UK: let’s do a soft power audit

In a month when the UK parliament has been riven with debate over cutting the country’s foreign aid budget, it might be useful to consider a hypothetical experiment. Imagine that you were a country that “had form” in the hard power stakes and decided, in the language of today’s business schools, that it was time to pivot. Over the centuries, you had created the most extensive and technologically sophisticated an Empire as the world has ever seen, and now you want to put bombs and gunboats away and concentrate on the means by which the world is charmed into cooperation rather than muscled into compliance.

On a checklist of the capabilities you would need to draw upon and then skilfully deploy, what might be identified as the most promising market sectors? Our key consideration must be that these sectors are proven to be vital everywhere in persuading and helping: bringing people to a higher regard for so skilled and beneficent a provider that your influence with the recipients can only be enhanced.

Inspired by the history of the area of central London celebrated by Cradle of English, with the cultural advances reflected in the product of its printing presses over 500 years, the advocate for Fleet Street would simply recognise what it took to take the English language over those five centuries and turn it into the world’s premier language, not only in the context of banking and financial services, science, research, and medicine; but in the language “of the street” – absorbed in today’s world by the multimedia sectors, fashion, computer games, literature, the performing arts and cultural curation.

The UK has a market-dominating position in all of these sectors and, through the momentum established by English having become the world’s premier language of the street, these contributors to the service economy deserve all the encouragement and investment they can get – all the more since the depredations inflicted on the economy by Covid.

Higher up the slopes of language, educational exchange, and professional regard, the UK also exercises a degree of influence in the world second only to the 5x-bigger USA, largely through established centres of excellence in our universities – four in the global top ten; Artificial Intelligence labs – three in the global top ten depending on your source; health and biosciences and engineering technology research bases in London, Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh. On it goes.

And last though far from least in the cultural profile stakes, there is one of the world’s oldest, long-established legal professions: eight centuries of practising and now very largely serving the world from a London base – including 50k+ solicitors and some 15k barristers in London alone. This will be a blog on its own before long.

Given the long and good work of the (now-named) Commonwealth Education Trust and The British Council, the UK remains mindful of the need to keep promoting its strengths in a rapidly changing world. It only remains to maintain vigilance in ensuring the continued cooperation of the visa-granting authorities.

Genius: singular, plural, collective . . .

Dr Samuel Johnson provides in his famous Dictionary several definitions of the word “genius” – all of which have weathered the 250 intervening years, but for the casual sexism of their day. Read “person” for man and these reflections hold up well:  a man endowed with superior faculties; mental power or faculties; disposition of nature by which any one is qualified for some peculiar employment; Nature, disposition . . .

The study of genius prompts reflections on what those faculties and disposition might consist of; less often is the genius measured by the intensity of its force or application, or the context within which it is exercised.

Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate begins his fascinating study of “The Genius of Shakespeare” with an extended quotation from an allegory of The Bard’s life written by no less a genius himself than Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote:

“History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.”

Implicit in this notion of the Alpha Genius is the instant refutation of the “authorship controversy” on which scholar Bate devotes so much space and time in his book: as if the attributes of such genius as could write those plays could not rise above the constraints of learning Latin in a middling provincial town rather than at Oxbridge; as if there is not a considerable literature based upon people who have risen above humble origins to attract the admiration of posterity; as if indeed there are not thousands of people in England alone who were well-born and better-educated and yet never wrote a play.

Of the definitions offered by Dr Johnson, the one not quoted above was perhaps the most intriguing and so, possibly, was listed first: “the protecting or ruling power of men, places, or things”. There cannot be anything of genius inherent in those things or the cities in which they are collected. It is the men (and the women, Dr Johnson) who bring their collective faculties, natures, and dispositions to bear upon the fashioning of a place as a proving ground of genius.

The fascinating questions about Shakespeare are not who might have been the better genius if they’d been born a Lord or learned Latin in a better school. His birth and schooling were sufficient to ensure that he was no flower “born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” His genius did the rest.

Far more interesting is what made London the fertile ground of collective genius over centuries, from Shakespeare through Sir Isaac Newton, Edmund Burke, and Dr Johnson to Charles Dickens and goodness know who else, still living?