UK’s culture work in Ukraine is a post-Brexit blueprint

Britain must now capitalize on its ‘soft power’ appeal from education and culture – and it can benefit from institutions with proven records in social change.

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Marina Pesenti

Advisor, Ukrainian Institute London

Britain’s high-quality education, vibrant research institutions and diverse eco-system of culture are often cited as pillars of its ‘soft power’ appeal, and to ensure these institutions weather the storm of Brexit is essential to the success of any ‘Global Britain’ strategy.

The UK’s foreign policy role, be it as more active ‘global player’ or an effective ‘global broker’, can only be enhanced by the spread of its culture.

Such relationships establish trust, promote UK values, and pave the way for further political and diplomatic engagement by providing templates for education, cultural policy, and community development which others can follow, strengthening social cohesion and resilience.

The example of Ukraine demonstrates the UK’s soft power delivers. According to a survey conducted by IPSOS Mori in 2020, the UK government and its institutions rank first in terms of trust among young people in Ukraine. Among younger Ukrainians, 74 per cent say they believe the UK supports and encourages values important for the 21st century, such as environmental awareness, equality of rights, and world peace.

Recent Chatham House research with a focus on Ukraine also highlights how European cultural relations organizations have become trusted allies of the reformers struggling to break away from the Soviet legacy in areas such as education, culture, and community development.

New approaches to cultural policy

By promoting a collaborative and inclusive approach towards cultural policy, organizations such as Germany’s Goethe-Institut and the UK’s British Council have paved the way for Ukraine’s gravitation towards European blueprints of cultural policy management, leaving behind Soviet-style top-down imposition of cultural products by encouraging open compet-itive access to state resources and better governance of cultural institutions.

In Ukraine’s case, this all helps strengthen the pro-European orientation of its creative and intellectual elite, which in turn contributes to strengthening Ukraine’s position when fighting hybrid threats coming from Russia, many of which involve an attempted manipulation of national identity and culture. Leadership programmes geared towards youth, especially those from the conflict zone in the east of the country, help develop conflict resolution and community engagement skills.

But now the British Council, an employer of 11,500 people in more than 100 countries and a global leader in its field, was reportedly fighting for survival due to a falling demand for English language courses because of COVID-19. Revenues from this aspect of its work make up most of the British Council’s budget with the remainder covered by government grant.

By reaching and engaging wider societies, the UK will inevitably strengthen its global credibility and appeal.

On top of this, the UK government’s announcement of a decrease in the UK’s aid budget in 2021 to below 0.7% of national income means some agencies will be forced to downsize programming, abandoning communities and partners. This short-sighted and much-criticized move must be reversed before it becomes a new norm.

Although the British Council received additional governmental intervention in 2020 long-term sustainability of such institutions remain in doubt. The UK government’s Integrated Review, which describes its approach to foreign policy, defence, security and international development is due in March, and it is vital soft power is given space among competing priorities.

The horizontal network of the British Council’s local trusted partnerships is a powerful resource for the UK’s new foreign policy strategy post-Brexit as it aspires to build one-to-one relations with global players.

The British Council can reinforce new economic and political agreements by expanding people-to-people contacts, building community links, and fostering more cultural exchanges. But its network has to be nurtured and sustained. Closing down cooperation at this moment would send a signal that Britain is retreating from the world.

The UK’s foreign policy role, be it as more active ‘global player’ or an effective ‘global broker’, can only be enhanced by the spread of its culture. Addressing global challenges requires both bilateral and multilateral efforts but, at present, many relationships and institutions are in flux.

Fostering a stronger convergence about the risks and priorities among the UK’s partners’ societies will enable stronger partnerships. With an increased role for civil society in a world of fragmented power, the UK’s soft power efforts can stimulate this important constituency as, by reaching and engaging wider societies, the UK will inevitably strengthen its global credibility and appeal.