Mark Hunter argues for cultural exchange to improve Britain's relationship with the world

March 13, 2007 11:00 AM
By Mark Hunter

I would like to thank my honourable friend the member for Bath for calling this debate, for my colleagues on both sides of the House for their enlightening comments on this issue.

Britain has a varied and impressive culture of history, art, music, literature, film, theatre, dance, science, sport.

Promoting this 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, our ideals, beliefs and values. The recent incisive Demos paper on cultural diplomacy explains how this is best delivered;

'Cultural exchange gives us the chance to appreciate points of commonality, and where there are differences, to understand the motivations and humanity that underlie them'.

The value of cultural diplomacy, seems to me to be especially relevant in light of today's global developments and problems.

The image of the UK as aggressors as interpreted by many communities, especially those in the middle-east, needs to be combated. If it is not, it will prove detrimental to the long-term diplomatic position of the UK and compromise many of our international objectives.

It is only through cultural dialogue that this belief can be shaken, and only through cultural exchange can we hope to understand the countries with whom we wish to have long and stable relationships.

In the true meaning of liberal foreign policy, I believe cultural exchange can encourage communication, build positive relationships, and allow the cultural norms of peace and diplomacy to flourish.

By creating good communication and positive relationships cultural diplomacy is essential to creating a new thinking on the growing number of issues that can only be tackled through international co-operation, such as environment, terrorism and global citizenship.

In the light of the growing acceptance of the importance of cultural diplomacy, perhaps the Minister can confirm that cultural diplomacy will remain an integral part of foreign policy strategy?

Of course, cultural diplomacy is not a new idea. The British Council, British Museum, V&A and other national museums and cultural institutions have been successfully initiating cultural exchange for years, and are adapting and responding to current situations worldwide. The British Council has recently created a ?20 million programme in the Middle East, while the British Museum's Africa Programme now reaches a total of 20 African countries.

However, other countries are threatening to outpace the UK. France has recently created a new agency 'Cultures France', an organisation with an annual budget of ?20 million.

China is loaning the largest collection of the terracotta warriors ever to the BM for an exhibition this summer.

With other countries realising the importance of cultural exchange and the influence this 'soft power' can achieve in the long-term, this is not a time to 'rest on our laurels'.

We need to support these institutions in their work, and ensure that enough funding is available and continues to be available for museums such as the British Museum.

Funding is needed to allow them to continue loaning exhibitions, to expand their programme, and for other museums to get more involved internationally.

Can the minister confirm that funding for cultural institutions, and in particular for the international exchange of culture conducted by these institutions is recognised as hugely important, and will he assure us he is doing everything possible to protect this budget and where possible increase it?

One important aspect of cultural diplomacy is showing the huge variety of British culture.

We need to break down national stereotypes and as the Demos paper stated challenge 'the perception that a country's political leaders and their policies are identical with the views of their citizens'.

This is all the more important now because of the damage done to Britain's reputation by our invasion of Iraq.

While money needs to be invested in institutions engaging in cultural diplomacy, the government cannot be prescriptive about how the money is spent or what message these 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 given to these institutions will not be tied to specific targets, limiting their flexibility and status as institutions independent of government objectives?

The Government needs to facilitate not 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 allowing the organisations involved to collaborate and coordinate.

Will the minister reassure us that the Government will continue to help facilitate cultural exchange in consultation with key cultural institutions?

Cultural diplomacy does not only just apply to 'high' but also to popular culture; music, films, dance, fashion, comics, websites and other aspects of modern culture.

By appealing to the population at large including its youth, Britain has a chance to change the way we are viewed by other cultures.

We should use technology to do this, the internet and podcasts are just two ways of disseminating modern and traditional culture to the next generation.

India is particularly successful in this area with Bollywood cross-over movies and Bhangra dance hits getting young people all over the globe interested in Indian culture.

Will the minister confirm that funding will be available to cultural institutions to commission, buy or manage examples of the modern culture that is needed to reach the younger international community?

An effective foreign policy strategy will be one which can adapt to the new levels of complexity and challenges of the current climate.

To meet these challenges it must include cultural diplomacy.

With the upcoming Olympics in particular there has never been a better time, to foster good will towards and understanding of Britain, to encourage communication and build positive relationships with other countries.

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