The United Kingdom is in danger. Covert campaigning for the future of the union is gearing up ahead of the Holyrood elections in Scotland and the local and regional mayoral elections in England this May. Michael Gove has created the ‘Union Directorate’ in the Cabinet Office, tasking a range of impressive civil servants with the job of selling and ‘saving’ the union. They have an uphill battle ahead: in Scotland a new poll revealed that support for independence hit 57% in January with significant shifts to the SNP by both Labour and Conservative voters as direct a result of Sturgeon’s management of the covid crisis. Between Westminster and Edinburgh, the North of England is emerging as another front for the battle for union, with metro mayors uniting to set out an alternative federal solution focussed on regions as a potential workaround to England’s problematic 80% stake in any union games.
The battle lines are drawn and a bold vision is needed if the United Kingdom is to sustain into the twenty-first century. The source material for that vision lies in soft power. Simon Nye introduced the concept of soft power when he argued that ‘the attractiveness of a nation’s culture, political values, and foreign policy will be more influential on its engagement with other nations than the number of ballistic missiles at its disposal’ (Nye, 1990; 2008). The cultural draw of the UK has always been one of its greatest assets and has shaped the image of the UK in the eyes of the rest of the world. Its cultural assets position the union as a force for good in the world, as a cooperative, collaborative, networked and competent island union.
Why does soft power matter?
In March 2020, for the first time, the UK topped the world as the most attractive country for young people across the G20. But why does soft power matter? Soft power matters because it builds trust, and with trust comes opportunity for collaboration and cooperation. The British Council’s report found that people who trusted the UK were roughly twice as likely to want to engage with it in future. Although this data was gathered pre-pandemic (the US suffered in the league as a result of perceptions of Trump’s leadership and isolationist approach) the report found that importance of soft power seemed to be growing and that it was enjoying an increased role in the decision making of the next generation. Culture will give the UK the edge as competition increases globally and it will play a decisive role in any future vision of how the union will operate.
But the timing of the union question couldn’t be worse: Covid has stymied our traditional sources of soft power. Culture and the arts, media and sport, tourism and international education have all been locked down by the pandemic. As London Mayor Sadiq Khan said, culture ‘must play a key role in helping us recover from this public health crisis’. Perceptions of a country’s brand and values, are integral to its attractiveness to international partners, both diplomatic and economic. The way in which all four nations perform the union has a direct impact on the prosperity, security and global influence of all four nations. Kick starting culture through targeted investment in the post-covid period could create a rare opportunity for the UK to leverage its collective weight and become a soft power superpower through building resilience in existing cultural organisations to ensure they can survive this crisis and future crises, as well as by creating new sources of soft power for the future. But how?
The pandemic has offered a timely lesson in the performativity of soft power: how you play out the crisis really matters both in the middle of the crisis, and in its aftermath. Despite being some of the most rich and weaponised countries in the world, it is the dis-united kingdom and dis-united states that have proven least effective at protecting their own people in a pandemic. England’s response to covid has diminished its global power on an international stage. Muddled and contradictory communications strategies and record breaking death rates have functioned to undermine the global image of the UK and has made its long term recovery harder.
The pandemic has reframed relations between states and citizens as conservative values of liberty have been sidelined in favour of practices more reminiscent of totalitarian regimes. Smaller countries like New Zealand and Korea have been perceived to handle the pandemic better than super states like the UK and US. As a result of this dynamism and resilience, they will emerge from the pandemic as strong global players, ripe for future alliances and partnership working. Pre-pandemic only climate change had really mobilised global players into playing nicely together, but covid has changed the landscape for countries coming together to align their soft power interests.
Characterised by a covid response of crisis, delay and incompetency, England has suffered another loss as a result of the pandemic – that of global image. Covid will not be the biggest global health emergency, or last global emergency of the century. If you were picking international alliance teams post-covid, would you pick Scotland or England? Soft power is now a vital asset in helping to improve the international reputation of the UK. By scoping out common ground it may be possible to create additional interfaces between the nations using existing and new structures and systems. As the pandemic has proven, a high degree of interdependence between the UK nations means that competing is futile, and clear communication and coordination can put us all in a more resilient and sustainable position to confront the challenges that lie ahead.
Rudely dismissing Scottish Independence
By foregrounding differences in operating styles, the SNP have undermined wider shared drivers of success between Scotland and England, while in rudely dismissing Scottish independence, Johnson has demonstrated that any relationship can not have a future without respect. Only by respecting differences, enabling collaborative behaviours and managing expectations about what kind of relationship we all want can we begin conversations with communities across these islands about the future of their union. Successful alliances must start with cross party working and recognised leadership that engages with all sides of the union debate. Whether this is through Gordon Brown, a coalition of union directorates within each nation, or an independent commission, there must be a strategic steer to enable this conversation in the short term, for the long term. And it must be a conversation, a discussion without end, since the union is a live relationship, not a given, not inevitable, and not a done deal.
The UK is undergoing profound structural change. This change necessitates the concept of soft power through culture be examined again and harnessed to create much-needed conversations about the future of the union. The key to soft power lies in shaping influence to create points of connection, to like the same things, and to want the same outcomes. When you make a concept attractive through culture you don’t have to persuade people to buy into it – they want to, and they buy enthusiastically and freely. A strategic alliance model of interconnected independence with shared common interests and strategic issue-based collaboration offers one vision of the union as an Avengers-style team of separately super and collectively supercharged hero nations. While England might have failed at the pandemic test of PR, the United Kingdom can succeed at the long term repositioning of the union through soft power to present the union as a global force for good.
The pandemic is just one of many disruptive events that will blight the coming decades and collaborative co-working and new alliances will shape the world that follows. The future of the union depends upon cooperation not confrontation, on offering a compelling counter offer that is fundamentally founded on culture and soft power. A cultural scoping exercise for the motivations and appetite for a future form of union, as well as an audit of the existing soft power and opportunities within the union will kick start conversations that could help navigate us through profound structural change.
The battle for the union can not be conducted via a trojan horse from Holyrood or Westminster that rolls into town to ‘sell’ the benefits of the UK. Authenticity will be vital in recruiting cultural influencers to inform and engage. The Tories can not afford a repeat of the £63,000 wasted on paying Love Island stars and Instagram celebs to promote their failed Test and Trace system in Summer 2020. Nor can the SNP or the Union Directorate independently construct a future image using think tanks, polls and politics – they must engage the people. Only by radically reframing the union question, shifting the narrative from an intense personal person drama between Johnson and Sturgeon to a genuine public conversation through culture can we give people across the four nations something to talk about that is not Brexit or the pandemic, something to make us look forward to the future.
Culture is power
To invest in the question of union we must invest in culture. Culture is power, and yet culture is often bottom of the pile when it comes to conversations about the future of the union. This seems short sighted, since the UK in the post-covid era will be defined by culture and identity. Culture alone has the unique capacity to engage people in shared interests and bind them together in new communities of understanding. By examining the costs and benefits of continued collaboration, we can facilitate an open conversation about what we all want for the future. In a post-Brexit, post-covid age where people feel less trusting of politicians and more isolated within their nation states than ever before, an opportunity to think about alternative constitutional solutions could not be more timely.
Culture is the soft power through which the union community can reimagine itself on a global stage. Harnessing soft power – through the power of the BBC, the British Council, sport and popular culture, as well as new cultural commissions – will create the space necessary to reimagine our community, to leverage existing strengths and create new ones. Using culture to mine our collective concerns about the environment and climate, our youth and their future, our communities and activities that make us all get up in the morning, we can remind everyone that the future of the union is not a done deal. Scottish independence is not a fait au complicit. The United Kingdom can become disaggregated very easily. We have everything to play for, and everything to lose. In any troubled relationship, the first step towards progress is asking for help. Only by turning to soft power can the governments of our four nations facilitate the conversation that needs to happen now about the future of the UK.
This is a moment to stage an intervention. We need to talk about the Union. Like all difficult conversations, it has been coming for a long time. But the time is now: May 2021 must mark the beginning of a conversation about the future of the union involving all four nations as equal stakeholders in our shared future strategic direction. In the battle for the union, both the SNP and the Cabinet Office would do well to turn to experts on behaviour change and communication, change management and narratology. There is clearly important data that needs to be factored into debates about the future of the union, but surveys and polls have their limits. Anonymised qualitative data does not land effectively on an issue as emotive and cultural as the union. To offer a viable narrative of a future union we need new stories of vision and hope, of difference and togetherness, of variance and collaboration. Only by listening to the people of these islands to identify old and new cultural points of connection, can we ensure and enable an informed debate about what happens next.
By Katy Shaw Professor of Contemporary Writings at Northumbria University
Her latest book Hauntology – The presence of the past in Twenty-First Century English literature is available here