Anthony Smith, WFD Chief Executive
‘Successfully communicating the attributes, values and outputs that gain for the UK both attractiveness and respect in the eyes of people abroad will be vital in maintaining the UK in positions of influence’ concluded a 2014 parliamentary report. However, the debate about how seriously we should take the notion of soft power isn’t settled.
A new report launched on 12 July by the think tank ResPublica argues that the two core elements of Britain’s soft power are, first, the attractiveness of our culture and institutions and, second, the level of our engagement with others. The report also argues that civil society rather than government is best placed to generate soft power. I agree with most but not all of that argument.
Take democracy. There is no doubt that Britain’s democratic culture is admired by many people in many countries, whether or not they share some part of Britain’s history, such as through the Commonwealth. I confess that in my close to three years at WFD I have been slightly surprised by the extent of that admiration and, in some cases, affection. Legislators from countries with presidential systems, with federal structures, and even from some one-party states, have all told me how much they like our parliamentary democracy with its strong scrutiny of government performance, its adaptability, its lack of corruption and its relatively inexpensive electoral system. Our democratic values are clearly of fundamental importance to us as a country and an attribute that makes us attractive in the eyes of others.
I also agree that engagement is critically important in generating soft power. Britain’s parliaments – in Westminster as well as in Scotland, Northern Ireland and in Wales – get a steady stream of visitors from other parliaments around the world. That on its own is worth something to the UK, but the depth of the relationships and the extent of the influence is even greater as a result of the willingness of our parliaments to engage more deeply with their counterparts. Through WFD’s programmes, the UK’s parliaments have sent staff and parliamentarians to share experiences, lessons and support with scores of their peers in other countries. They have never told their hosts what they should do, or to be what we are. That would be foolish and pointless. But they do want to talk, debate, listen and learn. That engagement leads to stronger relationships and, indirectly, influence.
The issue I disagree with in the report is that only civil society can generate soft power. Of course it is true that soft power is often associated with culture, especially pop culture, that is way beyond the scope of government (K-pop is, by the way, probably the single biggest driver in the rising demand to study Korean, at least at my daughter’s school). But there is also a culture around governance that can become part of the framework of values of a country, resonate with people in other countries, and consequently have real influence. Parliaments might have an advantage over governments in the soft power area since they are cross-party and have an identity that transcends the reputation of any single government. So at least in our corner of the state, I think that the official sector can hold its own with civil society. As it happens, our parliaments are also brilliant examples of the positive relationship between legislatures and civil society.