Daniel Korski

“Conservative” silence on the British Council may undermine their value-promoting credentials

"Conservative" silence on the British Council may undermine their value-promoting credentials
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The Conservative party’s security proposals have sparked a bit of debate, with many on the right concerned that democracy-promotion is getting short shrift. A lot of the attention has focused on Pauline Neville-Jones’ role in a future government, rather than anything the documents say. Though she is likely to take over Lord West’s job, rather than become the Prime Minister Cameron’s adviser -– in their security blueprint, the role of National Security Adviser is described as being taken up by “an official” –- many fear Dame Neville-Jones’ old-school, realist instincts will unduly influence Tory policy. 

But if the Tories want to underline that the party remains committed to promoting democratic values and engaging Al Qaeda’s “narrative” in the Islamic world, it ought to have said more about the role of the British Council. As things stand, the Conservative documents mention the 75-year-old institution only once – and though it is in positive terms, the reader is left none the wiser about how it would be operate differently under a Tory administration. 

The British Council, the UK’s premier cultural and educational organisation, has been in a period of transformation. It has moved a third of its programmes in Europe to south Asia and the Middle East so as to better fit in with the British government’s priorities. It has also sought to downsize, cutting some of its 7,500 staff. 

But questions still remain about the council’s remit and organisation. Since in 1997, the quasi-governmental organisation seems to have internalised two Labour propositions: that the age of the nation state is over; and that national interests have been replaced by “global values”. Its programmes are accordingly global in scope. For example, it runs a large programme called International Climate Change Champions, which recruits youngsters to raise awareness of climate change. But is this right in a world where a future British government will need to promote its national interests, much as China and Russia are? 

Should the British Council undertake more distinctly “British” programmes, rather than work to reform China’s social security system, or help SMEs in Sverdlovsk improve their services – both real British Council projects, funded by DfiD.

Questions also abound about the British Council’s engagement with other parts of Whitehall, especially the Foreign Office and Parliament. In 2006, the Foreign Affairs Committee suggested that the Foreign Secretary be empowered to appoint the British Council’s Chair and Vice-Chair – a view the government rejected at the time. But following Lord Kinnock’s resignation as chair is it time to look afresh at the British Council’s management arrangements? 

Five years after the last review of the British Council, as part of a review of the Britain’s public diplomacy by Lord Carter of Coles, it is probably time for another assessment. If the Tories want to make sure they are not seen as forsaking the promotion of liberal democratic values – which some see Dame Neville-Jones’ promotion as a sign of -- they need to say something more about the future role of the British Council than they have done.