Soft power
Soft power

'Power comes out of the barrel of a gun,' said the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong. It's certainly true that holding a gun to someone's head - threatening them with violence or death - is a very effective way of getting them to do what you want. We're fortunate enough to live in a society in which this very direct kind of power is rarely exercised. However, the practice of getting people to do things by force is still widespread. Although the police in Britain are not routinely armed, they do have the right to deprive you of your liberty by arresting you if they suspect you of breaking the law. If you are subsequently found guilty of a crime, the courts have the power to deprive you of your liberty for a very long time - even the rest of your life, for the most serious offences. If you try to escape from the police or from prison, you will be physically restrained. There is a reason we talk about the law being 'enforced'; it depends ultimately on the threat of physical force. Similarly, we talk about the 'Armed Forces'. They are allowed - in fact, they are trained - to injure and kill people, and to destroy property, in defence of the country. This is true of every army in the world. Armed force is one of the main ways in which countries exercise power over each other, through the implicit or explicit threat that they will use violence to get their way.

The force of the law and the force of war are two examples of hard power; getting people to do what you want by threatening them with something worse if they don't do it. However, there is another kind of power which can sometimes be more effective; a power which depends less on fear of harm, and more on persuasion and influence. It is called soft power.

Here are some examples of soft power.

1. Institutions

Most people don't spend the night before their mother's funeral hosting a party for nearly a hundred kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers. But most people aren't the British monarch. The British monarchy has next to no political power; King Charles has to do what the elected prime minister tells him to do. But the monarchy as an institution has enormous soft power. The late Queen Elizabeth II was one of the most famous and recognisable people in the world, and had the power to draw some of the most powerful and influential people in the world to her funeral in September 2022. We do not know what was discussed at the pre-funeral reception at Buckingham Palace, but it was a truly exceptional networking opportunity for members of the British government. During her life, being photographed next to the Queen was a major incentive for world leaders to come to Britain for serious negotiations. There is a debate to be had about whether having a hereditary head of state is appropriate in the twenty-first century, but there is no doubt about the influence of the monarchy on the way Britain is perceived around the world.

Almost as many people have heard of Eton College and Oxford and Cambridge Universities as have heard of Queen Elizabeth II. Eton and other prestigious private schools are, along with 'Oxbridge', associated the world over with elite education. As with the monarchy, it can be argued that these institutions entrench power in the hands of a tiny minority, and are ripe for reform, if not abolition. However, they add much to Britain's status around the world. And there is an economic benefit to be had from them too. They bring in hundreds of millions of pounds of foreign currency every year in student fees. They, along with the monarchy, form a major part of the British tourist industry; free-spending foreigners flock to Buckingham Palace, Eton, Windsor, Oxford and Cambridge every year. They wouldn't do that to look at a few functional government offices and a collection of modern classrooms, libraries and labs.

2. Culture

'We may be a small country,' says the fictional prime minister played by Hugh Grant in the perennial Christmas favourite Love Actually (2002), 'but we're a great one too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery [the first actor to play James Bond] and Harry Potter.' He has just come out of a difficult meeting with the US president, and feels the need to boost Britain's status. It is very telling that he gives four examples from the creative arts, and only one from politics. The songs of the Beatles are only made up words and sounds; the people in Shakespeare's plays are imaginary, or if they are real, they are given invented dialogue; Harry Potter and James Bond don't exist (sorry if this disappoints you). And yet these names are known around the world, and add much to Britain's reputation. As with the institutions discussed above, there is an economic benefit attached to Britain's cultural reputation. A major draw for tourists coming to London is its reputation for world class theatre. (There is a debate to be had about why so much culture is concentrated in London, at the expense of other parts of the country.) After they've been to the theatre, tourists may head for Stratford-upon-Avon, Harry Potter World and the Beatles Museum in Liverpool. And then there's the millions of pounds that have been made from the Harry Potter books, films and stripy scarves.

The BBC is another example of cultural soft power. It is not without its faults, but it holds on to its reputation for unbiased and well informed news coverage. In many countries, the broadcast media is little more than a mouthpiece for the government. In others (such as the US), it is divided into partisan factions whose function is less to inform people and more to reinforce their prejudices. The BBC does not take political sides, and does not have to do what the government tells it to; hence it is respected round the world by fair minded people, and feared by dictators.

Of course, it is not only Britain that has cultural power. Think of the power of Hollywood, of how for decades American life and American values have been beamed into countries across the world, making the American way of doing things seem like the norm.

3. Sport

Why have a succession of foreign governments and billionaire oligarchs with no apparent interest in football bought up English football clubs? Why did Qatar, a country with little or no footballing culture, host the men's football world cup in 2022? Why is the austerely Islamic desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where women have only recently been given permission to drive, suddenly so interested in golf and Formula One?

Sport should be a fun activity pursued only for its own sake. However, it is followed avidly by billions of people around the world, and is a huge part of national identity. Sport can be an example of soft power at its best. The 2012 London Olympics gave Britain a sense of itself as a confidently inclusive nation, proud of its diversity and its solidarity. Argentina's victory in the 2022 World Cup brought millions of people onto the streets in a spontaneous expression of joy. These effects have been repeated many times across many tournaments and nations. Sport can also be used as a different kind of soft power, by becoming a disguise for wrongdoing. The dodgy practices resorted to in making a fortune get overlooked when some of that fortune is being spent on a top new striker for your club; Qatar's anti-gay laws and Saudi Arabia's appalling human rights record get forgotten in the adrenaline rush of the World Cup final or the Grand Prix. This is sometimes known as sportswashing.

At the time of King Charles's coronation in May 2023, the satirical magazine Private Eye ran a headline 'Man Sits on Chair and Puts On Hat'. This was rather missing the point. They could just as well have covered the World Cup final with the headline 'Twenty-Two Men Kick Ball Round Field'. Both headlines are literally true, but ignore the vast cultural power carried by events such as the coronation or the World Cup final. This is still true even if you argue (as you certainly can) that the monarchy is an anachronism or that international football is corrupt. Soft power matters.

Now look at the list of motions below and think about how they are connected with the idea of soft power. How might you refer to soft power when debating them?

Motions that go with this topic.

1. This house would abolish the British monarchy.
2. This house would abolish private schools.
3. This house would oblige Oxford and Cambridge to accept 90% of its intake from state schools.
4. This house would abolish government funding for the arts.
5. This house would move the National Theatre / the Royal Opera House / the National Gallery from London to 6. Manchester / Glasgow / Cardiff.
6. This house would exempt creative artists from income tax.
7. This house would privatise the BBC.
8. This house believes Hollywood has too much power.
9. This house would decide venues for all major world sporting events by random ballot.
10. This house would boycott sporting events hosted by countries with poor human rights records.
11. This house would ban foreign ownership of English football clubs.
12. This house believes sport is a force for good.