In the Shakespeare history play Henry V, a minor character called Macmorris is an Irishman fighting for the English army against the French. He asks, with his accent revealed in Shakespeare’s dialogue: “What ish my nation?”
It’s an interesting question. What, beyond a passport, makes anyone feel Irish, English, French, Lebanese, Indian or American? Perhaps a nation is simply a group of people who decide they are a nation. The UK is bound by language, history and culture, even if some Scots, Welsh and people in Northern Ireland define their nation differently.
The British Council is the organisation created to promote the UK’s national image abroad. Twenty years ago, it reported that “the United Kingdom is both loved and loathed for its traditions. The images most often quoted of Great Britain in the survey are the Queen and the Royal Family, kilts, castles and rugby. This has implications for public diplomacy”. The big question for the nation’s policymakers, the British Council said, was “what can be done to close the gap between perceptions overseas and the reality of contemporary Britain without ignoring the strengths of our traditions for which we are respected?”.
There is no easy answer when the international image of the British nation tends to be rooted in past glories rather than expectations about modern Britain. In May, the coronation of King Charles III will be televised around the world. This repetition of a centuries-old tradition will entertain millions but it cannot easily be leveraged to describe how modern Britain can lead in science research, technology, finance and 21st-century areas of economic excellence.
A more recent British Council survey conducted in the US confirmed the dilemma. For many Americans, Britain was seen as a historic theme park rather than as a modern partner in innovation and creativity: “American views of the UK are driven more by cultural factors than political issues … pointing to a crucial role for culture in future relations between the two countries. The report … reveals that culture and history were the two top-rated factors contributing to the UK’s attractiveness among American respondents, with 43 per cent identifying ‘cultural and historic attractions’ as a major draw and 42 per cent identifying ‘history’.”
What’s surprising is that British governments sometimes fail to understand this. British culture is at the core of British “soft power”. In culture, Britain does punch above its weight. Our writers win international prizes, sell well and are translated round the world. British movie makers similarly translate easily to Hollywood. British music – from The Beatles to Oasis, Adele to classical musicians and composers – is world famous. The BBC is often considered the world’s most trusted news brand.
But in recent years, British governments have inflicted wounds on British culture, sometimes unthinkingly, sometimes deliberately.
The BBC is being deliberately under-funded so its income cannot match inflation. It’s restructuring and cutting back on services. Touring British rock bands and orchestras as well as top international music stars such as Elton John rightly complain that the shambolic Brexit deal continues to make touring in Europe extremely difficult. But public pressure may change all this.
To make necessary savings, BBC managers decided to get rid of a precious cultural jewel, the much-loved BBC Singers. They are the UK’s only full-time chamber choir, and were scheduled to celebrate their centenary next year. The backlash against scrapping the Singers was immediate, sorrowful and angry. It included British newspapers from the right and left, international as well as British conductors, composers, choral directors, academics, music teachers, fans of all ages and most major UK music organisations. The BBC was forced to think again. They hope to find outside sponsors, although no deal has yet been done. I’m delighted the BBC Singers have been saved but the row reveals just how short-sighted British governments are about the culture which defines our nation.
Politicians talk of “Global Britain”, while at the same time cutting the British army back to levels not seen for hundreds of years. They talk of British influence around the world while underfunding cultural jewels such as the BBC and making life difficult for musicians and others. Instead of seeing British writers, musicians, composers, singers and filmmakers as great cultural assets, we have experienced short-term penny-pinching from some government ministers who only recognise the damage when – as with the BBC Singers – there is a very public campaign to keep our cultural jewels safe.
So let’s answer the British Council question from 20 years ago, and the question from Macmorris too. “What can be done to close the gap between perceptions overseas and the reality of contemporary Britain?” The answer is to stop doing stupid things that harm Britain’s cultural assets and to take music and the arts seriously because they are an economic and soft power asset.
As for “what is my nation?”, well, one answer is that a nation is the combined talent of inventive people, a creative culture bound up, in the UK’s case, with the English language, and that makes people proud to be part of it.