With the onset of the depression in 1929, and the strengthening of fascism in the 1930s, Britain began to think seriously about how to promote its own world-view. Nearly all other European powers already operated cultural institutes overseas; France had a network of overseas schools and there were American universities in Cairo and Beirut. But there was no formal way of easing the path for, say, an Iranian who wanted to study at a British university, a Brazilian who wanted to go to recognised English classes, or for a Swede who wanted a well-stocked library to keep up to date with what was happening in British science.
Britain’s power in the world had been declining for some time. By the end of the nineteenth century Britain was no longer the world’s greatest manufacturer. After the First World War, it ceased to be the leading source of capital for infrastructure as well. Its status as a great imperial power was also being eroded: by the 1930s, the dominions were becoming more independent, and fewer and fewer people expected that British rule in India would last much longer.
The sense of declining power reinforced British concern about values, the rule of law, international agreements and institutions, and democratic representation. As it negotiated treaties and trade agreements with other countries, it needed the support of anglophile lobbies. In international fora, such as the League of Nations, it needed allies with similar ideals in order to get motions passed and policies implemented. In other words, as Britain’s scope for using hard power declined, it was discovering the importance of soft power to project its values.
In line with the British approach to many issues, official support for cultural engagement was based on practical concerns rather than theoretical concepts. However, it is possible to discern the wider thinking behind this new support. The austerity imposed to cope with the depression in the 1930s led to a further decline in British exports, and the economy faltered. The British elite began to realise that they needed to promote Britain’s strengths and compete with other countries. This changed attitude led to the gradual setting up of a formal structure to promote cultural relations, and more importantly, and despite the depression, the official funding needed to do so.
The result was the emergence of several new institutions in the 1930s and 1940s. At the end of 1934 The British Committee for Relations with other Countries held its first meeting, and soon streamlined its name to The British Council. By 1937 its budget was £60,000, rising to £110,000[i] in 1938[ii]. This was partly in response to the Italian and German governments which set up cultural institutes to promote nationalist and racist viewpoints in the 1930s, and most British Council officers since have been proud that their organisation originated partly to combat fascism.
Another means of projecting Britain’s voice in the world was the BBC, an arms-length, chartered, body like the British Council. Despite being subject to British Government controls during the Second World War, the BBC established itself as a source of generally accurate information, a reputation from which Britain still benefits today. The third organisation was the Ministry of Information, set up in 1939 once it became clear that war with the fascist powers was likely.
The charters of the BBC and the British Council meant that they were not directly controlled by the government. British Council offices overseas, for example, usually worked in collaboration with British embassies, but ambassadors were not in a position to issue direct instructions. Both organisations expanded their work greatly, and consolidated their reputations, during the Second World War. In the case of the British Council, it built up a large network to support the many foreigners and refugees who came to Britain during the war, as well as expanding its work overseas. Easing the path of foreigners in Britain has remained a British Council priority ever since.
Britain came late to the business of cultural diplomacy, and was always reluctant to invest in it. Nevertheless, it was a successful player. Although the country’s hard power continued to decline after the Second World War, the people’s standard of living still rose, and Britain became an increasingly attractive location for many organisations and businesses, especially in the financial and scientific sectors. It also massively increased the number of incoming tourists.
Other countries admired Britain for its relative openness, its belief in the rule of law, the high quality of its media, education and science, and its respect for individual freedom, so were inclined to accept British leadership or influence on international bodies, and there is little question that British politicians and diplomats enjoy an influence greater than the country’s size or economy would justify.
That influence continues to a large extent because of Britain’s investment in cultural diplomacy. The BBC’s reputation for high quality and truthful broadcasting has been very important in persuading the world that Britain is a serious world-player that can be trusted.
The more diffuse work of the British Council has been equally significant. It has contributed hugely to the success of English as a world language. Its libraries have been a lifeline to many in countries where there was little public access to newspapers, periodical and books in English. It has played a major role in establishing British institutions of higher education as global destinations. It has provided funding and support for a vast range of professional connections and collaboration in such fields as science, medicine, agriculture and law. And finally, it has kept British arts and culture closely connected with overseas audiences and counterparts, and ensured that Britain retains a high profile in international cultural events.
In these activities it has been an intermediary organisation. There is much less need for intermediaries in the age of the internet, and the challenge for the future is to find new means of highlighting Britain’s achievements and its desire to maintain overseas relationships.
[i] Equivalent to about £7 million ($10 million) in 2018
[ii] For a detailed account of the early days of the British Council see Frances Donaldson, The British Council: the first fifty years, London, 1984