The Election Debate on…Soft Power

The UK has long held a depth of rich and diverse soft power assets, which have proved remarkably resilient over the years, despite significant domestic, political, economic and social upheaval. Today, however, challenges including such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the crippling cost-of-living-crisis, have highlighted how sectors that are crucial to the UK’s international reputation and attractiveness – from arts and culture to education and sport – are in need of a more consistent and comprehensive soft power strategy. 

In recent years, soft power has been a widely neglected facet of the UK’s international arsenal. In the 2023 Integrated Review Refresh, for example, the role of soft power in achieving the UK’s international objectives was recognised, but it failed to provide any real specifics on the government’s pledge to ‘do more’ to embed soft power in the UK’s broader foreign policy approach, beyond sign-posting institutions like the British Council and pledging desperately-needed investment into the BBC World Service.

Granted, we can see the premise of soft power coming through in the concept of ‘patient diplomacy’, launched by former Foreign Secretary James Cleverly back at the end of 2022. While the specific terminology has largely been dropped, the Conservatives have continued to pursue an international strategy focused on the importance of developing long-term partnerships with a diversity of nations, prioritising security and economic interests over values promotion. Crucially, this includes cooperation with so-called ‘middle-ground powers’ who may be less traditional allies, reflecting a wider caution around the imposition of values which is very topical in the soft power debate. Tightening diplomatic and economic ties across the world, via agreements both underpinned by, and set to strengthen, the UK’s expertise and capacity in fields such as clean energy, and innovation and technology, the Conservatives’ international strategy undoubtedly aims to draw upon the depths of the UK’s soft power, taking steps to promote British strengths across the globe. 

When it comes to the election, across the board, soft power has received relatively little attention. This is unsurprising, as elections tend to focus first and foremost on domestic rather than international policy, and soft power is rarely at the top of the public’s mind even when they do think about foreign policy. It is striking, and positive then, that both the Conservatives and Labour mention soft power, to some degree, in their manifestos.

The Conservative manifesto does commit to the publication of a new Soft Power Strategy, to support the role of embassies and the British Council overseas, but policymakers have remained tight-lipped regarding details. Supplementing this, across the breadth of policy fields that make up the UK’s soft power arsenal, are a number of (rather intangible) commitments such as  ‘supporting’ the BBC World Service, ‘expanding’ the use of English language worldwide, and ‘supporting’ women and girls sport. Nonetheless, the lack of detail makes clear that the proposed soft power strategy will have to do a lot of heavy lifting and have broad and deep scope to provide the level of in-depth thinking required to effectively incorporate the UK’s soft power as a key part of UK foreign policy.

Labour’s manifesto is also fairly light-touch on commitments when it comes to soft power. However, more broadly, Labour has indicated interest in a more revisionist reframing of the current order of soft power, with soft power and its ability to support in joining up the arms of international engagement increasingly prioritised by Labour policymakers. A desire to create a joined-up approach to a broader industrial strategy, which has the read across to foreign policy, international development, defence and national security issues, is a top priority for Labour, and the role of an effective soft power strategy is reportedly recognised in enabling such a cross-sectoral strategy to be effective. 

Labour’s proposed foreign policy strategy – ‘progressive realism’, as coined by Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy – looks to be the umbrella under which Labour pursues this ideal, with the strategy having its roots embedded in soft power means. Described as “using realist means to pursue progressive ends”, this values-based pursuit, with priorities ranging from countering climate change, to defending democracy, to advancing the world’s economic development, ‘progressive realism’ is being pitched as an avenue to coherently join these international activities up, under the banner of serving just goals.

Yet the effectiveness of a soft power strategy is reliant on the health of the UK’s soft power ecosystem, and an authentic international reputation as a leader across the UK’s many accrued strengths. As such, Labour will need to nurture UK soft power, promoting the export of UK culture, expertise, business and values, to benefit all arms of our international engagement. Values have traditionally, and continue to be,  a key part of Labour’s foreign policy thinking, and, in turn, we can expect such a pursuit to focus on themes including enhancing leadership around women and girls, equalities, human rights and net-zero. 

Perhaps setting the tone for this push, Labour has committed to establishing a Soft Power Council, albeit details are few and far between. Labour’s manifesto has also pledged to implement a creative industries sector plan as part of its Industrial Strategy, in an effort to create good jobs and accelerate growth across the creative sectors, bring leading creative and cultural institutions together to increase the UK’s international clout, and enhance the reach of diaspora communities to maximise cultural reach. 

Whichever party finds itself in No.10 by the end of this week, it has a mammoth task ahead of it in fleshing out a cohesive and coherent soft power strategy, which effectively ties into, and together, the other arms of the UK’s international offer. Against the backdrop of an increasingly polarised world, a two-pronged approach exhibiting effective hard and soft power simultaneously is a necessity, as the UK’s strategic rivals seek to strengthen and harness both their hard and soft power influence for their own gains. The UK cannot simply rely on past achievements to maintain our soft power strengths, and the next administration must think strategically when it comes to maintaining and promoting the UK’s soft power strength.

View BFPG’s full Election Watch series here

Eliza Keogh

Eliza Keogh is a Researcher and Programmes Manager at BFPG