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Britain's persuaders: soft power in a hard world by Helen Ramscar and Michael Clarke
The authors of this comprehensive survey of the UK’s soft power may be ruing their timing. Who needs talk of a nation’s persuasiveness, critics might ask, when Putin’s brutality has taken Europe back to the zero sum game of hard power? We might think the world wants our films, freedom and fun, but as Ukraine’s President Zelensky told the US when he rejected American assistance to leave the country, ‘I don’t need a ride, I need weapons’. Can Britain really take on the world with an army of lovies, gamers and independent standards assessors?
Clarke and Ramscar have priced this challenge in, recognizing that ‘international politics generally display a state of natural anarchy’ and that ‘we live in a hard world’ (p. 12 and 14). They set out to prove two more encouraging hypotheses: that soft power still matters and the UK has plenty of it. To begin with, what does soft power look like when it works? Certainly, a nation needs a narrative that is more than just its ability to kill people from other nations. In a curiously moving section on the London 2012 Olympics, the authors show how Danny Boyle’s brilliant telling of Britain’s story during the opening ceremony found a way to do this in an aspirational, inclusive way. Soft power is about attraction rather than coercion—‘letting other people have your way’, as diplomacy was described by the Italian diplomat Daniele Vare. Crucially, the authors do not see this as weak and fluffy: ‘power makes things happen in human affairs’ (p. 24). In a moment of timidity about liberal and democratic values, the authors are unapologetic about what makes a country attractive, and therefore more powerful: prosperity, opportunity and law.
So does Britain still have it, despite recent mishaps? While gently sceptical about the rhetoric, Ramscar and Clarke agree with the 2021 Integrated Review that the UK remains a ‘soft power superpower’. From Bond and Potter to the Premiership, the royals to the regulators, Attenborough to Adele, the Oxford vaccine to accountancy kitemarks, there is much to celebrate. The authors go as far as to conclude that ‘this book has greatly renewed our faith in Britain ... our research inspires enormous hope ... Britain is brimming with potential soft power assets’ (p. viii). It is hard not to get swept along with this effort to jolt readers from a mood of introspection, malaise and despondency, based as it is on such a thorough assessment of the UK’s strengths.
And yet, as the authors accept, the UK cannot and should not take this position for granted. By defining so succinctly the assets it has, the authors challenge Britain to preserve and build on them. As for how to do this, they are less certain. Soft power is easier when you are a country on the rise and the population is in a pioneering mindset, brimming with traders, inventors, explorers and innovators. Conversely, it is harder when you are in perceived decline. So what questions must Britain consider if it aspires to be a soft power superpower for decades to come?
Despite arguing the strengths of the monarchy, parliamentary democracy, the Anglican church, the City, the Foreign Office and the BBC, Ramscar and Clarke leave unanswered how these institutions, on which much soft power depends, are meant to evolve in the context of uncertain transitions and diminished charisma. However, they do point to superpower conduct: big powers do not need to tell everyone how great they are since ‘what you are thunders more loudly than what you say’ (p. 30). Hence, the UK should not overegg its ‘world beating’ conferences, track and trace or cities of culture. In addition, the authors explore how the UK can win the case at home and persuade its national audience that it should be a magnetic nation. In the last decade, Germany has emerged as a far more compassionate, welcoming country than the UK. As the authors argue, Britain needs to ‘reverse the trend towards introspection and retrenchment’ (p. 81). Indeed, it is sometimes in the national interest not to narrowly pursue wins. Don’t have the cake, eat the cake, and then tell everyone you ate it. Finally, we need to continue the painful but vital process of understanding our own baggage. As a postcolonial
ambassador, I frequently bounced into universities in the Middle East to talk about modern Britain. What the students saw was a successor of Balfour or Sykes, authors in their eyes of the Arab world’s humiliation. But those heckling me were normally wearing Premiership football tops.
There are also tests ahead. As the authors recognize, the debate on the future of the union will also challenge the national brand: you cannot have British soft power without Britain. Furthermore, the death of a monarch, especially a longserving one, is a moment when the world takes a cold, hard look at a country’s confidence and values. Their conclusions could be bracing.
Perhaps this is why Clarke and Ramscar end an otherwise optimistic book on a note of doubt. ‘Our politicians and leaders so often let our society down. If they understood soft power better and respected its efficacy more, perhaps they would take greater care to align their political instincts with those deeper societal attributes that make Britain what it is’ (p. 195). Quite. The UK has work to do in order to restore its national brand based on agility, openness, liberty and competence. Soft power is carried by society rather than individuals. Yet as the authors of this deft, thorough and challenging assessment conclude, we must hope that our future leaders take it more seriously.