Cultural diplomacy

Neil Kinnock, chair of the British Council, tells Richard Brooks why China isn't ready for Tracey's

Neil Kinnock is sitting in his office in the discreet block off the Mall that is home to the British Council. The former Labour Party leader and European transport commissioner is now chairman of the government's cultural relations body, having taken over from his fellow peer Helena Kennedy. From his window, he has a panoramic view of Westminster and the Foreign Office, the department that funds his organisation.

This month is a particularly significant one for the British Council: on 10 June it will unveil new works by Tracey Emin, whom it has selected to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. It is the most high-profile event sponsored by the council, which aims to promote British culture internationally. Not that Kinnock seems especially enthused by the prospect - he won't be attending the launch. He is, he says, more of a theatre man.

Kinnock's role is, as one might expect from such a seasoned politician, less concerned with the arts themselves than with the diplomatic role they can play in a world in which conventional diplomacy is increasingly difficult. The British Council is facing big changes, with its old reputation for rather genteel arts promotion giving way to an emphasis on intercultural communication, mainly through general education, English language teaching and sport.

"We are not a cultural export business," he explains. "We do both export and import. For every trip we do, there's usually one that comes here. It's creative exchange." That, he emphasises, is what makes the British Council different from sister organisations in other countries such as France, Germany and Spain, which are still more concerned with putting their own cultural stamp on the world.

Tim Supple's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream illustrates the intercultural approach perfectly. Launched in India in 2004 under the auspices of the council, it opened with an Indian/Sri Lankan cast that transferred to Stratford-upon-Avon last year and then London in March. A UK tour is planned for this autumn.

"Aftershock", an exhibition of leading British artists that ran this year in Guangzhou and Beijing, has been matched with a reciprocal show of contemporary Chinese art at Tate Liverpool. The path of cultural diplomacy rarely runs smooth, and there are inevitably compromises: "Aftershock" featured a quilt from Emin, but not her infamous bed; some etchings by Jake and Dinos Chapman went on display, but none of the naughty mutated figures. "Emin's unmade bed could have offended the Chinese and shut down the exhibition," says Kinnock. "China may be opening up, but it is not yet opened up. We must respect cultural and religious mores."

Where, in the old days, the British Council might have focused its best-publicised efforts on Europe and the United States, priorities have now changed. China and the Muslim world are top of the list. Although the council theoretically operates at arm's length from the FO, I suggest to Kinnock that the aims of the two fit together extremely neatly. He looks a bit offended. "It is encouraging for us that our work very often coincides with the Foreign Office's objectives," he replies. "They do not tell us what to do, though they do offer guidance."

Some insiders feel that Lord Triesman, the Foreign Office minister responsible for the council, is wielding more clout than any previous holder of the post. For the first time, the FO has spelt out some of its objectives for the council. These include "making the world safer from global terrorism" and "preventing and resolving conflict through a strong international system".

In the Muslim world, a two-pronged strategy holds, aimed at both opinion-formers and young people. In 2005, the council sponsored the first production of Shakespeare in Afghan istan for more than 17 years - a five-night run in Kabul of Love's Labour's Lost, performed by local actors, both men and women. And this month, John Tavener's The Beautiful Names, a choral work celebrating the 99 names of Allah in the Quran, will have its overseas premiere in Turkey. The council is also using sport, particularly football, to woo young people in the Middle East through such schemes as Premier Skills: recently retired Premiership players will be coaching teenagers in Alexandria this month. Football for Peace, a project for Jewish and Arab youngsters in Galilee, is a soccer equivalent of Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

Kinnock also points to the council's work in Libya, where there is a huge waiting list for its English language courses; to Pakistan, where it works in many madrasas; and to Iraq, where it is trying to train journalists. It is still hanging on in Iran, where it held a big art show in 2004, admittedly before the hardline regime took over. It remains in other tricky countries such as Burma - which is an awkward one for Kinnock, as he is a vocal campaigner for Aung Sang Suu Kyi. "There is work to be done there," he says.

Kinnock insists that cultural diplomacy can often be more effective than diplomacy of the old-fashioned kind. "It's more subtle," he says. Indeed, in March last year, a survey of young Palestinians showed that the British Council was the foreign organisation they trusted most. Critics may oppose cuts to the council's budget for western Europe, but Kinnock accepts these, and even warns that there will be more. He argues: "In these days of cheap air travel, most Europeans can pop on a plane to see some cultural event in another European country."

With that, he glances up at Big Ben, whose face stares at him in his office. "I've gone on too much," he says. "I'm still that Welsh windbag."