In the previous part we considered why the UK is seemingly able to exert continued influence on the global stage. Continuing on this theme, this article will now look at some other less quantifiable factors which means that the UK continues to be seen as a nation able to exert influence on the global stage.
A global legacy, and a global presence
Although the vast majority of the British imperial population has now passed on, there is still a legacy footprint of both those who settled in nations when they were still imperial possessions, and also those who were born imperial subjects, but who became independent leaders. Although very difficult to quantify, the UK is still in a position where in many nations around the world, diplomatic relations are held with people who remember the UK as a former colonial power, and who may have benefited from access to education or training in the UK.
In practical terms this means little, but in terms of opening doors, or enabling a newly arrived High Commissioner to talk to senior statesmen and officials who perhaps benefited from the UKs former presence, this can be most helpful. We as a nation perhaps overplay the ‘imperial guilt’ card, while forgetting that the Imperial legacy is perhaps seen in a more positive way in these nations. These individuals occupy places of power, send their children to British schools and are able to exert influence in their own nations. The ability of the UK to build relationships with people who have a positive memory of our shared past is tremendously helpful at times – it enables doors to be opened, and quiet words to be had. It does not shape policy, but it does help secure an audience with some who may be able to help us.
There are still many UK nationals working overseas, both from imperial days and more recently as advisers. This also helps us deliver influence in some nations. One only has to look at the Middle East to see that many of the nations there discretely rely on well placed UK individuals to provide advice on a range of matters, from military to security to political issues. Similarly, there are many well place businessmen, helping bring about success in national industries and developing an indigenous ability. This matters because although these advisers do not work for the UK government, there is doubtless back channels and conversations which go on, that can help shape policy. One of our national advantages when it comes to trying to get support for a particular action, or lobby in favour of a contract or other matter is that we have people already well placed within these national systems to offer advice. Again, this is not something which by itself enables the UK to stride the world stage, but it does mean that we as a nation can sometimes have the ability to open doors where other nations fail – allowing us the opportunity to lobby, cajole or quietly whisper in the ear of someone who may otherwise be unavailable.
A global location
This may sound daft, but more good often comes from a discrete meeting over coffee or a meal than days of international negotiations. It allows UK principals to build up genuine relationships of trust with people as they are able to see them often enough to really get to know them. One only has to look at the way that many senior Arabs decant to London each summer to realise that the UK has a uniquely placed ability to influence people. It is a location people want (or need) to visit, an international crossroads that allows us to deal with people in a manner many nations cannot. There are many countries – say France or Italy, which have relatively few connecting flights, meaning there is less need for foreign figures to transit – this in turn makes visits more business related, less likely to occur regularly and reduces the ability to build up an international relationship. Never underestimate the importance of personal relationships when it comes to conducting international diplomacy.
Similarly, the UK is very well placed to act as a hub nation for diplomatic networks. London is home to one of the largest diplomatic communities in the world, with many nations basing their diplomatic staff here, and using a so-called ‘hub and spoke’ network to send them elsewhere in Europe. This means that the FCO is able to easily call on almost every nation on earths representative within hours. By contrast, many nations have very small diplomatic communities, and the ability to actually get hold of someone, or talk to them and do business is far more difficult.
This works both ways – a strong diplomatic presence here means we can lobby for business, make nations aware of our views on matters of concern, and send messages directly to foreign capitals. The UK is able to bring together nations in London – in an international crisis, where London is seeking to build consensus, it is easy to bring in the diplomatic community to work together in a manner simply not possible in other nations. We find it easy to make our views known on the world stage.
Finally we are the beneficiary of a very helpful time zone – do not underestimate how valuable it is for London to be at the centre of the worlds timezones. The UK is geographically placed in a perfect position to do business all day long across the globe. When our officials and businessmen go to work in the morning, they are able to talk to Australia and the Pacific on the same day. They can then work in near parity with Europe, enabling decisions to be made during the working day, and after lunch, they can then attend conference calls with their partners across the Atlantic who are coming into work.
The fact is that the GMT time zone means that the UK is able to do business during the same working day with all the nations of the world that matter to us, in a way that others can’t. Unlike Australia, where having a conference call with the US means one coming in very early, the other going home very late, we are able to usually work at a mutually agreeable time.
This may sound a silly thing, but as the author knows from all to personal experience, if you are deployed in an operational theatre and need to sort out matters of state, knowing London is working, and can get an answer to you, makes a big difference compared to US colleagues, who know they are 5-6 hours away from guidance.
A global brand
Finally, it is worth remembering that the Royal Family themselves allows the UK to exert a level of influence and access that most nations can only dream of. The news that the Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant was front page or very prominent news across much of the globe. It is exceptionally unlikely that similar news from any other nations ‘first family’ would achieve the same effect.
The Royal Family are a truly international brand, and a globally known. The hosting of a State visit by HM The Queen is a highlight in many nations, and has often seen enormous publicity. The Royal Family get access and opportunity to meet and discuss matters with some of the most influential people in the world, and as such are uniquely well placed to make discrete points on behalf of the Government.
Never underestimate how much value the UK gets from its Royal Family – they provide a level of interest and genuine affection which no politician could hope to achieve. As a symbol of British values and views, the hosting (or cancelling) of a Royal Visit can have major diplomatic implications. It is fair to say that when HM The Queen has conducted state visits, then there is often a significant improvement in national relationships. Just look at Ireland, where her visit helped tangibly demonstrate how much progress has been made in the relationship between the two countries.
This is a point worth remembering – any nation can send a diplomatic visitor, but few of these visits attract much interest or value. The Royal Family can conduct visits which occupy a much higher profile, and allow the UK significant influence on a range of matters. As a symbol they embody much of what people think the UK is about. Finally they are a link to the past, and much as noted above about advisers in former colonial possessions, they are able to be a bridge between the past and the future, and remind people of where they have gone, while stimulating relationships for the future.
This article has focused on many things which one cannot quantify, but which do add incalculable value to the ability of the UK to exert influence on the world stage. The key point that should be remembered is that this needs to be seen as being part of a wider piece, linking to the diplomatic efforts cited in part one.
The next part of the article will try and focus in more depth about what we think we mean by ‘influence’ and try to consider what soft power, and influence in general does for the UK as a whole.