The Development of British Public Diplomacy 1954-1969: Part 1

July 7, 2011

I’ve been continuing my dig into the history of British Public Diplomacy. It’s an interesting story that reflects the evolution of Britain’s international presence.  I think that this sort of work is important because in my mind shows that the development of public diplomacy is driven by more than the evolution of the media environment.

I blogged about the Drogheda report last week.  This investigative committee was intended to justify increased spending on information work.  In the period up to 1952 British activity had been shaped by several dynamics.  Firstly, the Second World War had led to the creation of a world wide network of information activities and a recognition within the foreign policy establishment of their value.  Secondly, the growth of tensions with the Soviet Union had led to an expansion of anti-communist activity.  Thirdly, and pushing against the growth of information work, were the constraints of Britain’s post war economic crisis and scepticism about its value.  This culminated in the situation where the rearmament programme required by the Korean War led to cuts in the funding of information activities.

Politically the intention behind the Drogheda committee was to produce a case for the expansion of information work.  Despite this its recommendations became the subject of intense debate within government although the general thrust of the report seems to have been accepted. Drogheda marks the beginning of a period of expansion.

The Cold War was one of three geopolitical developments that pushed towards expansion; decolonization created a need to build new types of relations with the former colonies and the 1956 Suez Crisis was a devastating blow to British confidence and prestige.  Fortunately for the information services an economic improvement removed some of the constraints on overseas activities.  Further for the period 1957-61 there was a cabinet minister with responsibility for the coordination of overseas information activity who was able to extract increases in funding from the Treasury.

In the course of the 1960s some of these supporting forces waned and at the end of the 1960s the report of the Duncan Committee on Overseas Representation recommended a 50% reduction in Foreign Office information work.  The origins of this recommendation were both economic and geopolitical.  Economically Britain was facing a sustained balance of payments crisis:  the first paragraph of the report notes that while overseas representation took only 1% of government expenditure it took 10% of government foreign exchange expenditure.

The key political underpinning the Duncan report was the announcement in 1968 that Britain would no longer maintain military bases ‘East of Suez’.  The report sees this as switching the focus of British foreign policy decisively to the north Atlantic region – what it terms the ‘area of concentration’.  In part what is happening here is the renewed British effort to join the Common Market.  It also sees commercial work as the central concern of British external relations.

While the Foreign Office work was targeted for cuts the report recommended no reduction in funding for the British Council or BBC external services.  The changing geopolitical focus is reflected in recommendations that the British Council should give greater emphasis to Europe and to ‘cultural manifestations’  rather that teaching English, educational or technical assistance work.  In parallel the BBC should prioritize its English language services rather than those in local languages because these enjoy higher credibility with the ‘influential few ‘

From the perspective of the 21st century there’s a noticeable cycle at work in British public diplomacy.  The Drogheda Report recommends pulling resources out of Europe to send to the wider world (particularly the Middle East), the Duncan Report wants a focus back on Western Europe  and at the beginning of the 21st century we were pulling resources out of Europe to send to the Middle East.

I will pick up the issue of why the Duncan report was so determined to cut ‘information work’ in the next part of the post.


At present I’m interested in getting an overview of what was going on in this area – a full exploration would require a sustained exploration of the archives.  If you have access to a library that subscribes you can find all the documents presented to parliament in House of Commons Parliamentary Papers.  The annual budgetary requests or ‘estimates’ are also here.   For looking at parliamentary debates there is a great search tool covering records from 1803 to 2005 here.  There were also a lot of internal reports during this period which have been declassified but not published.

The main published reports for this period are:

Earl of Drogheda (1954) Summary of the Report of the Independent Committee of Enquiry into the Overseas Information Services, Cmd. 9138. London: HMSO.

Her Majesty’s Government (1957) Overseas Information Services, Cmnd. 225. London: HMSO.

Her Majesty’s Government (1959) Overseas Information Services, Cmnd. 685. London: HMSO.

Lord Plowden (1964) Report of the Committee on Representational Services Overseas, Cmnd. 2276`. London: HMSO.

Duncan, V. (1969) Report of the Review Committee on Overseas Representation 1968-1969, Cmnd. 4107. London: HMSO.

Some of the secondary sources – there more but I haven’t looked at them yet:

Beeley, H. (1971) ‘The Changing Role of British International Propaganda’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 398: 124 -129

Beloff, M. (1965) ‘The Projection of Britain Abroad’, International Affairs,  41: 478-489.

Defty, A. (2004) Britain, America and Anti- Communist Propaganda, 1945-53. Abingdon: Routledge.

Donaldson, F. (1984) The British Council: The First Fifty Years. London: Jonathan Cape.

Franzen, J. (2009) ‘Losing hearts and minds in Iraq: Britain, Cold War propaganda and the challenge of communism, 1945–58’, Historical Research, 83: 747-62.

Lee, J.M. (1998) ‘British cultural diplomacy and the cold war: 1946-61’, Diplomacy & Statecraft, 9: 112-134.

Vaughan, J. (2005) ‘“A Certain Idea of Britain”: British Cultural Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1945-57’, Contemporary British History, 19: 151-168.


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