The British Council is seen as the leading player in the use of “soft power”, complementing the country’s military and diplomatic strength by sending writers, artists, musicians and actors around the globe.
The works of Shakespeare, Milton and Elgar have been used by the council to cultivate relationships throughout the break-up of the empire, the Cold War, the conflicts in the Middle East and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But critics have warned that the government is ending its funding for the council’s work in developed countries just as it is becoming increasingly important before the exit from the EU.
The Foreign Office’s £39 million-a-year grant to fund much of its cultural activity in countries not entitled to aid is being cut to nothing over the next three years. It is reallocating the funding towards poorer countries.
Hilary Cross, the British Council’s director of strategy and engagement, acknowledged yesterday that its future work was at risk. “While we are able to fund a minimal level of activity in the developed world through the surplus from our commercial income and partnerships, we have significant challenges for continuing financial viability in some countries,” she said.
“We want to be able to more strongly influence international agendas, brokering partnerships overseas for UK education and cultural sectors, to support national and global prosperity and security into the next decade.”
The council, which was founded in 1934, has applied for a share of the £700 million “Empowerment Fund” set up by Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, in February to make up for the shortfall.
Development of the fund was “paused” last week on the orders of Mark Sedwill, the prime minister’s national security adviser, to ensure that taxpayers were given value for money on international spending.
Sir Ciarán Devane, the council’s chief executive, warned in its new corporate plan: “We are facing pressures in our funding model . . . This, combined with external factors such as the impact of the declining value in the pound means that, despite planned efficiencies, the financial plan assumes a much lower spend in developed countries from 2018 onwards.
“If we are unable to bridge that funding gap our ability to deliver across the developed world will be challenged.”
He said that the council’s priority would be to strengthen cultural and educational relationships within the EU as Britain prepared for Brexit.
Sir Ciarán said that he hoped the council will be able to “do more for less” and that “the UK’s decision to leave the EU is an opportunity to use cultural relations to engage even more across the world”.
While there are concerns within Whitehall about the impact of the cuts on the nation’s international standing there have also been raised eyebrows and envy at the cost of running the council, a public body that is also a registered charity.
The chief executive joined the British Council from the Macmillan Cancer Support charity in 2015 and received a £250,000 pay package last year, including pensions contributions and a £14,948 bonus. The median pay for council staff was £38,497, compared with the average civil servant’s salary of £23,000. The number of employees increased from 9,624 to 10,596 while the number of its teachers employed abroad actual fell.
The council said that the increase in employees was largely overseas and supported the 10 per cent increase in the money it generated. During the hiring spree there were 152 redundancies or agreed departures, which cost more than £3 million.
The council also has a collection of 8,500 paintings and sculptures recently valued at £120 million and has spent £1.79 million buying works in the past five years.
The cutbacks in funding are occurring as the council prepares to leave its landmark headquarters overlooking The Mall, which leads to Buckingham Palace. It will move to Stratford, east London, in 2020. It will increasingly have to fund its cultural work in developed countries from the profits of its lucrative network of English language courses and exams.
The recently published accounts show that it received more than £650 million last year from English teaching but recorded an overall loss of £9 million. The changes come after Britain was toppled last year from the top spot in an international ranking of soft power. The United States replaced the UK in rankings, compiled by Portland Communications, which reflected the increasing influence of Asian nations with higher placings for China, Japan and Singapore.
Phillip Blond, director of the ResPublica think tank, which published a report on using the British Council to grow soft power, said that it would be a “tragedy” to reduce its influence.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.