TAITMAIL British Council cuts: ‘An act of wilful self-harm’

The UK’s soft power pre-eminence, the British Council reported in 2019, “is vital for its post-Brexit future”. But the cuts to the BC’s operations announced this week will significantly disempower us, said our former national security advisor Lord Ricketts: “I find this completely perverse”.

Soft power, as opposed to hard power, is about establishing alliances through appeal and attraction. By definition it is non-coercive and one of its main currencies is culture. The British Council has been doing that for 87 years, and the arts as the only true lingua franca are at the sharp point of its campaigns to inspire trust.

Hard power is invading foreign countries, occupying them, changing regimes, gunboat diplomacy. As the government has so graphically demonstrated in the last few weeks, we can’t do that anymore, making our soft power potential doubly important.

In 2019, said the BC report, we were the world’s leading soft power state “but increasingly being challenged”. This year the ranking goes Germany, Japan and Britain third ahead of Canada (The US is sixth).

So we’ve slipped up in this vital post-Brexit, post-Covid, soft market place, in which the British Council is our flagship. So what to do?

Easy. Cut the British Council staff by 20% and 2,000 posts, cut spending by £185m and close 20 of its offices around the world. That should fix it. “The unprecedented impact of the pandemic has forced the government to take tough but necessary decisions about the British Council’s global presence” said the soft power minister Nigel Adams, adding that its work could easily be done from neighbouring countries or online or by our embassies and high commissions. He was sacked on Wednesday in the government reshuffle.

“In short it’s a complete disaster and an act of wilful self-harm” one former BC senior executive, Graham Sheffield, tells me. “We were assured when we left the EU that we would be 'Global Britain', and this is entirely the reverse. It’s a Britain that is shrinking back into itself in a niggardly and unnecessary way.”

The British Council, a. charity with a royal charter, was set up in 1934 a year after Hitler came to power to be - in the unfortunate phrasing of the time that led to a popular belief that it was a cover for espionage - the foreign office’s propaganda arm, but whose brief was to teach English and diffuse British culture. Firmly keeping political involvement at bay, the BC has never had any spying activity ascribed to it, and last year it reached over 80 million people directly, many more virtually. 

It gets a 15% core funding grant from the UK government, even more vital because the rest is earned from teaching and that has slumped by 50% in the last year and it has been bailed out by government loans and subventions. Programming according to government instruction will cease altogether in Afghanistan, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Namibia, New Zealand, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Uruguay and the US; programming will be done remotely to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Malta, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland. 

Graham Sheffield was director arts at the British Council for seven years to 2018, the man brought in to build the BC arts structure after the old one had been dismantled by its then CEO Martin Davidson, when Sheffield’s predecessor declared “We don’t do art”. Stung by that, the arts community, led by the sculptor Anthony Caro, talked the foreign secretary David Miliband into a rethink, and the arts director left after a year to be succeeded by Sheffield in 2011. 

Before that Sheffield, now retired, had constructed the Barbican’s outward-looking comprehensive arts offer. For the BC he made a cohesive network around the world which installed regional directors working with local institutions and employing local staff as part of the soft power influence. 

“It was not only to promote the values of the UK but also to share and listen to the values of others and build partnerships” he says. Now much of that is being dismantled. “The amounts of money being saved by this are tiny compared with what other spending goes on, tiny compared to the benefit that they bring us in terms of friendship and support around the world, and just understanding.

“A lot of that was done through the arts which I had with colleagues had a major part in building back together again, after it had been diminished in the BC’s portfolio. There was a whole policy and strategy for doing that.” 

Online programming, he says, is not the same as meeting people and exchanging. “Nothing beats going to a play, a talk or a workshop, doing it online is a poor substitute” he says. “It could be an adjunct to live work but never a replacement”. Diplomats can’t do it, they’re not trained and they haven’t got the time.

It all makes for an interesting start to the new phase in the professional life of a Canadian-born banker called Scott McDonald who on September 1 began work as the BC’s CEO. His qualifications are that he had global responsibilities in his previous job as president and CEO of Oliver Wyman, the impact consultants, and that as a child of a teacher mother and doctor father he lived in the Middle East formatively. On his appointment he said: “The UK has the ability to make enormous contributions to the world and the British Council is a critical part of ensuring a strong future global role for the UK”. He will have to negotiate a change of mind with a new foreign secretary and a new minister of state who has not yet been named if the BC is to live up to that promise.

McDonald has said nothing about the cuts so far, but they have not come as a surprise. In July the stand-in CEO, Kate Ewart Biggs, told staff that after consultation with the FCDO cuts were inevitable, and they would be prioritising grants to specific countries “aligned” she added chillingly “to the UK government’s new geopolitical priorities… ministers have shared formal confirmation of their decision that we should stop spending our grant-in-aid in 11 countries and to deliver grant-in-aid programming through offices in other countries in a further nine”. So after almost a century of keeping politics at arm’s length from its soft diplomacy, the British Council is to become politically guided, with the implication that if it doesn’t comply the government grant would be at risk.

The creative industries and their contribution to soft power constitute one of the country’s great strengths and it’s being at best downgraded, at worst negated. What should be happening is that loans given to the BC by the government to get it through last year should be written off and grants adjusted to rebuild the soft power effort that is vital if the phrase “Global Britain” is to mean anything. “The UK wants to be a soft-power superpower” says Ricketts. “Any other nation with that ambition and had the attractive power of our cultural sector and our language, and an instrument to deliver it as good as the British Council, would be pouring money into it”.  

Sheffield is blunter. “It just strikes me as being absolutely bonkers” he tells me. “I’m just speechless at the shortsightedness and stupidity of it”.


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