John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.
Since 1934 the British Council been promoting British culture, education and the English language abroad, as well as facilitating cultural exchanges and building trust between the UK and other countries.
Along with the BBC World Service it is one of the “jewels in the crown” of British soft power, and a key reason why the UK is often termed a “soft power superpower”. And yet, because of a shortfall in funding of around £10 million, the Government is about to make a poor strategic decision in overseeing the largest single set of closures in the British Council’s near 90-year history.
The Prime Minister, himself a former Foreign Secretary with direct experience of the British Council’s excellent work overseas, highlighted the organisation’s value to the UK in his personal foreword to the Government’s recently-launched Integrated Review. This was mirrored in the Defence Secretary’s response to me in the House of Commons when he said that “in my opinion there is not enough of the British Council around the world”. However, circumstances suggest the opposite may soon be the case.
Sadly the Coronavirus pandemic hit the British Council hard, as the commercial activities which provide the overwhelming amount of its income in usual times almost completely ceased with the lockdowns across the world. Only 15 per cent of the British Council’s income comes from its government grant, which compares favourably to its French, German and Japanese equivalents which receive 48, 62 and 65 per cent respectively.
After a precarious few months, the Government made good on the Prime Minister’s commitment at PMQs in March 2020 to support the British Council by providing a comprehensive amount of financial support while the commercial activities restart. These should be restored to their pre-pandemic levels in about three years’ time, after which the organisation should be self-sustaining with its small FCDO grant.
Nevertheless, there remains a shortfall of about £10 million between the amount of financial support provided by the Government and what is required to run the British Council’s existing international network and programming.
Unfortunately a recently-published exchange of letters between Tom Tugendhat, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and the Foreign Secretary confirms this shortfall will not be made up by the Government, and consequently that the British Council will have to cease some of its non-formal education programming and close its in-country activity in a number of countries. Even closing five offices would mean the largest set of closures in the British Council’s near 90-year history.
Such a retreat from the international stage is not in keeping with the idea of “Global Britain”, and it is at odds with the Government’s ambitions as set out in the Integrated Review. Instead, the Government should think strategically about our soft power and take the longer view, rather than making short-term decisions which in the coming years we may regret. After all, withdrawing from a country will leave a vacuum which other countries will be sure to fill.
In recent months the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group, of which I am Chairman, has been conducting a rear-guard action “under the radar” to persuade the Government to think again and find the missing £10 million which would make these damaging closures unnecessary. We will now be moving to a wider campaign in Parliament and elsewhere on behalf of a great British institution which magnifies our influence across the world.