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New British Council Report on Influence and Attraction. Not Very Attractive

June 19, 2013

The British Council have just put out a report Influence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century – sounds exciting doesn’t it? I’ve just read it and I’m not sure that was the most useful thing I could have done this afternoon.

What does it say?

  1. In the modern world culture is good…for everything…it can solve social and political problems, it can improve economic performance, social cohesion etc.*
  2. Cultural relations activities have to be less about projection.  We are in a peer to peer world
  3. The BRICS and other new players (eg in the Gulf) are spending lots of money on cultural relations
  4. The traditional players in Europe are cutting back.

A few comments

  1. The report uses the term culture in such a broad way as to render it meaningless
  2. Cultural relations is used here both in the traditional British Council sense of what it and similar organizations do but also as a synonym for a large part of transnational relationships as a whole.  See Comment A
  3. There’s an interesting tension between the view that we are in a new peer to peer world and the emphasis on the rise of the BRICS.  It seems to me that in large part following traditional European models eg opening cultural centres, teaching languages etc, hosting expositions.
  4.  Ironically one of the oldest tactics in the cultural relations book (going back to the 19th century at least) is to point at what your competitors are doing and say that we must do more or at least not do less.  Which is what this report is doing.
  5. The intention of the report is to build support for cultural relations but because it does such a big job of lumping everything (sectors, regions, countries) together it is ineffective in doing so.  If, as the report argues, governments are ‘relatively powerless’ then action needs to be focussed precisely through identifying what can and cannot be done and what should be prioritised. Making statements like ‘cultural understanding is a precondition to solving pressing global problems’ is just pie in the sky.
  6. There’s too many lazy cultural sector cliches here – I loved the comment that ‘political and corporate elites’ don’t understand the scale of the changes  in global communications.  Well maybe except these changes were brought to you by corporate elites who have handed all your data over to the US state.
  7. At several points the report emphasizes the importance of an arms-length autonomous relationship between organizations like the British Council and government – standard BC boiler plate.  I’m sure that this is true in some cases but I’ve had numerous conversations with people from outside the UK who always say that the credibility of the BC is strengthened by the fact that they see it as being a UK government organization.
  8. I do like the compilation of which countries have cultural institutes where.

*Showing my age here but It’s like the snake oil in Big Audio Dynamite’s Medicine Show from 1985.  (I’d never seen this video before so reading this report did some good.)

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3 comments

  1. Thank you for that, Robin. The report, if anything, has useful bits of info on cultural institutes and the like.

    One thing: am I wrong if I would see this kind of report, not as a trailblazing document looking for new ways and new practices, but mostly as a luxury advertisement leaflet selling to British decision-makers the work of specific agencies, in the hope of pulling to them a limited blanket of resources? It might be slightly unfair to look for vision in this kind of document, which contains mostly salesman’s talk aimed at budget-makers. It implies the use of buzzing, vague, undefined but potentially impressive words, like “culture”.


    • Louis, you’re right. All of these type of documents have to be read as interventions in arguments over funding. By defining culture so broadly you try to gain the support of as many constituencies as possible but I thought that this one was simply too fuzzy to gain much credibility. I might be wrong though!


  2. Appropriate reference to B.A.D. Have to read this report now.



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