As the United Kingdom (UK) leaves the European Union (EU), the country can look back at one of the most divisive and bruising periods in contemporary history. A new chapter is about to start, one in which Britain will be seeking to recast its role on the world stage.
Whilst Brexit will undoubtedly affect the UK’s economic and political role, its so-called ‘soft power’ will come into sharper focus. According to Joseph Nye, who coined the term approximately 30 years ago, these intangible assets can be considered as a country’s ability to attract and persuade without coercion. In more recent times, some public figures like Stevie Spring, the Chair of the British Council, have said that they prefer the phrase ‘smart power’.
Whatever term is chosen, there is no doubt that the UK has an unusual combination of assets to shape and influence the world beyond its shores. The Henry Jackson Society’s ‘Audit of Geopolitical Capability’ ranks Britain second in the world in terms of ‘cultural prestige’, only behind the United States (US) (by comparison, the UK is the fifth largest economy in the world). From arts, culture and sports to education and creativity, the UK is a world leader. British brands such as the Royals, David Beckham, James Bond, the Beatles or Harry Potter are cherished the world-over. Some of the UK’s iconic buildings, like Buckingham Palace, Westminster Palace and Wembley, have an almost magical status. British institutions like the BBC or ‘Oxbridge’ are also globally respected and renowned. Alongside these assets, the UK also has intangible assets like its language and rule of law.
What follows are 25 of Britain’s soft power assets, grouped into five categories
The first letter of each category spells ‘Great’, which is both part of the UK’s formal name (Great Britain), the name of a government sponsored campaign to promote the country, and an accurate description of the nation’s soft power strengths.
In the first basket rest those tangible and intangible assets that are rooted in Britain’s history and institutions. As they benefit both the UK and the wider world, these assets might be described as ‘gifts’.
The English language is the first universal language, spoken by up to 500 million native speakers, and one billion as a second language. In China, for example, an estimated 350 million people speak some form of English. As the language of international commerce and aviation, English is also the most powerful language in the world.
2. Rule of law
The principles of English law have had and continue to have global influence. The Palace of Westminster is the ‘mother of all parliaments’. UK law is used to resolve many disputes and is also a key framework for international business (half of the world’s commercial contracts are in English law). The recent 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, in 2015, was a reminder of the enduring influence of English law.
It has been quipped that Britain may no longer rule the waves, but it rules the airwaves. British media outlets like the BBC, FT and Economist have a global reach and following. The Mail Online is the most popular English language newspaper website in the world, whilst the Guardian website has a huge international readership. In broadcast, BBC TV and radio reach 426 million people every week.
The UK has a long-standing monarchy (the Queen is the 41st monarch since William the Conqueror obtained the crown of England in 1066) with international reach (the Queen is Head of State of 16 countries). The monarchy is the subject of international fascination and, of course, there are particularly strong links with the 53 members of the Commonwealth. The Royal Weddings in 2011 and 2018 had global audiences running into the billions. The monarchy is a magnet for tourism, and also overseas visits provide valuable attention for the UK in foreign countries, fostering ‘relationship capital’.
Whilst it has developed rapidly to transform the way we live, work and shop, the mass use of the internet by the public was heavily influenced by British innovators. The World Wide Web was invented by British scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1989. Today, the internet is used by over 4.5 billion people worldwide, and continues to influence the way humans interact with one another and with other technologies.
The UK is a sports-mad nation and has a proud heritage as the inventor of many sports (or at least the first codifier of the rules of different games). The country competes at a high level across an astonishing range of sports, which was reflected in its second-placed ranking in the medals table at the last Olympics in Rio in 2016. England’s victory in last year’s Cricket World Cup means that it is the only country to have won the big three World Cups (in cricket, football and rugby union).
Football is a universal game and incredibly the English Premier League is broadcast in more countries than there are UN members. A report published last year showed that one billion homes worldwide tune into it, and an estimated 680,000 foreign visitors attended matches in the UK in a recent season. Teams such as Liverpool and Manchester United have massive followings in Asia, Africa, South America and elsewhere. England is regarded as the home of football, and Wembley is one of the most famous stadiums in the world.
Cricket is a sport that the UK, or more particularly England, has given to the world. Its origins go back to the formation of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in 1787 at Lord’s Old Ground in London. Last year’s Cricket World Cup reminded us of the mass appeal of the sport. England was able to flourish as a welcoming host off the field but also as the winner on the field of the ten team tournament, and this presented an attractive picture to a vast international audience.
Rugby is another UK sports export to the world. Modern rugby union traces its roots to William Webb Ellis inventing the rules at Rugby School in Warwickshire in 1823. Over the years, England, Scotland and Wales have all had their successful spells. Indeed, England and Wales have together won six of the past ten Six Nations tournaments. The British Lions Tours, taking place every four years, (also featuring Ireland), are a wonderful opportunity to leave memories amongst rugby fans in the destination countries in the Southern Hemisphere.
When Andy Murray defeated Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon Final of 2013, he became the first British man since Fred Perry to win the tournament 76 years earlier (although a British woman, Virginia Wade, had won Wimbledon in 1977). Despite ups and downs on court, the UK hosts what is widely seen as the preeminent and most prestigious tournament in the world. The Wimbledon Championships were first played in 1877 and have grown to become a world-renowned tournament, ahead of the three other Grand Slams (hosted by the US, Australia and France). For two weeks every year, the eyes of the sports world are fixed on the lawns of SW19, and Royals and celebrities clear their diaries to attend.
10. Big tournaments
The UK has a successful track record of hosting major tournaments. From the football World Cup of 1966 and the European Championships of 1996, as well as the more recent London Olympics of 2012, the UK has delivered. It is not all about London: Edinburgh, Manchester and Glasgow have all hosted successful Commonwealth Games – with Birmingham to have its turn in 2022. The UK has also hosted major cricket and rugby tournaments in recent years. Through this experience, Britons have considerable expertise at putting on a good show, reinforcing the impression that they excel at ‘pomp and ceremony’.
The UK has a variety of education-based assets, boasting some of the best schools and universities in the world. That is why so many young foreign students come to Britain to study; some of them even end up leading their countries.
The UK is home to some of the most sought-after and best schools in the world: Eton, Harrow and Marlborough College have a worldwide reputation for excellence. Some of the wealthiest people all over the world, who could send their children anywhere, choose to send their children to British schools. Furthermore some of these schools are taking the leap by setting up offshoots overseas (for example, Wellington College has six international schools spread over China and Thailand).
Britain has three of the world’s top ten universities. According to the latest Times Higher Education rankings, the UK has Oxford (first), Cambridge (third) and Imperial College London (tenth). Whilst it is a very competitive field, the UK has 28 universities in the top 200. The jewels in the crown of the British university system remain Oxford and Cambridge. They are consistently ranked as amongst the best universities in the world, with Oxford – established in 1096 – as the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
13. Foreign students
Due to its high-quality educational institutions, the UK is a magnet for some of the brightest and most ambitious foreign students. There are over 485,000 foreign students in higher education in the country, accounting for approximately 20% of the total student population (the government aims to increase this to 600,000 by 2030). Besides the goodwill created and the relationships forged, it is estimated that this creates £25 billion of economic benefit. There are some well-established schemes which bring exceptional foreign students to the UK (as an example, the Chevening scholarships have brought in over 50,000 students since 1983).
14. Education of world leaders
The return on investment for educating so many overseas students in the UK is that some of them end up leading their own countries. It is estimated that one in seven of the world’s leaders (whether Royalty, presidents or prime ministers) were educated in Britain. Pride of place goes to Naruhito, the Emperor of Japan, who studied at the University of Oxford in his younger years. As well as world leaders, many other politicians, Cabinet members and decision-makers in foreign governments had a spell at a British university. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, a German politician, was a student at the London School of Economics in 1978. Meanwhile, Frans Timmermans, now Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, a Dutch politician, who attended a British school in Rome, has spoken of his “love for Britain.”
15. Nobel Prize winners
The UK has been very successful in winning Nobel Prizes, seen as the gold standard of academic research (in one of the six categories of Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physics, Physiology or Medicine and Economics). In terms of prizes won, the UK ranks second only to the US. It can boast over 130 Nobel Prizes including Ernest Rutherford (Physics), Rudyard Kipling (Literature) and Sir Paul Nurse (Physiology or Medicine). The UK’s success reflects its scientific and research prowess.
For hundreds of years, the UK has thrived as an artistic and cultural centre. It has world-leading institutions and artists in every field, from painters and architects to musicians and actors. Britain’s creative industries, including film, television, radio, photography, music, advertising, museums, galleries and digital creative industries, are worth over £100 billion to the economy, and are a key part of the country’s continued popularity on the world stage.
16. Performing and visual arts
There are over 1,300 active theatres in the UK, which attract visitors from all over the world. Of course, London has a particularly vibrant theatre scene, with more than 230 professional theatres with seating capacity of over 100,000. Tourists flock to see some of the best loved plays and musicals such as Phantom of the Opera (since 1986) and Mamma Mia (since 1999). Productions, whether plays, musicals, opera or ballets, which start in the UK end up playing globally. In addition, art galleries in the UK continue to attract streams of visitors. The Tate Modern is now the most visited attraction of any type in the country (with 5.9 million visitors per year).
17. Museums and heritage
There are around 1,800 museums in the UK which attract thousands of visitors. These range from iconic institutions like the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, both of which receive over five million visitors per year, to much smaller ones all over the country. But it’s not just a London phenomenon. The likes of the V&A and Tate have established regional satellites, and there are huge attractions all over the country, such as Stonehenge, Iron Bridge and Dover Castle.
Wherever someone travels in the world, they will often hear UK-produced music, whether it’s the Beatles, Spice Girls or Coldplay. Tourists visit Liverpool for the Beatles Museum or flock to the famous zebra crossing on Abbey Road in London. Millions attend the concerts of UK musicians, such as Elton John, Cliff Richard, Adele and Stormzy, as they embark on world tours. From pop to classical, jazz to rap, British artists are reaching millions in every part of the globe.
19. Film and television
The British film industry is another formidable asset of the UK’s cultural landscape. British films account for one sixth of total global receipts. As an example, the Star Wars and James Bond franchises have huge international followings (millions of fans are eagerly anticipating the 25th Bond film, ‘No Time to Die’), whilst Sherlock has an estimated 70 million fans in China. High quality film and television is produced in Britain, some of it for the giants of Amazon and Netflix (the latter’s series, ‘The Crown’, has a cult following). It creates jobs and also sparks tourism. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board estimates that one in six of the visitors who choose to come there do so to see where Game of Thrones was made.
20. Books and literature
As a nation, Britain has produced some of the most widely-read authors. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is thought never to have travelled outside England, so would presumably have been astonished 400 years later about his global reach. His plays are taught in half of the world’s classrooms (a recent programme, Shakespeare Lives, ran in 140 countries). The most widely read British author today is J. K. Rowling, whose ‘Harry Potter’ novels have sold over 500 million copies worldwide. UK literary festivals, like Hay and Cheltenham, alongside the wider Edinburgh Festival, attract top authors and talent (as well as visitors) from around the world.
Through the talent of the British people, the UK enjoys outstanding success in many areas, which contribute to its economic strength and cultural attraction.
Britain may not be able to match Silicon Valley, but has a burgeoning tech sector. It is worth £184 billion to the UK economy and employs 1.1 million people, but its impact goes beyond economic value to enabling social progress. A report last year showed the UK has 72 tech ‘unicorns’ – start-up companies with a valuation of at least $1 billion. Only the US and China have more. British companies include fast-growing brands like Revolut and Deliveroo.
The UK has a strong track record for invention and innovation. In historic times, British inventors like Graham Bell (telephone) and John Logie Baird (television) changed everyday life for millions in the UK and overseas. A KPMG survey shows that the UK is the third best country in the world for technology breakthroughs.
With so much going for it, the UK attracts almost 40 million visits per year. The in-bound holidaymakers and business people spend over £25 billion annually. The UK is in the top ten most visited countries in the world.
24. Food and fashion
Britain’s traditional dishes of fish and chips and Yorkshire pudding have been complemented by an assortment of dishes imported from overseas. City centres across the land contain curry houses, sushi restaurants and a whole range of food from all over the world. Famous British food brands like Marmite and HP Sauce are sold globally. The UK has some world-class chefs and it also has world-renowned fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney, as well as high-street global brands like Superdry, Clarks and Dr Martens.
It was Sir Winston Churchill who said, “we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” So-called British ‘starchitects’, like Sir Norman Foster and Lord Rogers, have built practices with a global footprint, due to their numerous iconic buildings. For instance, Rogers built the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Soft power makes Britain great
As the list of 25 assets shows, the UK is a soft power superpower in the following categories:
The 25 individual soft power areas serve as sources of strength for the UK, making the country ‘Great’ in both name and nature. They boost the way Britain is perceived globally, and also precipitate its economic growth. They are like the jewels in the crown of the UK. The 25 areas do not exist in silos, and there are strong interlinkages between some of them.
For a country prone to bouts of introspection, Britain needs to remind itself of its strengths. It was the Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, who wrote in the eighteenth century of the need “to see ourselves as others see us.” If Britons want a boost to their self-esteem, they should listen to the favourable views held by people all over the world about the UK, rather than succumbing to what Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, calls the “doomsters and the gloomsters.”
The British government has announced a festival of Britain for 2022, which will showcase some of the UK’s soft power assets celebrating special anniversaries, notably the monarchy (70th anniversary of the Queen’s reign), BBC (100 years old), Edinburgh Festival (75th anniversary), as well as the Commonwealth Games taking place in Birmingham. As Britain marks “Brexit Day”, the UK’s future role in the world will be shaped over the coming months and years, and its soft power will be as important as ever.