Responsibility for promoting UK ‘soft power’, both directly and indirectly, is shared between several government departments and arm’s-length agencies. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is the government department that has oversight of cultural relations/diplomacy with other countries, but the main instrument for delivering cultural and educational engagement internationally is the British Council. The FCO provides some financial support to the British Council and gives overall policy guidance to it – while respecting the Council’s independent status. For instance, the FCO might enlist the Council’s assistance to promote cultural relations activities in countries or regions where UK foreign relations are problematic. The BBC World Service is a public corporation of the FCO and until 2014 was financed by it. However, as part of government cuts, financial responsibility was transferred to the BBC itself, but without resources, which led to further reductions in BBC World Service Output.
In the past decade or so, the British Government has entered into formal agreements/memoranda of cultural understanding with several other countries to promote cultural co-operation, including Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. These are overseen by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the cultural programmes administered by the British Council. Bilateral seasons of culture are organized by the British Council in consultation with DCMS and the FCO. Examples include the UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange 2015, India, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates in 2017 and Germany in 2018. DCMS and the British Council manage a GB£ 30 million Cultural Protection Fund from 2016 to 2020 to support social and economic development through capacity building and safeguarding the cultural heritage in areas of risk overseas.
The previous Department of Trade and Industry supported trade missions involving the creative and cultural sector and it is anticipated its successor, the Department for International Trade, will continue this especially in the context of Brexit. Indeed, post-Brexit there is expectation that there could be more engagement with China given the phenomenal expansion of the museums and cultural infrastructure in that country.
The Department for International Development (DFID) manages Britain’s aid to developing countries and works to eliminate extreme poverty. It has supported a small number of development projects that involve culture.
As the main instrument promoting the UK’s cultural and educational relations, the British Council states that its purpose is to “build engagement and trust for the UK through the exchange of knowledge and ideas between people worldwide”. It was established in 1934 and now has offices in more than 100 countries. More than two-thirds of the Council’s income is generated from teaching English, administering examinations overseas and from other contracts and partnerships. The remainder is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The Council’s Arts Strategy 2016-21 seeks to strengthen international connections, positioning the UK as a global hub for collaboration, capacity building and policy development. Thus it focuses on fostering co-operation and networking, creating new opportunities for artists and organisations to work internationally and introducing UK creativity to global audiences. It also seeks to strengthen the arts sector worldwide by developing the capacity to innovate, reach new audiences and develop new skills, and to create safe spaces for culture, creative exploration and exchange as instruments for social change. Establishing trust is integral to the Council’s work and it considers cultural projects can have an important role in peace-building by providing a more neutral ground for developing mutual understanding. This was emphasized in a report, The Art of Peace that it issued in 2019 on the basis of an evidence review and case studies by the University of West Scotland.
Among British Council initiatives is an awards scheme for International Young and Creative Entrepreneurs. The objective has been to support and sustain the next generation of international leaders in the creative/cultural sector from emerging economies, enabling them to visit and network with UK creative entrepreneurs.
The British Council has been collaborating with the Goethe-Institut in a joint research initiative, the Cultural Value Project, which seeks to build a better understanding of the impact and value of cultural relations, especially with regard to supporting stability and prosperity in societies undergoing substantial change. A literature review (Cultural Value: Cultural Relations in Societies in Transition) was produced in 2018 in conjunction with the Herte School of Government (Berlin) and the Open University (Milton Keynes).
In 2017-18 the British Council’s income was approaching GB£ 1.2 billion (almost 9% higher than the previous year). Government funding from the FCO represented GB£ 168million (c. 14%). The majority of the Council’s income came from exams, teaching and contracts, continuing the upward trend of generating more funds through its work.
From 2015-2018Arts Council England was investing GB£ 18 million to encourage artists and cultural organisations to develop their work, promote collaboration and grow networks internationally. As part of this, ACE’s International Showcasing Fund has invested in projects that introduced English culture to international promoters and is to offer up to GB£ 750,000 to an organisation or consortium to deliver a showcase event focussing on theatre, dance and circus at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 2021. Arts Council Wales already has a showcase at the event. ACE’s Strategic Touring Programme 2015-2017 funded a significant number of projects to tour international work in England. ACE has signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Arts Council Singapore and also with Arts Council Korea. A GB£ 1.4 million collaboration between ACE and Arts Council Korea is supporting 21 projects in the two countries. Re:imagine India is a GB£ 1.8 million cultural exchange programme with the South Asian country and represents another collaboration between ACE and the British Council.
At Welsh Government level, international cultural engagement is of interest to the Minister for International Relations and Welsh Language and the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism. The International Strategy 2019-2024 for Arts Council Wales (ACW), Wales Arts: A Bridge to the World, has five key aims: giving Welsh culture a larger international platform; working closely with the Welsh Government on its international objectives; redefining its relationship with Europe; building cultural bridges with international communities in Wales; and providing more information for audiences. The strategy was developed by Wales Arts International (WAI), an in-house agency of the Arts Council which is also supported by British Council Wales. ACW is obliged to inform the new Welsh Assembly Government Strategy for International Engagement, in particular on ways in which the arts sector can assist the promotion of Wales and exploit economic opportunities overseas.
It has also been required by Government to contribute to the UNESCO Year of Indigenous Languages. The International focus of ACW and WAI reflect the country priorities of the Welsh Government: Canada, India, Ireland and China. A China-Wales Memorandum of Cultural Understanding has stimulated greater engagement between the two countries, including a government-led export market visit to China and Hong Kong that encouraged the participation of Welsh creative industries and cultural sectors. Japan is also a featured country for WAI and Welsh cultural events were organized there to coincide with the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
In 2018 a report commissioned byBritish Council Wales found that the country’s cultural offer needed to be clearer and bolder internationally and there was a need for a more integrated and strategic approach in policy, funding, practice and delivery.
Visiting Arts has sought to strengthen intercultural dialogue through international artistical creative agreements, focusing on information, training and professional development. It has had to seek new resources following the loss of its portfolio grant from ACE and is merging with Farnham Maltings, a cultural organisation offering arts and film programmes and hosting resident theatre and dance companies producing and touring work nationally and internationally. Some VA initiatives such as the Cultural Attache Network are expected to continue.
Several organisations in the UK run international cultural education and training programmes. The British Council offers a number of scholarships to overseas students to study in the UK. It is also involved with youth exchange, teaching exchange, schools partnerships and training/work experience abroad. The Clore Leadership Programme (an initiative that aims to help to train and develop a new generation of leaders for the cultural sector in the UK) can also include opportunities for international training/experience.
The UK offers an insurance guarantee for cultural objects on loan for exhibitions called the Government Indemnity Scheme (see chapter 3.1).
In its five-year strategic plan, BFI 2022, the British Film Institute is committed to increase its International Fund and strengthen its international strategy in partnership with the British Film Commission and the Department for International Trade. It will continue to champion UK film skills and talent internationally, seek to boost co-production and work with international sales agents to help promote British film at festivals and markets internationally. The UK currently has active bi-lateral film co-production treaties: with Australia, Brazil, Canada, China and China TV, France, India, Israel, Jamaica, Morocco, New Zealand, Occupied Palestinian Territories as well as South Africa and South Africa TV.
In 2014 the House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence produced the report Persuasion and Power in the Modern World. This recommended government action including the need for a “long-term strategic narrative about the international role of the UK”. The scope covered issues such as co-ordination, resources, cultural assets, education and science, exports, smart power and international aid programmes. Although the attention of the Lords was timely, there were some paradoxes in its approach and conclusions implicit in the report’s title. For instance, the emphasis on a rather old-fashioned one-sided diplomacy based on what advantages could be gained by the UK rather than the contemporary approach of the British Council based on mutuality. The case for greater action on soft power was also made in a British Academy report the same year, The Art of Attraction: Soft Power and the UK’s Role in the World. This considered that the government failed to recognise the value of UK soft power assets such as arts and museums, education and the BBC World Service, all of which had been subject to financial cutbacks.
More recently, the British Council issued a report, Soft Power Superpowers, that explored major trends in soft power today and the global expansion of cultural institutes from China, South Korea and Russia. It assessed the status of the UK as a major soft power player and said this was being undermined due to financial pressure on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has affected the work of the BBC World Service and the British Council and noted how UK visa regulations could act as a barrier to international engagement (see also chapter 1.4.3).