Why Britain can't afford to fall behind in the race for soft power

The west must maintain its financial support for culture and cultural diplomacy. If it fails to do so, China’s gain in global influence and trade will be our loss.

In spite of all the tweeting and electronic wizardry, the G8 meeting in Ulster was a blast from the past. It was a period costume drama, with men in suits and ties meeting to sort things out. It looked outdated because the world has changed. A new report from the British Council and Demos, Influence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century, explains what has been going on: there has been a revolution in physical and virtual contact between people. That has created a new operating context for politics and the need for a different kind of diplomacy.

Cheap flights, 24-hour news, migration and the internet have combined to create a world of mass peer-to-peer interaction. Both the scale and the means of communication have changed but, more importantly, so is the content, which is to a considerable extent cultural. Art, film, heritage, music, dance and literature have become a bridge between people. When we rub up against each other, we go to culture to make sense of our differences. When we explain who we are, we express ourselves through culture. When we want to learn about the world, we watch, read and look at culture.

This huge increase in cultural interaction has big political implications, because what happens in the cultural arena increasingly affects what politicians can do: cultural misunderstandings create political problems, while an attractive culture gives countries a licence to operate in international affairs, and a chance of being heard.

Culture itself has produced a new international political economy –  tourism into the UK is driven by culture, and tourists spend about £15bn a year here; Korea is exporting pop music to Peru; the Thai government supports food as a cultural export. But it’s not all benign, because culture has created problems for conventional politics: think of the way in which films like Braveheart, Borat and 300 have influenced debate, or how a TV series has affected Britons’ perception of Baltimore.

The big change is that both communication and culture are now democratised. This is not a coincidence, because they affect each other, and together they have created a massive increase in people power around the world. Artists, poets, actors and film-makers are leading change from Beijing to New York; they have played a major role in Tahrir Square and in Spain’s Indignados movement. And cultural voices are increasingly being heard in the mainstream political media as well: on Monday this week, an artist in Tehran was interviewed on Today about the election of Hassan Rouhani in Iran. Ten minutes later, there was a story about Pussy Riot appearing at the Meltdown Festival in London. Cultural expression and an interest in political freedom go hand-in-hand.

Governments cannot and should not control what goes in the cultural sphere, but they do need to be aware of the powerful role that culture now plays in international relations. Western governments have, on the whole, been reducing their financial support for culture and cultural diplomacy as part of the neoliberal response to the financial crisis. This is a mistake, because international cultural relations are a long game, a matter of strategic relationship building rather than short-term tactical advantage.

In contrast to western retrenchment, a lot ofcountries in the south and east, from Brazil to India, are investing heavily in promoting themselves through culture. The former Chinese President Hu Jintao clearly understood that cultural and political influence go hand-in-hand. In 2012 he worried that "The overall strength of Chinese culture and its international influence is not commensurate with China’s international status…The international culture of the west is strong while we are weak." He added, in language that sounds more military than diplomatic: "We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant, and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond." There can be no doubt that this is a battle that China wants to win: it has spent £4bn expanding its overseas media, and has opened Confucius Institutes and Classrooms in 104 countries in the last seven years.

But China also places restrictions and quotas on cultural imports, effectively allowing only 20 foreign films to be shown there each year. They are making a big mistake. Cultural power comes not from telling the world how great your culture is, but from having a two-way cultural dialogue. This means we in the UK should be spending time and effort learning about other cultures as well as supporting and promoting our own.

Winning the race for soft power requires cultural intelligence as well as cultural confidence. If we fail to understand that, then China’s gain in global influence and trade will be our loss. 

John Holden is a visiting Professor at City University. He was previously Demos's head of culture

A visitor walks past the British pavilion at the site of the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai on May 18, 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.