The Royal Family: Soft Power Superpowers?

On Saturday 19th May, Prince Harry married Ms Meghan Markle, in case you hadn’t heard.

The royal wedding reached an international audience of around two billion people, and more than 100,000 tourists visited Windsor to get a glimpse of the newlyweds. Moments like these, when the world is gripped by royal fever, it is easy to see the royal family’s international reach.

The British monarchy has retained some importance in the world of global politics. Today, their influence comes predominantly in the form of soft power. A fashionable term which boils down to our ability to charm other nations via our culture and values rather than coercion or payment.

At a time when Britain is trying to assert itself internationally whilst battling through Brexit, coping with chronic underfunding for the Foreign Office as well as a plethora of domestic issues, we need to examine how effectively we are using our soft power arsenal to retain influence on the global stage. The royal family is no exception.

One of the royal’s primary strengths for our foreign policy is their global brand. They can sell an image of Britain like no other. The royal wedding is testament to that. Images of smiling crowds lining quaint Windsor lanes, waving union jacks, embracing the royal wedding’s pomp and pageantry were beamed across the world. It painted a glamorised, fairy-tale picture of our nation, but one that sells to an international audience. This is important because other nations’ perception of us matters. In this regard, the wedding served as a right royal reprieve from Brexit news.

With every news outlet covering the royal wedding in miniscule detail, it is hard to see how the royal’s global brand might be improved. They seem to effortlessly attract attention. However, you could argue that, particularly the younger generation could harness social media more effectively to promote themselves. Traditionally the royal family have not managed their own public profiles. Rather, they rely on social media managers to carefully curate their public image. In a world where Trump seems to be conducting his foreign policy over Twitter, should the royals contribute a more authentic social media voice to stay relevant? Considering the royals’ overly polished image is part of their appeal, and their neutrality is critical, it seems sensible to exercise caution when one tweet or Instagram post could easily undermine their brand.

When it comes to the Commonwealth, the royal’s involvement is purely symbolic, but that is not to say futile. For example, Meghan’s decision to subtly represent all 53 Commonwealth nations on her veil was a symbolic gesture, but one which was noted by the worlds media, and drew attention to the cause. The royals can act as effective ambassadors for the institution by harnessing the media attention they attract to offer a valuable platform for important issues facing the global network. Furthermore, the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s appointment as youth ambassadors to the Commonwealth will bring some much-needed fresh faced enthusiasm for the organisation.

It is unlikely, however that the royals can offer the Commonwealth much more than their current symbolic ambassadorial roles. After all, for some in this country, there is still an uncomfortable attachment between the royals and the imperial legacy of the Commonwealth. Promoting anything other than the status quo in terms of the royal’s power in the Commonwealth strongly risks hindering the image of the Commonwealth as a modern, forward-thinking organisation.

In terms of international trade, the royals can sell. Anything they wear, eat and drive becomes à la mode. Which is fortunate when they are often wearing, eating and driving British brands. For example, at William and Kate’s engagement announcement in 2010, Kate Middleton wore a royal blue dress a British designer. The dress immediately became a global hit and sold out in 43 countries. In addition, the Queen’s Royal warrant (essentially her stamp of approval for British brands) is great for our international luxury export market. According to research conducted by Qing Wang, professor at Warwick University, 57% of Chinese consumers said the Royal Warrant is important or very important in increasing desirability of British brands.

In this arena, perhaps more prominent royals could do more by accompanying our ministers on trade missions or even hosting them more regularly. However, it is highly unlikely that they would add much as their royal brand is most effective when promoting luxury goods. It is unlikely that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will not do much for bolstering our crude oil or pharmaceutical exports, for example.

The royal family are undoubtedly soft power tools for the UK, with any births, marriages and significant ceremonies amplifying their soft power effect. Yet, options are very limited on how to better use the royal family to yield international benefits. Moreover, there are other more pressing soft power assets which need our attention. Our universities, for example, which have educated 58 of the world’s leaders, but are used in a far too transactional way. Or the British Council, the UK’s international organisation which promotes British culture and values around the world, which is facing significant funding cuts. We should not let the royal wedding frenzy cloud the many other soft power tools that we have at our disposal which we could be using more effectively or which are under threat.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Alice Campbell
alice.campbell@bfpg.org.uk

Alice Campbell is Policy & Programmes Coordinator at the British Foreign Policy Group. She is a recent graduate from the University of London Institute in Paris where she studied French and History. After graduating from university, Alice worked for a Paris based tech start-up, working in Communications and Community Management. She has lived in The Gambia, France and the UK and is fluent in French.