Britain these days, observed a London-based American correspondent, appears to be on the psychiatrist’s couch. Identity is blurred, everything seems in doubt and up for questioning. Will the country stay in the European Union? Will it lose Scotland? Where do the British belong? Is Britain still a Christian country? Has it found the role which Dean Acheson said it had lost, in his cutting comment more than sixty years ago?
Unfair? Definitely. Irritating? Very. Yet with a maddening tinge of truth. Somehow, on a fast-shifting world stage, the British story does seem to have become more confused. Too often the positive, confident aspects fail to get aired and the negative, self-doubt-ridden picture comes through.
How can we make a better fist of things, present a better front to the world, use the nation’s undoubted qualities to better and more influential effect? These were the questions a recent House of Lords Committee report – Persuasion and Power in the Modern World – sought to address.
Witness after witness testified to the huge British potential: English as the working language across a third of the globe; Britain’s creative skills and talents welcomed almost everywhere; London now, some claim, the world’s first city, with tourists flocking to it at record levels; almost universal admiration for British culture, history, tradition and the Royal Family; undoubted prowess in sport; wide emulation of British judicial practices, widespread use of British commercial law and adoption of British accounting standards; pre-eminence in scientific research and in medicine; British universities networked and copied round the world; the British Council and the BBC World Service seen as models; British diplomacy still regarded as the best; a generous aid and development programme; respected armed forces – the list goes on and on.
It is a glittering story, but something is wrong. It is not being told well and it is not coming out right. Too many departments of state and public agencies have their own inward-looking agendas, with Britain’s international interests and reputational impact at the bottom of the list. It is not so much a question of changes of policy as of maintaining a coherent storyline. There are too many jarring notes. The need is for better orchestration.
For example, the report finds it puzzling that more is not being made by Britain of its membership of the modern Commonwealth network, with its access to the world’s fastest growing markets. It recognises that aid has to be focused on development but questions why Department for International Development programmes often seemed detached from Britain’s broad international interests. It suggests key lessons are to be learnt from the way Dfid, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence did – or did not – cooperate in Afghanistan. It asks why the handling of visa and immigration procedures project such a negative image. It wonders why spearhead institutions such as the BBC are being squeezed when other countries are putting more and more resources behind their ‘soft power’ activities. It questions whether Britain’s expanding network of embassies has enough resources to play its new role.
The report proposes the creation of a small strategic unit at Cabinet Office level to help the prime minister set the scene for all players and quickly correct negative and undermining trends.
In a violent world soft power methods of influence and persuasion, however skilfully and persuasively deployed, will not be enough. Violent challenge, increasingly from non-state sources and in non-conventional forms, will always have to be met. And it will require super-efficient, quick-response military deployments, acting often in new and smart ways with civil powers and agencies, to meet threats both to national interests and to the wider global stability.
Hard power is becoming woven together with softer forms of persuasion, influence and messaging as never before. A new kind of diplomat, a new kind of military operator, a new kind of governmental and administrative configuration within the modern state, all have to be brought into being.
This will need a deep understanding of how a nation like Britain, with all its advantages, can and must reposition itself in a changed strategic context.
It can be done, certainly, but in Britain’s case it will require a greater degree of national confidence, and a greater clarity of national purpose and direction, than currently seems on offer. This is where change must begin.