The UK slips to 2nd place this year, after another year of turbulent domestic politics. Brexit continues to dominate the headlines, even more so with a new Prime Minister at helm looking to force a constitutional showdown. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson moved into Downing Street, an unprecedented 17 ministers resigned or were sacked, resulting in a new-look cabinet determined to get Brexit done. But as of publication, Brexit remains in limbo. Despite the Brexit uncertainty, the UK continues to perform well across the Engagement, Culture, Education, and Digital sub-indices – well enough to hold onto the second overall spot in the top 30. However, poorer performances in the Government and Enterprise sub-indices, as well as a fall in the international polling, are worrying signs that the process of Brexit may finally be chipping away at British soft power. On the upside, however, UK tech companies secured record high foreign investments, and unicorns such as Revolut, Transferwise, and Deliveroo are thriving in fiercely competitive global markets. The UK continues to cultivate British soft power through major institutions like the British Council and BBC World Service, and retains the ability to drive global action through its memberships of international organisations like the UN Security Council, the Commonwealth, and NATO. Over the past few years, the HM Government has been pushing the “Global Britain” narrative aggressively as a response to claims of a more inward-looking post-Brexit Britain. But until Britain has resolved the political crisis around Brexit and can chart a course for the future, the UK – and its soft power – are likely to remain in a holding pattern.
The UK’s greatest soft power strengths remains in the Culture and Education sub-indices. British art, film, music, and sport continue to hold enormous global appeal – from Ed Sheeran to Harry Potter and the Premier League – and tourism continues to flourish with its abundance of museums, galleries, and theatres. The UK is also home to some of the top universities in the world, and their research output helps drive global innovation. Despite initial concerns around the impact of Brexit, UK universities continue to attract the second highest number of international students globally.
The UK’s biggest soft power weakness is the continued uncertainty around Brexit, which has hamstrung British business with uncertainty and consumed virtually all of the government’s bandwidth. This year, the UK posted poorer performances across the Enterprise and Government sub-indices, and the international polling. The UK dropped two places in the World Economic Forum Competitiveness Index, saw a fall in overall Foreign Direct Investment, and suffered the high-profile loss of Dyson’s headquarters to Singapore. The divisive domestic politics of Brexit and the government’s inability to find a workable solution are also impacting the way the world views the UK, and not in a good way.
The UK has yet to match the resources and investments needed to fulfill its “Global Britain” ambition – and it can only rely on this rhetoric for so long. The sheer amount of bandwidth consumed by Brexit has left the UK with little capacity to make headway on other issues – domestic or global. Outside of Brexit, the UK continues to hold a wealth of soft power assets, which need to be deployed in a coordinated way. The question is which way and for what purpose? Above all, the UK needs a resolution to Brexit – one way or the other – and with it, a clear new direction to sail HMS Global Britain.