UK Soft Power: The Government Responds (Sort of)

June 26, 2014

If you work in a large public organization there comes a time when your department is up for review. You probably have to write a self-assessment document and/or respond to a report. There’s a routine that generally happens. You parcel out different bits of the task to appropriate colleagues and then try and assemble what they send you into something coherent. There’s always a question you don’t want to answer or you realize there’s something that you should have been doing but haven’t. What do you do? Easy; just pretend the question is something different and or talk about what you do and hope that whoever reads the report doesn’t notice.

I’m reminded of this because I’ve just been reading the government’s response to the House of Lords Report on UK Soft Power and it’s pretty obvious that this is how it has been constructed.

My six line summary of the HoL report was:

Britain is in a world increasingly characterised by hyperconnectivity and ‘the rise of the rest’ and this makes soft and smart power more important. The UK has lots of soft power assets but the government tends to neglect them and shows no ability to coordinate anything. We need stronger mechanisms for defining a national strategic narrative and pointing the great many players in the right direction.

And there’s nothing in the response that would cause me to think that the original report or my summary is wrong. The Lords Committee saw the discussion of soft power as a way of pulling together disparate elements of national life and while the response is happy to address individual projects and initiatives it wants to steer clear of big questions. This is pretty clear in the first few pages of the response (6-11)

The Lords wanted the government to talk about soft power domestically to alert people to the international implications of what they do. The response offers indirection. The Lords place emphasis on the UK having an identity distinct from the US or the EU. The response either doesn’t get the question or is deliberately ignoring it and starts talking about ‘messaging’. The Lords wanted a coordination mechanism the response starts talking about the role of the National Security Council which is rapidly running out of credibility. The Lords suggested the development of a national strategic narrative; the response points to the Government’s Communication Plan which is something else entirely.

Once the response gets past the big stuff they are able to just throw in everything that they do: Conflict Pool, Emerging Powers Initiative, Building Stability Overseas Strategy without ever addressing whether this adds up to anything coherent. There’s a tendency to identify ‘soft power’ with communications. DFID’s contribution to soft power is that they publicise what they do; that’s not really the issue that the House of Lords were raising.

When you cobble together a response from the bits that colleagues send you it’s easy to make editing mistakes. On page 33 we are pointed to the ‘FCO’s “Projecting Britain Overseas” project (see 1c above)’ but when you arrive at section 1c there’s no reference to this. Projecting Britain overseas? Apparently the age of one way communication isn’t dead.



  1. Robin – great analysis as ever. In their defence I think they use “projecting Britain abroad” as shorthand for “projecting British influence abroad” rather than one-way communication as such (although one doesn’t preclude the other). Also it’s worth considering that “projection” discourse was a remnant from the last Tory gov’t’s promotional toolset – and not just from the EMB!

  2. Thanks James

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