Iain Overton reflects on how Brexit and austerity, as well as Conservative ideology, have weakened Britain on the world stage
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The world ends, so the poet TS Eliot wrote, not with a bang but a whimper. And he was right, at least when it comes to describing one thing: Brexit Britain’s slow descent in its standing in the world.
Ours is a reputational death by a thousand cuts. One that endured another slash this week as London’s stock market lost its position as Europe's most-valued, with Paris taking the top spot.
The reason for this particular cut was “a weak pound, fears of recession in the UK and surging sales at French luxury goods makers”, according to the BBC. Brexit as the cause was but a footnote in that particular report, yet it was just one of many headlines of a weaker, less significant Britain struggling to find its role in the modern world.
The whimpering decline has been notable of late. From the Government's decision to axe plans for a new national flagship, to Britain’s manufacturing industry output falling 2.3% – the worst performance since the 1980s – to a dolefully weak pound, each day brings another story of diminishment.
Many factors have been blamed for this entropy, but perhaps Bronwen Maddox, head of international think-tank, Chatham House, is most perceptive. “There is no question,” he said, that “the UK’s standing in the world has been severely battered” by our political climate and “the revolving door of Prime Ministers.”
Political decisions – most notably to leave the EU – have been cause for much. During the 2016 referendum, Brexit was sold to the public as an opportunity for Britain to “stand on its own two feet again”, “to benefit from a world of opportunity” and – as Boris Johnson said – to enable Britain “to get the change we want”. But has this happened?
The Government boasted last year in a paper titled Global Britain in a Competitive Age about being a soft power superpower. And there’s truth in this. But consecutive Conservative governments have shown a marked disregard for this power, preferring instead to talk about military might and sovereignty above the more nebulous influences of culture and soft influence. It seems clear however, that since Brexit our soft-power has taken a battering.
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Perhaps this is most notable in the Government’s repeated contempt for its national broadcaster.
In its own paper, the Government declared that “the BBC is the most trusted broadcaster worldwide.” But while Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries advocated to defund it.
While this policy has not been enacted, her destruction of the BBC had already begun. Recent reports warn of deep cuts to the World Service output, leading to the loss of hundreds of jobs and a harder-to-quantify detrimental impact on balanced and impartial news reporting around the world. How these eviscerations support our role as a soft power superpower have yet to be fully explained by any minister.
The Government’s paper also noted that the UK was “a global leader in diplomacy and development.” Yet the Conservative Party has abandoned its manifesto pledge – first introduced by David Cameron – to maintain Overseas Development Aid (ODA) spending at 0.7% of gross national income. This has had huge implications for international influence. British aid spent by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) in Pakistan has recently dropped by 17%, Central Asia by 62%, and Egypt by 23%, to name a few.
Further cuts are likely. Labour MP Sarah Champion has already tweeted her concerns that the Government is cutting bilateral spending on ODA, saying she "can't describe the devastation this will cause the poorest in the world".
The UK Government has seemingly allowed about a quarter of its ODA budget to be allocated to domestic support for refugees and asylum seekers. Even more has been spent, without detailed explanation, on the so-called “small boats crisis” and, more understandably, on supporting refugees who have fled the war in Ukraine.
It’s hard to get answers to just how much of FCDO soft-power funds have been stripped away. A pervasive lack of transparency defines the Government’s ODA spending. The latest FCDO Annual Report offered no information on future or current ODA budgets, breaking precedent.
We do sometimes see the cuts. This month it was announced that the UK Government would give up no additional funding to avert famine in Somalia, despite having led the response to the drought in the Horn of Africa in 2011 and 2017.
It is in such absence of engagement where our influence wanes.
This also must be placed against wider concerns of government spending. How, for instance, do the FCDO’s civil servants feel when faced with reports of swingeing cuts when faced with revelations that former Prime Minister Liz Truss, when Foreign Secretary, oversaw spending of £10,000 at Fortnum & Mason and thousands on private flights, high-end restaurants and wellness treatments? And that doesn’t even begin to address the billions wasted on often Conservative-donor connected NHS contracts during the Covid19 pandemic.
Other, more silent diminishing has occurred. The Government may have noted: “the other vital instruments of our influence overseas, such… the British Council”, but even this institution has seen, at least in financial terms, a shrinking of its power.
The British Council’s net worth is down by almost a third in just under a decade. Its asset base in 2013/4 was £356 million. By 2020/21, this was some £289 million. Even factoring in inflation, this means the British Council’s assets have declined some 31% in just eight years.
Education and research
The paper on soft power also promised that every part of the UK was set to enjoy the benefits of “long-term investment in research and development, education and our cultural institutions”.
But this promise equally rings hollow. The Higher Education Policy Institute reported in August that the UK had slipped further behind the US in international standing for the fifth year running. Meanwhile, uncertainty stalks British academia. The ability of UK-based researchers to access key EU research and innovation funding remains in doubt. And even the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee recently stated an “urgent” need to rebuild international scientific relationships in the wake of Brexit.
That is not all.
When the Government noted that “the UK’s soft power… helps to build positive perceptions of the UK…through cultural exchange and tourism”, you wonder how the authors would respond to this news: the number of foreign student trips to the UK by specialist European tour operators was down 83% this year compared to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019. A survey of 82 companies put this down to the elimination of a ‘List of Travellers’ scheme following Brexit.
Is all lost?
All, admittedly, is not lost. Foreign students are still flocking to the UK. The film industry is, in parts, booming. In Brand Finance’s Global Soft Power Index 2022, the UK still ranks second, behind only the US: a place earned from Britain’s work on the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
But when the right-wing press and the left-wing press agree on one thing – that Britain’s soft power has been eroded – it’s hard not to ask why this Government has been so reckless with its global soft power priorities.
Six decades ago it was written that Britain had lost an empire but had yet to find a role. Until one is revealed, expect even more whimpering.
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