Parliamentary Debate of the House of Lords Committee’s Report on the Use of Soft Power – March 10th 2015
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
My Lords, in debating the findings of this report, we clearly owe a great debt to the noble, Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, and the members of the Select Committee. The ability to produce reports of this quality eloquently underlined the need for an international affairs Select Committee of this House, as the noble Lord said in his introductory comments—and I happily echo that.
In July last year, when introducing a Cross-Bench debate on the importance of the BBC World Service and the British Council, I argued that the deployment of smart power would always consist of a combination of Joseph Nye’s soft power, backed up by the hard power of military capability—a point that my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup made so eloquently earlier. I drew on the British Academy’s excellent report, The Art of Attraction.
In the intervening nine months, the world has become more fragmented and dangerous, with terrorist webs, rampaging militias and armies posing existential threats. As it emerges from a period of sustained austerity and battle fatigue, following wearying wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain in 2015 is a country that has become uncertain about its place in the world. This uncertainty is reinforced by jihadist militias and terrorists, the territorial aggression of Russia, the nuclear threat posed by Iran and North Korea, and the unresolved question of what sort of relationship we are to have with continental Europe.
Our world is less tolerant and more violent: from Syria, Iraq and the continued rise of the so-called Islamic State or Daesh, which continues to murder people and eradicate culture and heritage; to the horrors of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, where the Sudanese regime has dropped more than 2,500 bombs on its civilian population; to Boko Haram’s abduction of girls in Nigeria; to the burning alive of Christians in Pakistan; to the recent beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya; and to the continuing incarceration of 200,000 people in the prison camps of North Korea. The need to deploy smart power is self-evident. It would be folly in these circumstances to reduce further our military or non-military capability.
The key issue is the battle for ideas, be they secular or religious. In that context, I was surprised to see a reply in another place, just in the last day or so, to Tim Farron, the Member of Parliament for Westmoreland and Lonsdale. He asked the Government what resources were committed to the area of freedom of religion and belief. In that reply, Mr Lidington, the Minister, said that there was just,
“one full time Desk Officer wholly dedicated to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB)”.
He said that,
“the Head and the Deputy Head of HRDD spend approximately 5% and 20% respectively of their time on FoRB issues; one Human Rights Advisor spends 5% and one HRDD Communications Officer approximately 10%”.
This is pretty dismal in the context of the horrors that are being perpetrated in breach of Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which safeguards the right to believe, not to believe or to change belief. All over the world, we can see how that is honoured in the breach. Billions of people are motivated by religious belief and do extraordinarily wonderful things, but as with secular ideologies—such as those of Hitler, Mao or Stalin—they can also do some pretty terrible things. Ideas and beliefs shape our world and our destiny. Smart power must engage directly with that. We have enormous national assets to enable us to do so but we need to build on them.
As other noble Lords have done, I will briefly mention three prizes that we have. I so agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, when he said in his introductory remarks, “We are the best-networked state in the world”. He mentioned the role of the Commonwealth, the BBC World Service and the British Council, and I will do so, too.
As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, yesterday saw the commemoration of Commonwealth Day. The former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Sir Don McKinnon, once correctly observed:
“The Commonwealth is a pretty good investment for Britain but it has not always been used at its best”.”
In a world where jihadists seek to impose a brutal uniformity, including denying girls an education, the Commonwealth, by contrast, stands for tolerance, diversity, interconnectedness, pluralism and the dignity of difference.
The Commonwealth charter underlines the aspirations of its member nations to democracy, human rights and the rule of law, as the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, and the noble Lord, Lord Soley, both emphasised in their speeches.
I think it was my noble friend Lord Luce, in a previous debate, who once told us that President Nasser of Egypt once said to Prime Minister Nehru of India, “I put my extremists in prison. What do you do with yours?”. Nehru replied, “I put mine in Parliament”. His were the values of the Commonwealth.
We in Britain also know the importance of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, a concept to share in a world that stifles opposition.
Last month, I spoke at the launch of Liverpool’s new Commonwealth Association. I suggested that British cities should declare themselves to be Commonwealth cities and network with other cities which badge themselves in the same way—like the more than 500 universities in the Association of Commonwealth Universities.
When I came to Westminster 36 years ago, I was delighted to become one of the 16,000 members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
I suspect all of us here in the Chamber are members of the CPA. For several years I chaired the Council for Education in the Commonwealth.
With a combined GDP of £5.2 trillion, some 2.2 billion people live in the Commonwealth’s 53 independent and sovereign states. Sixty per cent of the population are under the age of 30 and 800 million live in poverty.
Where better to focus our ring-fenced aid budget than on the Commonwealth, and especially on education?
It is lamentable, as the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, said, that we have seen a decline in Commonwealth scholarships. This, along with our visa system, has had a deplorable impact on students from countries such as India.
It is instructive that, despite 250 years of trading with India, it is said that it now has more trade with Switzerland than with us.
Smart power would use the power of education and the English language to address such discrepancies.
Nelson Mandela once said that the Commonwealth makes the world safe for diversity. He also insisted that education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world. That, surely, is the battle for ideas—a thought echoed by the courageous Malala Yousafzai, whom the Taliban tried to murder in Pakistan because she insisted on a girl’s right to an education. Her words were:
“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world”.
Yet, despite what we heard earlier from the noble Lord, Lord Bach, perhaps the most important English language institution that we have, the British Council, which does so. Much to promote education, has seen its FCO budget reduced to £154 million this year, down from £190 million. I hope that we will hear from the Minister how the Government see the future of British Council funding.
My third example of Britain’s smart power assets are the arms of BBC global news, World Service radio, BBC Online and television news.
The noble Lord, Lord Birt, has spelled out many of those issues to us in his sometimes excoriating—but, I thought, to the point—remarks, particularly about the issue of resources, and the way we have pillaged the resources of the BBC quite wantonly.
The BBC World Service has a global audience of 265 million people and is directed for the first time in its 83-year history by a woman, Fran Unsworth.
Kofi Annan called the World Service, “Britain’s greatest gift to the world”.
In its briefing for today’s debate, I greatly welcome the BBC’s statement:
“The BBC is considering whether it can develop a viable news service for the people of North Korea”.
That is an issue I have raised, as co-chairman of the All-Party Group on North Korea, on numerous occasions in your Lordships’ House.
I should be grateful if the Minister would say, when replying, whether this initiative will have the blessing of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It would be helpful if he could spell out exactly how the Foreign Secretary will participate in the discussions on the charter review—and hence on the future of the BBC World Service—to which my noble friend Lord Birt referred. Only a week ago the director-general, the noble Lord, Lord Hall, warned that the BBC was at a crossroads, with choices for decision-makers that would be fundamental to the future of the BBC and it global standing. He spoke of,
“a sleep-walk into decay for the BBC, punching below its weight abroad, and Britain diminished as a result”.
In its conclusions the Select Committee says:
“The UK can, and should, act as a serious force for good as the world continues to change”.
However, it also warns that the UK risks,
“finding itself outwitted, out-competed and increasingly insecure”.
If we do not find the resources to back up these wonderful institutions, surely that will come to pass. It would be a huge error for this country to make, and it would not be good for the world either.