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13 Mar 2007 : Column 40WH—continued

12.2 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): There have been some excellent, thoughtful speeches in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on initiating a debate on a subject that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) said, the House will be debating much more in the future. The hon. Gentleman’s speech was timely and thoughtful, and there were several other thoughtful speeches to which I hope to have time to refer.

It is perhaps not a commonly known fact that the grandfather of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), when in opposition in the immediate aftermath of the war, was one of the people who persuaded the then American President that the present United Nations regime should be set up. It is worth remembering that the universal declaration of human rights stated in article 27:

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That right, which was enshrined in the declaration, is fundamentally important, and it is for all nations of the world.

Throughout history, all the great empires have had great cultural diversity, which they used to further their diplomatic efforts. Britain, of course, was one of the great industrial powers of the 19th century. Its industrial might has declined, but I venture to suggest that its cultural diversity, through all the institutions that we have heard about today, is still as great as it ever was. The great thing about cultural diversity is that it involves people-to-people contact. It should not be Government to Government. It was, I believe, the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) who said that the BBC prides itself on being, not an organ of the British Government, but an organ of the British people. It is superbly successful throughout the world.

Some things will change cultural diplomacy and the world faster than anything else. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex that the world is changing from west to east at a huge pace. Unless one visits China, India and Russia, it is very hard to imagine how quickly the world is changing. It is changing in terms of trade, tourism and educational exchanges. Above all, the thing that will change the world the quickest is quicker communication through the internet, which has already been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage. The Chinese, who currently block the BBC World Service internet site, will find it difficult to carry on doing so after the Olympics in 2008. The expectations of more than 1 billion people in China, and more than 1 billion people in India, will get greater as time goes on, but the Olympics in Beijing will do more to change China than anything else in its recent post-war history.

India, likewise, is changing at a huge rate. It has a young, vibrant population, as do several other large nations such as India, Turkey, Mexico and Brazil. Those people will drive those economies, which will become the world’s next tiger economies.

I entirely agree about the need for universal education. Education is changing the world hugely. I have a daughter who has just graduated from Oxford with a degree in Latin and Spanish and is now teaching Spanish in a rough school in south London on the Government’s teach first programme. I entirely agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey that we should focus on the languages of the world that are spoken the most: Mandarin, Spanish, Urdu and Arabic. We should be concentrating on those languages, not on German and French, the languages of our next-door neighbours, because they simply are not spoken enough. I accept that great literary works have been written in them, but if we want our youngsters to have influence in the world, they should be speaking those other great languages.

Mr. Vaizey: May I take this opportunity to assure my hon. Friend that Didcot is leading the way in my constituency, with St. Birinus and Didcot girls’ school both now teaching Mandarin?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am delighted to hear that. I, too, can cite an example in my constituency. There is a Chinese academy within Katharine Lady Berkeley
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college, which is a state comprehensive school. Indeed, I took the Chinese ambassador to visit the students at the academy. He spoke to them in Chinese, and they were absolutely delighted. I also took him to the Royal Agricultural college in Cirencester, which has a huge number of Chinese students. Again, they could not believe that the Chinese ambassador had taken the trouble to visit them.

We should be participating apace in cultural and educational exchanges, and I agree with others who have said that we should encourage our educational institutions to form satellites in other countries. I saw some world-beating scientific research facilities in Qatar. American universities—Texas and others—were involved, but at that time no British universities were participating. We could do a huge amount in that respect.

On the Olympics, I would like to return to my intervention on the hon. Member for Bath about lottery funding. Lottery funding for the Olympics is all very well, and we totally support the games and are delighted that they are coming to London in 2012. However, I would say through the Minister, who said in an unworthy sotto voce intervention that this is a spending pledge, to other Ministers that they should get a grip on the Olympic budget. There would then not be a need to raid the lottery.

I am concerned—others have mentioned this—that several smaller cultural institutions and performing bodies will be starved of funds because of the diversion of funds to the Olympics. We need to concentrate on a tightly run Olympics with a proper budget and a legacy that will endure. I understand that some of the Olympic buildings will literally be pulled down after the Olympics. That is a great shame. We should be able to devise and design better infrastructure than that.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage that cultural diplomacy requires joined-up government, including not only the Foreign Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport but the Department of Trade and Industry and several other Government Departments. After all, it was the present Government who invented the term “joined-up government”. They do not seem to be practising what they preach. I am delighted to be joined by my hon. Friend, the Member for Wantage who is the newly created DCMS spokesman for our party. I believe that we can all see from the quality of his speech this morning that he will go far in our party, and I welcome him here today.

I totally agree with those who say that we should encourage more scholarships worldwide. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex mentioned the tremendous tribute to his grandfather of the Churchill scholarships, which send youngsters throughout the world to gain experience that they would not be able to get otherwise.

I shall now sum up, as I want the Minister to have plenty of time to reply to the debate. We all recognise the value of cultural diplomacy. We know from history what happened when the iron curtain started to come down. It was the efforts of the BBC World Service and the British Council, slowly making contacts in Russia, people to people—I cannot emphasise too strongly how important that is—that started to change hearts and minds. I worry a little that Russia is starting to go
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back on that: the British Council recently tried to open an office somewhere in the Russian interior and it faced huge obstacles in the form of health and safety regulations. Russian officials hardly know what health and safety regulations are. I do not know the status of that office today, but I hope that it has managed to overcome the Russian bureaucracy.

Derek Wyatt: It has closed.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman says that it has closed. That is a huge pity, and I hope that the Foreign Office has made strong representations about that.

One can travel around the world and see so much good being done by the British Council. The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) and I recently went to Nigeria, where we saw the excellent work being done in Kano, a very remote part of the country. The British Council was bringing young people together so that they could begin to talk about the problems in their lives.

The importance of cultural diplomacy is a growing theme, and the Government must take hold of it. The Foreign Office is beginning to alter its approach, as more or less every embassy and consulate has a cultural officer. However, as I said in a speech the other day, everything depends on how the Foreign Office applies its resources. It has 30 consulates in the United States of America and only seven in China. Given that China’s influence in the world is changing, the Foreign Office too will need to change. The BBC World Service and the British Council recognise that; they have closed stations in Europe and opened some in the middle east. However, I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey: it is worrying that we are not devoting resources to south America, because some of those countries are the real powerhouses of the world to come.

Cultural diplomacy is an activity whose time is coming. The Government and the British people can use it to great advantage if it is considered intelligently and in a joined-up way. The Government can do much more.

12.12 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on securing this debate. I have known him for a long time, and I enjoyed today’s debate as much as I have enjoyed any in this Chamber. We heard visionary suggestions from the hon. Gentleman and from my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) about how we should take the matter forward. I am glad to have the privilege to try to answer some of the questions that have been raised.

Cultural diplomacy is a significant subject, as we heard from almost everyone who has taken part in the debate. Cultural or public diplomacy is hugely important, and we need to work hard to continue to get it right. I assure the House that cultural diplomacy is a key component of our public effort. As we heard, we have outstanding assets in our cultural institutions, our
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higher education sector and our scientific community. All those offer channels through which we can conduct our public diplomacy.

I shall try to deal with some of the issues that have been raised. The hon. Member for Bath gave the good example of Neil MacGregor’s attitude and his belief that the British Museum ought to reach out to other countries and cultures. The hon. Gentleman summed it up by saying that we have to use our cultural talents to build up our international prestige. That is true.

Before I turn to the more visionary suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, I should say this. I do not know exactly how many embassies and missions I visited last year—I think it was 35 or 36—but I have always been passionate about art and I always have a mooch around to see what paintings they have on the walls. They are often huge walls, and the pictures are seen by thousands of people every year. The number of 17th and 18th century naval battles that are depicted on those walls is depressing. The number of gloomy portraits from worthy but not very inspiring British artists of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, too, is pretty depressing.

It has always struck me, and I know that the hon. Member for Bath would agree, that one simple way to start—as he said, it would not cost a great deal—would be to use our cultural talents to build international prestige by hanging some contemporary British art. We have some of the finest contemporary artists. I am not talking about the assemblage rubbish that we so often see in the Turner prize shortlist. I am talking about a lot of tremendous art that comes from our art colleges. We should be trying to reflect contemporary British art.

If I do not see naval battles on the walls, I see pictures by Patrick Lichfield. They are lovely pictures, but it is a portrait of Britain like that shown in “Midsomer Murders”, as if we all live in thatched cottages or dreamy country houses. It has nothing of the dynamicism about which my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey spoke.

I remember being in Beijing and asking which countries China considered to be the most creative. I noted that we were not mentioned. They spoke of the United States—a military power—and of Japan and Germany. I realised after a while that, as far as they were concerned, cultural strength came from car production. I pointed out that most major car companies have British designers, and that the brilliance of the design of components, and often the manufacture of the most scientific pieces of engineering are British. The hon. Member for Bath was right that we do not emphasise that. We are hopeless at it. We do not sell ourselves as we should. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey made some brilliant suggestions about how we should be projecting ourselves. We should celebrate the fact that our great institutions are producing great designers, great artists and great musicians.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) was being a very good parliamentarian and giving everyone else a chance to speak; I was surprised that he did not talk about the enormous impact of British music around the world. I know that he is passionate about it and particularly about those of our orchestras that go
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abroad. When people in Beijing told me that Germany was a great creative power, and far more creative than us, I asked, “When did you last listen to a German pop group?”

Mr. Vaizey: What about Kraftwerk?

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman told us that he is young, but even I am acquainted with that group. It is not a contemporary group; it is almost as old as my favourite group—Steely Dan. However, we must wake up to the fact that we do not celebrate our talents sufficiently.

I shall deal, if I can, with a number of the suggestions that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) raised an important point in his short contribution when he said—I summarise—that he was not that concerned about British universities opening campuses abroad. I tend to agree with him as that is a big financial risk. Nottingham university is the only university with a real campus abroad, which, if I remember correctly, is near Shanghai. Many British universities have a presence abroad, but the route that they have taken, as the hon. Gentleman rightly emphasises, is to try to attract people here so that they can maintain a reputation for excellence. That means that the world’s top 50 universities are still dominated by American and British universities. I am sure that he will agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey that the last thing we should do is rest on our laurels regarding that issue.

We talk—this country does so constantly—about the days of mass manufacturing that we will never go back to, about not having a steel industry that compares with that of China or Brazil and about not having a coal mining industry like that of the past. We must now live off our brains and our wits. We should ensure that although we promote excellence in UK educational institutions, as my hon. Friend said, we might be missing out on opportunities by not thinking about our presence overseas. We do so at our peril and we must be awake to that issue. That is the real value of what my hon. Friend has said and we must be careful that we do not miss a trick in dealing with that.

On the important point made by a number of hon. Members about joined-up Government, as hon. Members will know, the Public Diplomacy Board chaired by Lord Triesman now meets frequently. Lord Triesman is passionate about a number of aspects of culture in this country and is a good chair for the board. The British Council and the BBC World Service are involved with the board, and I take the point made by hon. Members that other interests should also be included. The only drawback is where to limit the number of organisations that are represented on such boards. The Public Diplomacy Partners Group—a dreadful title—is chaired by VisitBritain and is comprised of the BBC World Service, the British Council, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Northern Ireland civil service, the Office of Science and Innovation, the Scottish Executive, UK Sport, UK Trade and Investment, UK Visas,
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VisitBritain, Visit London, the Welsh Assembly and an independent member. I am sure that organisations are missing from that list, but it is enough to demonstrate that the board is very big. Having sat on the original creative industries task force—one of the worst titles ever invented—I remember how difficult it was to start to drill down to issues that might make a difference to how we portray and sell ourselves abroad and hon. Members are right to emphasise that we must get joined-up Government right in relation to that issue.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Joined-up Government is important and I have a great deal of respect for the Minister’s colleague, Lord Triesman. It is good news that he is chair of the Public Diplomacy Board. However, I gently suggest to the Minister that we need to hear more about the board’s decisions, deliberations and, particularly, what it has managed to achieve. If the board will be the gateway for the Government’s efforts on joined-up Government in relation to diplomacy, we would like to hear more about it.

Dr. Howells: That is a very constructive suggestion and I will certainly pass it on to Lord Triesman. The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) mentioned the need generally to make information available on our websites. He also usefully suggested that if the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport makes a significant speech about our cultural relations with other countries, it should be on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s website as well as on that of the DCMS website.

Mr. Vaizey: It is not even on the DCMS website.

Dr. Howells: That is an important point and I am sure that my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will be interested in that.

The debate was initiated by the hon. Member for Bath and therefore I will return to some of the suggestions that he made. He said that Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomats should be educated in the cultural heritage of the country to which they will be posted. That is a good suggestion. We try to do so already, but I will admit that the system is a bit ad hoc. Generally speaking, if our ambassadors and high commissioners are not passionately interested in the culture of the country in which they represent the UK, they are by the end of their tours of duty. If that is not the case, they become bad ambassadors and high commissioners. The hon. Gentleman was right to emphasise that issue. We try to train ambassadors and high commissioners in that area and run extensive pre-posting courses at the Department, which is an important part of the work that we do.

Mr. Wills: I think that most diplomats who are posted overseas are educated in the language of that country. The language of a country forms a passport to its cultural heritage.

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