Since 23 June 2016, the British people have been on quite the political rollercoaster ride. Uncertainty currently rules the day, with no definitive progress yet made in Britain’s exit negotiations with the EU, nor an indication of what future relations will look like. With less than eight months to go on the Article 50 countdown clock, British businesses, investors, citizens, and residents have little to go on beyond “Brexit means Brexit”. At present, Brexit is consuming virtually all of Westminster and Whitehall’s bandwidth and the future of the UK’s role in the world is at a precarious juncture. So how – many would rightly ask – did the UK manage to top the 2018 Soft Power 30? Admittedly, the result is a surprising one, but there are three reasons why the UK managed to (just) pip France to the top spot this year. First, the UK remains a fully paid up member of the EU – at least until 29 March 2019. As a result, nothing has changed for the UK as objectively measured by the index. Second, despite the chaotic politics and uncertainty around Brexit, the UK maintains an incredibly well-balanced set of soft power assets – many of which exist outside the control of government. Culture, Digital, and Education are all areas where the UK enjoys considerable stores of soft power and will continue to do so with or without Brexit. Finally, global public opinion of the UK has stabilised. The UK’s polling performance is still worse than pre-Brexit vote highs of 2016, but it is in a better place than last year. Looking ahead, 2019 will be a make or break year for the UK’s soft power. Will we see an isolated British Isles or a new Global Britain?
The UK’s objective soft power assets are the foundation of its continued success. Once again across the Engagement, Culture, Education and Digital sub-indices, Britain ranks highly. State institutions such as the British Council and BBC World Service, combined with internationally recognized brands like the Premier League provide the global reach and influence to reach and engage global audiences. The UK’s creative, cultural, financial and technology sectors keep the world interested in what is happening in Britain. Moreover, the UK is home to some of the world’s most successful higher education institutions that attract students and academics from across the globe.
The major weakness for the UK is the uncertainty around what will happen with respect to the Brexit process next year. That uncertainty has thrown much of the strengths listed above into jeopardy. Will international students still want to come to the UK? Will London hold its dominant position as a leading financial and professional services hub? The UK did see a significant improvement in its rank on the Enterprise sub-index, which is good news. But it would have to do a lot to compete with Singapore or Switzerland for business friendliness. The Government sub-index is the UK’s lowest ranking category. But with Brexit eating Whitehall’s bandwidth, it is hard to see that improving next year.
While striking out alone in the current geopolitical context looks exceedingly risky, the UK has the resources, global connections and infrastructure to make a success of it. To do so will require a positive and inclusive narrative to take to the rest of the world and the right structural policies to keep Britain attractive for foreign investors, tourists and students. The world-leading GREAT campaign has served the UK well in promoting the best of the country to external audiences. Continued investment in the institutions and vehicles that export British soft power will only become more vital as Brexit is completed.