around. We will continue to build our influence and seek to inspire; to forge links with people around the world to promote our values. This is how we will champion freedom and rights on the international stage, and challenge those who seek to tear down democracy. We are blessed with many wonderful and powerful tools in that regard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay mentioned what I will describe as the battle of the values. Our international leadership, which we demonstrate every day, is crucial in the battle for hearts and minds. We are showcasing it through our unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Putin’s barbaric illegal invasion, and in our steadfast support for our democratic partners, through the UN Security Council, NATO, the G7 and partnerships such as AUKUS. Beyond that, we are championing open societies and promoting the rule of law through our economic, security and development leadership.

The British Council is another vital instrument for our influence overseas. It demonstrates our strength and values in practical ways, building trust and opportunities between nations. The British Council, which has been a trusted partner for more than 85 years, teaches the English language and promotes UK education, arts and culture across the globe; operates in more than 100 countries and reaches 76 million people; promotes UK higher education through Study UK; showcases British creativity through arts such as the current UK/Australia Season; and provides English language and teacher training. The British Council delivers for the whole UK, forging theatre connections between Wales and Nigeria, and cultural networks between Northern Ireland and India. Building on the success of COP26, it has connected young people in Glasgow with its global schools network.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay referred to the British Council’s offices. In a digital age, it would be a strategic mistake to judge the British Council’s impact in a country purely and solely by the physical presence of an office. During the covid crisis, the British Council embraced new technologies, including online teaching platforms, which were vital to its operations—as they were to all our operations as we sat in front of Zoom and its equivalents. The British Council has ambitious growth targets: by 2020, 30 million people will experience UK arts each year, an increase of 800 million in five years; and one in 10 people globally—more than 140 million people—will learn English through the council.

I look forward to receiving the answers. Of course we live in a digital age, but a physical presence is still important and very symbolic. Presidents and Prime Ministers of countries that we are pulling out of raise it with our own ambassadors. The fact that they are upset by that is a mark of the importance that they attach to the British Council. Will the Minister reflect on that?

I will talk a little more about the offices in a moment, if my hon. Friend will bear with me.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have allocated more than £560 million to the British Council to support our shared goals—that is a generous deal in the current financial climate—including £180 million in grant and aid funding for 2021-22, which is an increase of £40 million over last year. The British Council’s non-official development assistance allocation was £39 million, which is triple its 2020-21 baseline. Although we have had to make difficult decisions in other areas, we have increased the money that we have made available to the British Council. The challenging fiscal environment continues, and we are working closely with the council on final allocations for the coming settlement review period. They will be confirmed at the conclusion of the Department’s financial and business planning process. As we look to the future, our partnership will continue to be vital.

On the operational structure and offices, the country presence remains an operational matter for the British Council. As I say, we are working closely with it on the final funding settlements.

I also want to mention the BBC World Service, if I have a bit of time. That is another organisation that is really important in promoting our values.

I take on board what the Minister says about the budget being operational, but when a budget is cut—it was cut, in effect, because there was not full compensation for that loss of commercial revenue—these are the decisions that come out at the other end of the sausage machine. The funding is not there. I support everything she said about the British Council—she has spoken very eloquently about it—but those are just words unless we fund it appropriately. Will she address my second question, which is perhaps the most important? At a time when the FCDO budget is increasing by more than 20% over the three-year CSR period, why are negotiations ongoing that, as I and colleagues understand it, suggest a cut to the British Council? That does not make sense when we have this fight on our hands in the battle for global democracy.

My hon. Friend is a very powerful champion for the British Council, but, as I say, we are working closely with it while we reach the final funding settlements following the spending review.

May I please have a couple of minutes on the BBC World Service? It brings high-quality impartial news to global audiences across the world, including in regions where free speech is limited. It reaches 364 million people every week with an increase in audience numbers of more than 40% since the FCDO-funded World 2020 programme began in 2016. It delivers in 42 different languages, and the licence fee currently funds English and another 29 from a commitment of £250 million a year. The FCDO World 2020 programme funds an additional 12 language services across Serbia, India, Africa and Asia, with additional funding provided to existing services in Russian, Arabic and English.

I probably do not have time to go into that in much more detail. We have talked about the importance of the British Council and of the BBC World Service, and I also want to talk about the overseas network. Another huge soft power asset is our diplomatic network, which is one of the largest in the world. We have 282 posts in 179 countries and territories staffed by 4,500 staff from across Government. Our network promotes our values and delivers our priorities with positive impacts right across the world.

In conclusion, I once again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay for securing the debate and for everything he does to promote the British Council and fight its cause. He is a real champion for the British Council. I reiterate that we are determined to use every soft power tool we have to promote open, democratic societies across the world. We will to cherish and sustain our assets, from the BBC to the British Council, championing education, culture and diplomacy, making a positive difference, standing up for our values and demonstrating the international leadership that is so vital in these incredibly challenging times.

Question put and agreed to.