Investing in our soft power assets – the British Council & the Spending Review

This is the second in a series of blogs on the upcoming Spending Review, and how Britain maximises its influence and soft power across the world at a time of declining budgets. This focuses on the British Council, the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. Find the first, on the FCO here.

FCO financing, under the spotlight in the forthcoming Spending Review, has significant influence on key soft power assets, of which the UK has many, built up and consolidated over many centuries. Founded in 1934 to create ‘a friendly knowledge and understanding’ between the people of the UK and wider world, the British Council (interacting with nearly 550 million people in over 100 countries each year) receives grant-in-aid British-Council-plaque-001funding from the FCO allowing it to “represent the UK’s long term interest in countries where we cannot rely on earned income alone”.  Government funding was cut by 25% from 2010/2011 – 2013/2014, and in 2013 it received £172 million in government aid, on par with 1998-1999 levels. However, the organisation has been developing alternative funding streams, resulting in the perception that the organisation is adopting a more commercial approach, which, according to John Baron MP (member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee), “risks damaging a unique brand”. With over 75 per cent of turnover earned through teaching and exams, tendered contracts and partnerships, FCO funding is less than 20% of the organisation’s income. Last’s year’s Triennial Review of the British Council reported that self-generated income (English Language Teaching & exams) increased by over £100 million since 2010 and predicted it would increase by a further £100 million by 2015 – “well beyond levels needed” to compensate funding cuts. Nevertheless, as Colm McGivern, Director of the British Council in South Africa explains, “like every organization in receipt of public funds we have to be increasingly efficient and constantly innovative in the ways we connect the UK to other countries using education and culture.” This is in the face of increasing competition, with China’s Confucius Institute and Institut Français surpassing the British Council in number of offices globally.

Most recently, the Foreign Affair60888s Select Committee called for protection of the British Council’s budget in the Spending Review: “Any attempt to make a parallel cut to the British Council budget in the 2015 Spending Review would inevitably weaken the UK’s capacity to project soft power and culture in target countries with growing economies or regions with high priority political and human rights concerns, such as Russia and the Gulf.”

Foreign Policy ironies

Prime Minister, David Cameron’s tour of the Gulf on a trade promotion mission as the Arab world is rocked by mass protests against long-lasting authoritarian rulers has provoked a debate  in Britain about whether the coalition government’s foreign policy is too focussed on trade and not enough on promoting values such as liberal democracy.

Mr Cameron’s visit was scheduled before the current unrest broke out in the region and the former PR executive in him attempted to head off potential criticism by adding a short stop in Egypt at the beginning of the tour to meet protest leaders and the provisional military government that removed Hosni Mubarak from power. 

However, this has not been an entirely successful gambit. 

The trip has attracted criticism, especially from liberal commentators, because several arms manufacturers are part of the trade delegation with the Prime Minister at the same time that the government had to revoke arms export licenses to Libya and Bahrain when the security forces there used violence against protesters. 

The nub of the criticism is that the government is trying to persuade governments in the Arab world to buy British defence equipment at the same time as London talks about the need for those governments in the Arab world to stop repressing the demands of their people for more democracy. Some commentators argue that Mr Cameron is trying to have his cake and eat it, whereas the former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, recently attacked the coalition’s foreign policy as ‘low-grade mercantilism’. The charge is that it is too focused on trade at the expense of promoting democratic values. 

Mr Cameron has defended his approach and insisted in a speech in Kuwait and a town-hall meeting with Qatari students that you can promote trade and democracy at the same time and insisted Britain’s rules governing arms exports are among the toughest in the world. 

It looks like the upheaval in the Arab world has brought Mr Cameron’s foreign policy approach, honed in opposition, into contact with the reality of government and he is learning that he has to talk about values as much as the bottom line. 

Does this ring any bells? 

Ironically, when Tony Blair first came to power, his Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook took the opposite approach to Mr Cameron, but ended up facing not dissimilar criticism. On assuming offce, Mr Cook announced that henceforth Britain would have an ‘ethical foreign policy’, but this soon encountered charges of hypocricy and/or naivety, because of –  yes you guessed it – arms sales to authoritarian governments which didn’t square with respect for human rights and democratic values. In Labour’s case it was Indonesia’s violent attempt to suppress East Timor’s desire for independence in 1999 where British-made aircraft were used. 

On The World Tonight   this week we discussed the conflicting pressures on Mr Cameron, and the former British ambassador to Libya, Oliver Miles, argued that selling arms to foreign governments, under strict conditions that they will not be used for repressing their own people or attacking their neighbours, is not contradictory or hypocritical, it is a matter of judgement (as to whether those government’s will respect the guidelines or not).

But as Mr Cameron and Mr Blair before him have found out, the reality seems to be that once arms are licensed for export, it can become a political headache if that judgement turns out to be wrong.

On the web: a new US-Russia START deal, new diplomacy, and the Swiss example…

– With the US and Russia finally concluding negotiations on a new nuclear arms reduction treaty, Julian Borger assesses the deal’s significance. Josh Rogin, meanwhile, wonders whether Obama will be able to get the treaty past Republicans in the Senate.

– Kenneth Weisbrode explores the “reinventing diplomacy” debate, suggesting that “while America thinks in terms of networks, the rest of the world is busy connecting circuits.” Writing in The World Today, Christopher Hill assesses the current challenges facing UK foreign policy, the difficult decisions that lie ahead, and where future priorities may lie. “If it is to serve us well over the longer term”, he argues, UK foreign  and security policy “needs a radical overhaul of its underlying outlook”.

– Elsewhere, The Atlantic Monthly‘s Joshua Green offers a wide-ranging profile of US Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner – “a superstar of the bureaucracy” – assessing his influence on President Obama and his central role in shaping the US response to the global financial crisis.

– Finally, discussing European immigration Brigid Grauman highlights the example of Switzerland, suggesting that the rest of Europe would do well to learn the lessons of participatory democracy in promoting integration and fostering multiculturalism. Over at Foreign Policy, meanwhile, Steve Kettmann assesses the recent buffeting taken by the country’s international image, asking if the Swiss stance on neutrality is still feasible in an age of interconnectedness.

Parliament: more global, less local (part 3)

Prompted by Bracknell’s open primary, I argued in part 1 and part 2 of this series that:

National politics is increasingly dominated by complex international issues, but today’s MPs are usually selected based on their views on local issues.

Local government should be given more powers (to tax as well as to spend), enabling MPs to be more nationally and globally focused.

We should slim down the House of Commons, probably by as much as half, with fewer MPs given more power, pay, and a greater media profile.

So… on to the Lords. I am in favour of radical reform to the upper house, with a design that is as different as possible from the Commons, and a structure that aims to inject relevant expertise into British political life.

The Commons – my proposed reform notwithstanding – will still be geographically based, with MPs representing their constituents in Westminster. The new Lords, in contrast, would not have local roots, but be a nationally-based chamber.

One – simple – option would be for a wholly elected upper house, with members drawn from national lists. I don’t favour this approach. The Lords would end up too much like the Commons – but with added political hackery (due to the need to smarm ones way to the top of a party’s slate of candidates).

Governments would also be robbed of a mechanism that allows them to bring expertise onto the front benches – often at short notice. Some think this is undemocratic. I think it is an essential adjustment to a system based purely on elections.

(David Cameron seems to agree, recently recruiting Sir Richard Dannatt to the Tory front bench to help the Conservatives ‘rebuild the military covenant’ with Britain’s armed forces.)

So here’s an alternative plan. It’s a mixed model – a fudge even. But aren’t compromises an integral part of the British constitutional tradition?

Again, as with the Commons, we’d hack the Upper Chamber down to size. The precise number can be argued over, but I favour 160 or so (around half the size of a remodelled Commons, and comfortably bigger than the US Senate which manages with only 100 members).

I’d split the Upper Chamber into three parts:

50% directly-elected members. I’ll go into more detail on length of terms in part 4 (yes, there’s more!), but if elections were held on a rolling basis, a relatively small list would be up for the vote each time round. Voters would be able to pick named individuals, rather than party slates, putting independents and party grandées on a level playing field.

25% appointed by political parties. Parties would use these seats mainly to draw talent from outside the Commons onto their front benches. I’d be quite happy for them to chop and change these members as they wished – allowing them maximum flexibility to govern or act as an effective opposition.

25% co-opted by the Upper Chamber itself. Purists won’t approve, but I’d give the new Lords the power to co-opt members for fixed terms. The system would mirror the upper house’s committee structure – with committees nominating individuals with expertise relevant to their areas of work, for approval by a full vote. The upper house would thus be provided with a mechanism to improve its overall relevance and quality.

So what to call the new Chamber? I’d suggest… the House of Lords, with members still given a life peerage. Becoming a Lord should be a big deal – an important job while actively serving, a lasting mark of respect thereafter… (Part 4 – on elections, tomorrow.)

Parliament: more global, less local (part 2)

In a post yesterday, I discussed the failure of either Iain Dale or Rory Stewart to get selected for the Bracknell parliamentary seat, arguing that we need to create incentives for our MPs to focus more on global issues, and less on the hyper-local bread-and-butter of constituency politics.

(Local GP, Phillip Lee, who won the Conservative Party’s open primary was roughly handled – but I want to underline this is not an attack on him personally, more criticism of a system that favours a ‘local, local, local’ candidate, rather than ones with international experience.)

There’s never been a better moment to reform Parliament – with the expenses scandal continuing to fester. Probably the status quo will prevail, but if it doesn’t, here’s how we should prepare our political system for what looks like being a very rocky period for globalisation.

First, we need to get serious about subsidiarity. Resilient societies devolve powers down to the lowest possible levels, but the British system is still highly centralised. As a result, MPs spend far too much time dealing with issues that should be handled by local councillors. Re-draw the lines and we can improve both local and national government.

At the moments, councils spend a lot, but central government raises much of the cash (a disastrous mismatch). National taxes should be cut. Local taxes raised. And national spending on local government made purely redistributive – aimed at areas with a low tax base but high social need (according to an algorithm that is tweaked to reflect the priorities of the government of the day).

We should then tackle reform of the House of Commons. With MPs  workload pared back, we’d be able to drastically cut the size of the lower chamber– aiming for fewer MPs, with bigger constituencies, higher media profile, and a much stronger committee structure to allow them to hold government to account.

At the moment, we have 645 MPs – that’s roughly one for every 100,000. By contrast, the US has only 435 members of Congress – one for every 700,000 citizens. We need a bigger lower house than the US, of course, as it’s where most members of government are drawn from.

But I’d happily have half as many MPs as at present (and wouldn’t mind paying them double what they get now, too). Backbench MPs, in particular, would have a far greater opportunity to gain national, and even international, profile. The job would become much more attractive to those who could make use of the platform Parliament provided them with.

Next, we need to grasp the nettle of House of Lords reform. More on that in part 3 of this series.