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Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I am grateful to be called and I shall be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on his choice of such an important topic and on giving such a good
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speech. I agreed with almost everything that he said, but I should like to make a few comments.

First, the cuddly element of the hon. Gentleman’s speech—that cultural diplomacy enables warring factions to come together and that substantial work therefore needs to be done by Foreign Ministers of those parties—is not really the best argument for cultural diplomacy. The same can be said for funerals. I remember well that when General de Gaulle died my father was the ambassador in Paris. The event was regarded as a working funeral. My father’s timetable over those three days was blocked from end to end with meetings with important people with whom the British Government wished to do business, but in Paris not in London. Let us therefore move away a little bit from the cuddly element of cultural diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy should be what it is: a brilliantly successful form of diplomacy with a hard edge attached, and that hard edge is the British national interest.

I agree with the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) that we have remarkable and brilliant institutions in this country, including the BBC World Service, the British Council, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the arts, the theatre, music and, above all, the English language. Indeed, we have such an astonishing portfolio to use in cultural diplomacy that it is almost embarrassing. My point to the Minister is that as power shifts inexorably from the west to the east, which it is doing, perhaps faster than any of us recognise, and as the Foreign Office rebalances its dispositions to reflect that—which I hope it is doing and, from reading its annual reports I believe it is doing—so we need to shift our balance of cultural diplomacy to reflect those interests.

I agree very much with what the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said about teaming up our great academic institutions with institutions abroad. However, his list of scholarships left out Churchill scholarships, which send hundreds of people abroad and are one of the most remarkable and brilliant memorials to my grandfather. They have achieved so much for people in this country and their interests. The scholarships have enabled people to discover things for themselves overseas and overseas people have learned things from them.

I so admire the work of the British Council. When I was a Defence Minister, I always tried to call on British Council offices when I was abroad. One cannot be other than awestruck by what it does and the value for money that it gives. Incidentally, I know that the Minister will understand that the same applies to defence diplomacy, which is also an extraordinarily important part of our portfolio of diplomatic effort. Every time we go abroad, we find people who want places at the staff college at Sandhurst and other great British military institutions, which are able to offer very limited numbers of places to foreigners. However, what they are able to offer is greatly appreciated and the service is in great stead overseas.

Finally, I too am a great fan of Joe Nye. All my political life since I read his book about soft power and listened to him talking about it, I have been deeply influenced by what he said about the use of soft power. What has happened in Iraq and military adventurism generally means that the rise and use of soft power will be even more important than it ever was. Of course it
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has to be backed by the ability to deliver a good punch if we need to do so, but it is to soft power that the modern world is best suited—something fully networked and integrated. For example, we could do far more things with our cultural diplomacy through the Commonwealth, which is surely one of the greatest unexploited institutions.

I entirely support the speech made by the hon. Member for Bath. It is extremely timely and I agree wholeheartedly with it. I urge the Government to make the diplomatic, cultural and defence diplomacy effort much more co-ordinated, as the balance of power shifts inexorably from the west to the east.

11.42 am

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): I am grateful for being allowed to speak, particularly as I arrived late; my apologies for that. I should like to make a few remarks to follow the excellent contributions that I came here to hear.

I agree with everything that has been said about the importance of soft power, which will become more and more important; I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) very much on that. I pay tribute to all the institutions to which the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) also paid tribute, such as the BBC and the British Council. They are wonderful and precious British institutions that we need to cherish and continue to fund adequately.

I have not heard so far about how we project soft power. The traditional view is that we exercise it through institutions, such as the British Council and the BBC World Service, that are focused specifically on projecting overseas. However, in the modern world we also have to consider what we do here. It would be a mistake if we thought that our great universities and cultural institutions—our theatres, museums and so on—had to project their presences overseas to be able to project soft power. What is important is that people will focus on what happens in this country much more than they ever used to. We do not necessarily only need the British Council, with its offices overseas, to make people see what we can contribute as a nation and to enhance our status in the world, which, as many much more distinguished contributors than I have said, is increasingly important in the whole business of diplomacy.

It is important that in this country we fund our great universities adequately and bring students here. We do not have to work that hard to enshrine English as a global language; it is already that. We need to enshrine excellence in this country. That must be the foundation. I am sure that shortly my hon. Friend the Minister will talk about funding; I hope that he will bear it in mind that there is a seamless web between what we do with our great cultural institutions in this country—they are world class and we need to keep them so—and what we do in projecting soft power overseas.

11.45 am

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on
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securing it. As he pointed out, the reason why cultural diplomacy is high on the agenda is the publication of the Demos pamphlet on the issue. I should like to take a few seconds to praise the work of John Holden and Demos. In the world of the policy wonk, it is probably the leading think-tank contributing to debates on culture.

An important conference on the Demos pamphlet was held in the Victoria and Albert museum; delegates were surrounded by Raphael cartoons. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made a keynote speech on the importance of cultural diplomacy. It is interesting to note that her speech does not appear on her Department’s website. Will the Minister jot a note to her to tell her to put it there so that a much wider audience is made aware of the importance that the Government put on cultural diplomacy?

I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), which were to an extent echoed by Sir Richard Dalton, our former ambassador to Iran. He was at the conference that I mentioned, and made the point that one must not load too much of a burden on cultural diplomacy or expect culture to have an enormous impact on foreign relations. At the end of the day, our Foreign Secretary can still always pick up the phone and speak to another Foreign Secretary, regardless of whether they have met at an exhibition. However, that is the only note of caution that I inject.

I join the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) in praising the work of the British Council, which does a remarkable job. I was lucky enough to visit Iran last year and to see the work—cross-cultural work, if you like—done there on a very limited budget by the British Council. I talked to a number of Iranian students who had had the chance to study in England. It is important to recognise that the council is not simply a cultural, but an educational institution. Its work spreads far and wide. The diplomatic work of getting young people to experience our culture and vice versa is of immense value.

I should like to make a few suggestions. I hasten to add that they are neither spending commitments nor policies, but the thoughts of a young man new to Parliament and to his brief as the shadow arts spokesman for the Conservatives. First, I entirely echo the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. I have a dream: I would love to see the Tate, the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert museum have buildings—physical presences—in some of the major capitals of the world, be they Delhi, Beijing or even, in future, Tehran.

We think nothing of having an embassy as a venue in which we can carry out our diplomatic work, although I add a huge note of sadness: some of the great buildings that the British own in capitals around the world are being sold off simply because our Government understand the price of everything and the value of nothing. They take an extremely short-term view.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s dream. I praise the work of the British Museum, which has an increasingly valuable programme with China, highlighted by the hon. Member for Bath. I hope that that will increase.

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I shall reveal again my obsession with websites in saying that I had a scoot around the websites of the Tate, the V&A and the British Museum. Perhaps the disappointment of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey comes from the fact that those websites simply do not talk about the work that the institutions are doing. The Tate is doing remarkable work in Syria, but, as far as I am aware, a person looking at its website would be completely unaware of that. Our institutions need to shout about the things that they do.

I also recommend that the Minister follow the example of the two main Opposition parties—here am I and my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), shadow culture spokesman and shadow foreign affairs spokesman respectively, while across the Chamber are the hon. Member for Bath, the Liberal Democrat shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman. We—and they—work in harmony together as an example of joined-up government. Sadly, no Government culture Minister is present at this debate. I believe that the Department of Trade and Industry, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and even the Department for International Development need to work together to co-ordinate.

It is interesting that tonight in New York Malcolm McLaren will promote the British music industry under the DTI’s auspices. Our cultural institutions need a one-stop shop, as recommended by the Demos pamphlet, whereby if they have a proposal and want to do something abroad they can walk through one door and have the expertise of all four Departments available.

Another important factor is the signing of cultural memorandums of understanding with other countries. I was told by a director of one of our museums two months ago—I wrote about it on my blog—that we do not have a cultural memorandum of understanding with India and that was one of the reasons why an important exhibition of Indian art sourced in the UK was unable to go to India. I confess that I do not understand the technicalities, but I offered the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who I know reads my blog, the advice that when he went to India he should sign a cultural memorandum of understanding with India. It would be interesting to know what the position is. It is telling that the Indian high commissioner in this country has sent hon. Members catalogues of the Chola bronzes that are on show at the Royal Academy of Arts. That is an example of a diplomat who recognises that his role is to promote Indian culture as well as the hard strategic interests of India.

It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s thoughts and reflections on our work with UNESCO. Many of the museum directors who I talked to and who are involved in the international museums organisations say that Britain does not pull its weight in UNESCO. That organisation offers a huge opportunity for us to shape the international cultural climate. Perhaps we do not take it seriously enough; I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views.

In some of my interventions, I have said how I feel about the importance of the cultural Olympiad. It is an enormous scandal that the Big Lottery Fund turned
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down proposals to revamp Exhibition road. There are huge opportunities to build or create cultural icons and institutions in the run-up to the Olympics and that would leave a huge legacy across the country and provide an enormous welcome mat for the millions of people who will come to this country.

Parliament will debate cultural diplomacy more frequently. The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill is being considered, and it provides an important snapshot showing the importance of getting the balance right between allowing exhibitions to come to this country and protecting the rights of those who feel that the cultural icons on show have been stolen from them. Later this year, I hope—perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on its progress—we will debate a cultural property Bill, allowing Parliament to show that in all our diplomatic efforts we will respect the cultural property rights of other countries. I shall be brief, because my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold, as shadow spokesman for foreign affairs, will wind up for the Conservatives, which gives an example of our close working relationship as we take forward our thoughts and proposals on cultural diplomacy.

11.53 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on securing the debate. As other hon. Members have said, he has raised a number of important issues and concerns that are worthy of serious debate and a proper response.

Britain has a varied and impressive culture in so many areas—in history, art, music, literature, film, theatre, dance, science and sport, to name just a few of the more obvious. I contend that promoting that culture can and should be done internationally as an integral part of foreign policy in the form of cultural diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy should always show the rest of the world who we are and our ideals, beliefs and values. As the recent incisive Demos paper on cultural diplomacy said:

The value of cultural diplomacy seems especially relevant in the light of today’s global developments and challenges.

The image of the United Kingdom as an aggressor held by so many countries across the world, especially in the middle east, needs to be combated. If it is not, it will prove to be detrimental to the long-term diplomatic position of the UK and will compromise many of our international objectives. That belief can be shaken only through cultural dialogue, and only through cultural exchange can we hope to understand the countries with which we wish to have long and stable relationships.

I believe that in liberal foreign policy, in its true meaning, cultural exchange can deliver three important things. First, it can encourage communication. Secondly, it can help to build positive relationships. Thirdly, it can allow the cultural norms of peace and diplomacy to flourish. As it creates good communication and positive relationships, cultural diplomacy is essential in creating a new thinking on the growing number of issues that
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can be tackled only through international co-operation—the environment, terrorism and global citizenship, to name but three. In the light of the growing acceptance of the importance of cultural diplomacy, will the Minister confirm that efforts to promote it will remain integral to foreign policy strategy?

Of course, cultural diplomacy is not a new idea. The British Council, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and many other institutions have successfully initiated cultural exchanges for many years. They are adapting and responding to conditions worldwide. The British Council recently created a £20 million programme in the middle east, and the British Museum’s Africa programme reaches 20 African countries.

It is true that other countries threaten to outpace the UK. For example, France recently created a new agency—Cultures France—with an annual budget of some £20 million. China is loaning the largest collection of terracotta warriors ever seen to the British Museum for an exhibition this summer, but as other countries realise the importance of cultural exchange and the long-term influence that soft power can achieve, this is not the time to rest on our laurels. We need to support the institutions in their work and to ensure that enough funding is available and continues to be available for museums such as the British Museum. That funding is needed to allow them to continue to loan exhibitions and expand their programmes, and to allow other museums to become involved internationally. Will the Minister confirm that funding for cultural institutions, and in particular for the international exchange of culture conducted by such institutions, is recognised as hugely important? Will he assure us that he is doing everything possible to protect the budget and, where possible, to increase it?

An important aspect of cultural diplomacy is the promotion of the huge variety of British culture. We need to break down national stereotypes and, as the Demos paper stated, to challenge

That is all the more important because of the damage done to Britain’s reputation by our invasion of Iraq. Although money needs to be invested in institutions that engage in cultural diplomacy, the Government cannot be prescriptive about how that money is spent or about the message that the institutions are supporting. They need to be seen to be independent, or we risk cultural exchange being mistaken for cultural imperialism and propaganda. Will the Minister confirm that any extra funding that might be given to such institutions in future will not be tied to specific targets that might limit their flexibility and status as institutions independent of Government objectives?

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): As we recognise the concentration on improving British Council services and the BBC World Service in the middle east, is there not a danger that if we concentrate too much on the middle east that could suck away resources from other areas of the world? That can be seen in the recent cuts to the British Council in Latin America, which could be an important region in 15 or 20 years’ time.

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Mark Hunter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes a valid point about priorities, which of course is what the art of government is all about. However, the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Bath has introduced today is intended to place cultural policy firmly on the agenda and make it an integral part of what the foreign policy of this country ought to be. If the debate succeeds in doing nothing more than raising the profile of these issues, it will have succeeded.

The Government need to facilitate, not to direct, cultural diplomacy. They need to involve leading cultural professionals in the foreign policy-making process and include cultural professionals in diplomatic visits. They also need to create a framework that allows the organisations that are involved to collaborate and to co-ordinate their activities.

Cultural diplomacy is relevant not only to high culture but to popular culture, including music, films, dance, sport, fashion, comics and websites. It is by appealing to the population at large, including youth, that Britain has a chance to change the way that it is viewed by other cultures. As other hon. Members have said, we should use technology to do that. The internet and podcasts are just two ways of disseminating modern and traditional culture to the next generation. India, as hon. Members will know, is particularly successful in that respect, with Bollywood cross-over movies and bhangra dance hits getting young people all over the globe interested in Indian culture. I ask the Minister to confirm that funding will continue to be available to cultural institutions to commission, buy or manage examples of modern culture that are needed to reach the younger international community.

In conclusion, an effective foreign policy strategy is one that can adapt to new levels of complexity and the challenges of the current climate. To meet those challenges, it must include cultural diplomacy. With the upcoming 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games in particular, there has never been a better time to foster understanding of and good will towards Britain, and to encourage communication and build positive relationships with other countries. Let us be sure that we are doing everything that we can to seize those opportunities.

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