Britain shield

Last year, I wrote a ‘Heresy of the week’ entitled ‘Britain is the second most important country in the world’. Looking back, this was excessively cautious – because according to a new ranking of soft power Britain is second to none.

The Economist has the details:

“How many rankings of global power have put Britain at the top and China at the bottom? Not many, at least in the past hundred years or so. But on July 15th an index of ‘soft power’—the ability to coax and persuade—ranked Britain as the mightiest country on Earth. If that was unexpected, there was another surprise at the foot of the 30-country index: China, four times as wealthy as Britain, 20 times as populous and 40 times as large, came dead last.”

It ought to be said that the index was compiled by a British PR agency – Portland – together with Facebook and the pollster ComRes. Nevertheless, the case made is a compelling one:

“Britain scored highly in its “engagement” with the world, its citizens enjoying visa-free travel to 174 countries—the joint-highest of any nation—and its diplomats staffing the largest number of permanent missions to multilateral organisations, tied with France. Britain’s cultural power was also highly rated: though its tally of 29 UNESCO World Heritage sites is fairly ordinary, Britain produces more internationally chart-topping music albums than any other country, and the foreign following of its football is in a league of its own (even if the national team is not). It did well in education, too—not because of its schools, which are mediocre, but because its universities are second only to America’s, attracting vast numbers of foreign students.”

Of course, a lot depends on the metrics one chooses. 29 UNESCO World Heritage sites may be “ordinary”, but the degree of access that we have to our heritage – thanks to institutions like the National Trust and our footpath network – is truly extraordinary.

We do less well on issues like R & D because Britain “spends a feeble 1.7% of GDP on research and development (South Korea, which came top, spends 4%)”, but again this comes down to metrics. On value for money criteria, we do very well – with Britain producing almost one-in-six of the world’s most highly cited scientific papers.

Still, whichever way you cut it, there’s no doubt that Britain projects soft power out of all proportion to its size.

The question, though, is for how long. The anonymous author (who is too modest to mention the Economist’s own contribution to Britain’s global presence) raises some concerns:

“The index will cheer up Britain’s government, which has lately been accused… of withdrawing from the world. But many of the assets that pushed Britain to the top of the soft-power table are in play. In the next couple of years the country faces a referendum on its membership of the European Union; a slimmer role for the BBC, its prolific public broadcaster; and a continuing squeeze on immigration, which has already made its universities less attractive to foreign students. Much of Britain’s hard power was long ago given up. Its soft power endures—for now.”

It should be said that the British withdrawal narrative is hogwash. Indeed, we’re now the only country in the G7 committed both to the 0.7 per cent target on overseas aid and the 2 per cent target on defence spending. As for the European Union, no country is more deeply engaged than Germany, which has done its reputation no good at all of late.

Slimming down the BBC needn’t be a problem either. Indeed, it may help the Corporation to focus on what it’s meant to be good at. For instance, it should be producing long-running drama with the same global impact as Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. It’s telling that the most internationally celebrated British TV series of the moment – Downton Abbey – is made by ITV. Immigration is another issue that needs some focus. Once our humanitarian obligations have been met, British soft power is best served by attracting global talent to our shores, not by an chaotic open door policy.

To successfully engage with the world, we must keep control of the terms on which we do so.

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