The global affairs magazine Monocle recently published its annual Soft Power Survey and the results make interesting reading. The United Kingdom has taken the No.1 spot from the USA.
When a nation’s power is measured, it is usually in terms of ‘hard power’, which is power as conventionally understood: military, industrial and financial. ‘Soft power’ is less tangible but no less influential, and includes such things as politics, diplomacy, business, culture, media, sport and education.
When it comes to soft power, Britain starts with an enormous advantage, as the home of the English language. But this year, the London Olympics and the Jubilee celebrations have added to a continuing string of international successes in pop music, acting and sport.
Britain retains some hard power but any lingering status as a global superpower was definitively shattered by the Suez Crisis in 1956. There is no reason to suppose that Britain will regain such status in our lifetimes.
Yet here we are, 56 years after Suez, and most of the Conservative Party (along with UKIP) continues under the delusion that Britain is still a superpower. It is expressed in terms of a go-it-alone braggadocio, with a corresponding disdain for Johnny Foreigner.
It is the politics of the gut, not the brain. And it is completely and utterly counter-productive.
Nowhere is this more evident than the current posturing over the European Union budget. There is an argument against increasing the budget but it cannot be won by any single EU member state acting alone. There are 27 member states, so there must be patient diplomacy and the building of alliances. Unfortunately, the Conservative Party left the mainstream centre-right EPP group in 2009 and its only allies now are a few cranks from the far-right fringe.
But the Conservatives probably don’t really care, since their whole strategy towards Europe is governed by an overriding need to play to the gallery at home. Indeed, stage-managing disputes of this sort aids this strategy since it mollifies increasingly Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers, plays well in the Tory press and helps fend off the threat from UKIP.
No one mentions that this strategy diminishes British influence and makes a bigger EU budget more likely.
Then there is the Conservatives’ increasing contempt for the BBC and a desire for it to be broken up and flogged off, because it is seen as a nest of bearded lefty liberal cosmopolitan intellectuals; because its news coverage is ‘biased’ (i.e. not Tory); because it offends some abstract principle of market fundamentalism; or just to please Rupert Murdoch.
So we get swingeing cuts to the BBC World Service, one of the most effective and certainly the most cost-effective means of soft power Britain has.
Then there are the big cuts to cultural subsidies, likely to lead to the death of repertory theatre in provincial Britain, and a consequent drying-up of the main source of acting talent that impresses the world so much. Likewise, many school playing fields are being flogged off and local sporting facilities closed down, making it harder for Britain to ensure a supply of sporting stars and medal winners for the future.
Then there are the indiscriminate cuts to immigration, which hobble British businesses, and cuts to the numbers of foreign students admitted, which means universities lose income and in the longer run that Britain loses valuable foreign friends and ambassadors.
Still, no one wants the smell of curry in their street, do they?
The more you look at it, the more you realise that, in practical terms, this Tory/UKIP posturing is thoroughly unpatriotic, since it diminishes British power (both hard and soft). Frankly, it makes us look ridiculous.
Still, at least it gets good headlines in the Daily Express, and that’s the main thing.