Comments from the Chairman, Lord Howell of Guildford:
On Wednesday 11 June, the Government published their response to the Report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence, “Persuasion and Power in the Modern World”. The Government agree with many of the Committee’s conclusions, but reject a number of its recommendations. In certain instances where the Government agree with the Committee, they argue that they are already meeting the challenges we have outlined.
The Committee’s Report suggested that traditional approaches were not good enough. In their response, the Government have not fully taken on board one of the main messages of the Committee’s Report – that soft power is a concern not just for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, not just for Whitehall, but for all the non-government, semi-government and private and voluntary interests that make up the British ‘face’ to the world. The response gives much more weight to the activities of the FCO than it does to other Departments, and only briefly mentions the non-governmental sector.
Encouraging better understanding of soft power and its use does not involve the Government telling the public about its own soft power successes so much as it involves demonstrating to non-government actors and interests how they, too, can reinforce the UK’s soft power. It requires British diplomats to be ‘polymaths’ – to have the skills and flexibility to communicate directly with (and not just broadcast to) non-state actors and publics overseas – and secure advantages for the Government and UK businesses. In a hyper-connected world filled with rising powers, mutual respect is critical. On behalf of the Committee I welcome and acknowledge forward-looking and excellent pronouncements from the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, but am not convinced that the Government’s overall approach to the UK’s international concerns and interests is fully adjusted to the digital age.
“Persuasion and Power” proposed a unit at the heart of Government to reinforce throughout Whitehall the country’s strategic narrative – a story that a country tells itself and others about its identity and how it expects to use power. The Government’s response rejects the unit, but the need for a clearer strategic narrative remains paramount. A cross-Departmental ‘Communications Plan’, which they describe in the response, is useful but may not be enough. Instead, the Committee’s Report advocated allowing innovative and imaginative Departments to interpret a strategic narrative, with the freedom to use their initiative but with a clear understanding of how their responses fitted into the broader theme.
Generally the Government response seems not to reflect fully that in a networked, hyper-connected world, the nature of relationships between the UK and the US, between the UK and the EU, and between the UK and rising powers is evolving and shifting. This dynamic needs long-term strategic oversight and constant illumination and analysis to ensure that the UK makes full benefit of the unique advantages that its long-established global role has bequeathed it. We recognise the good work that the Government are doing in understanding and employing soft power methods in the totally new international milieu that has developed in the digital age. But the response to the Soft Power Committee suggests there is much further work to do and many changes in both overall approach and in the configuration of Government machinery are needed to meet the challenging new world conditions.
You can view the Government response here ( PDF 686 KB), and the Committee’s Report here. We encourage you to write and tweet about the response, using the hashtag #softpower.