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11 September 2020

How Boris Johnson’s government is destroying the UK’s soft power

Ministers’ actions seem almost perfectly designed to trash Britain’s reputation on the world stage.   

By Jonn Elledge

I sometimes wonder if there is a document, somewhere in Downing Street, headed, “Soft power: the case against”. So dedicated has each of the Conservative-led governments that have governed/ruined Britain since 2010 been to trashing the country’s reputation that surely it must be deliberate.

This week’s instalment has involved Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis’s admission that the Internal Market Bill “does break international law in a very specific and limited way”. This is admirably honest – cheerfully confessing that you’re planning to smash the place up makes a lovely change from the usual truth twisting – but it rather ignores the fact that all crimes are specific and limited, even really, really big ones. (“Sure, I may have murdered four people, but I didn’t murder two hundred other people.”)

[see also: Why the Conservatives are prepared to break the law over Brexit]

And even if it’s some kind of feint or negotiating tactic, it’s hard to see how announcing you’re willing to break international law by going back on a treaty ratified less than eight months ago is going to make other countries want to do business with you. If you happened to be in the middle of negotiations with the European Union, say, this could become a problem. (On the NS podcast this week, Anand Menon of the UK In A Changing Europe think tank argued that, even if the threat to break international law was intended as a hardball negotiating tactic, it would quite likely backfire into making the EU demand even stricter limits on future British actions.) What’s more, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, warned on 9 September that such casual disregard of the Good Friday Agreement and international law was exactly the sort of thing that would stuff the UK’s chances of a US-UK trade deal. 

This is very far from the first time this government has done something almost perfectly calculated to diminish the UK’s influence on the world stage. There’s Brexit itself, of course, which, as well as going down like a cup of cold sick in Europe itself, was opposed by Barack Obama, the Japanese government, and pretty much everyone else who mattered in international affairs in 2016. 

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The public voted for it, and as much as I may dislike the idea, we probably can’t pin the decision to leave the EU entirely on the people who implemented it. We can, however, blame them for the way they approached negotiations: aggressive, combative, and stuffed with military metaphors and bad faith messages of the sort that might appeal to elderly Telegraph readers who’ve never quite got over Suez, but which will turn close allies who are sad to see us go into people who absolutely can’t wait to see the back of us. 

And there are other forms of soft power, which were under siege even before that accursed referendum. Take universities. The UK has one of the best higher education (HE) systems in the world, generally ranked second only to the US, and attracting the second highest number of international students, too. Such students don’t just make British friends and learn about British culture, in a manner that’s helpful to the UK’s influence around the world: they also bring vast quantities of money into both the HE system and the wider economy (somewhere in the region of £20bn a year).

So true to form, Theresa May decided that they were a problem and that we should try to get rid of them. As home secretary she insisted on including foreign students in the government’s net migration target, even though most of them leave at the end of their course. That meant trying to reduce their numbers, even though polls showed that most Tory voters didn’t want her to. It was hard to find anyone in either education or business who supported this policy, which not only meant damaging soft power but literally turning down money. Yet May would not be moved, and once she had risen to become PM, Amber Rudd, famous these days mostly for discussing her daughter’s sex life, but once upon a time home secretary, was to be heard promising tougher controls on international students, too.

[see also: Two government U-turns have placed many of Britain’s universities on life support]

Then there’s the BBC. Earlier this year a Reuters Institute report found that the UK’s national broadcaster was the most trusted news brand in the US. Last year, a survey from GlobalWebIndex found BBC News to be the most trusted news brand in the world. The BBC World Service broadcasts in more than 40 languages, and is heard by an average of 210 million people every week. This is the sort of cultural soft power many nations would kill for, and you can tell this from the attempts by the French, the Russians, the Qataris and so forth to build their own state-owned news brands. All this is without even mentioning the value of the corporation’s non-news output.

And what has been the government’s approach to this enormous national asset? To muck around with the World Service’s funding, threaten the licence fee, and then boycott some BBC news programmes. As with the universities, the Tory party seems blind to the BBC’s value as a way to promote this country: all it sees is an enemy combatant in its endless bloody culture war.

Britain long ago ceased to be a superpower. It still has both a large economy and a fairly large military, but a big reason it retains what influence it has in the world is because of that soft power that comes with a decent education system, respected diplomats and cultural clout. The question is: how much of that will be left after another four years of this government?

[see also: The Proms row is just the beginning of Tim Davie’s battle to save the BBC]