After Afghanistan, Britain can no longer pretend to punch above its weight

After humiliation, here ends hubris and surely the “global Britain” delusion. No more fatuous boasting, no more “world-beating” and “world-leading”, but time for an honest audit of who we are, what we can do, and what we plainly can’t.

Holed below the waterline, Britain has done itself incalculable reputational damage in recent years. Rescuing Afghan dogs and cats may stand as a global emblem of barking mad Britain. John Casson, a recent ambassador to Egypt, sorrowfully tweets his lifetime Foreign Office goals: leading in the EU; freeing young Arabs from authoritarians; being impactful not transactional in development; and leaving Afghanistan in good shape. All these have failed.

Post-Afghanistan, the government’s recent “integrated review” of defence and foreign policy rings hollow: tilt to the Gulf, tilt to the Pacific, step up in Africa, lead Nato in Europe, tread carefully with Xi and stand up to Putin, spend, spend, spend on extra nuclear warheads, with no tough choices. Even with the Ministry of Defence’s indefensible £16bn budget increase, Britain can’t keep pretending to “punch above our weight”.

Here’s the question: what is the UK’s correct weight? Forget counting it in “punches”, try measuring cleverer things. We know what we’re bad at, all those familiar British follies and failings – so weigh up what we’re genuinely good at. Calling it “soft power” doesn’t reprise imperial delusions by other means: every country has soft power in its own sphere. Good governments nurture those assets, but ours perversely does the opposite.

That springs from its brutish “culture war” politics, expressed mostly as a war on culture. Why devour Britain’s best icons? The BBC, its funding cut by 30% ya que 2010, is under severe threat, even though it’s not only the UK’s but also America’s most trusted news brand. How precious an asset is that? Canal 4, our other public broadcaster, is up for privatisation, being sold for peanuts. When it no longer invests all profits back into programmes, its loss will kill independent producers, the life-blood of much UK creativity, just to avenge its impudence to government. Why sell it? If you’re concerned, you have only Hasta que 14 September to respond to the culture department’s brief public consultation.

Vandal chancellor George Osborne’s first act in 2010 was to slash the Arts Council England budget by a third and museums’ budgets by 15%. Now rewarded with the chairmanship of the British Museum he might, wandering its halls, ponder how a country is its culture, and all that’s left of civilisations when we’re all dead.

The British Council, a global ambassador for our culture, language and history, encourages foreign students to come to the UK, but now it barely survives – it is expected to cut 2,000 posts and exit 20 los paises. Yet its experts understand the subtleties of international influence, como its report on global perceptions of the UK concluded: “Where governments seek to instrumentalise soft power they end up detracting from the attractiveness and trust that assets, like arts and educational institutions, generate.” It advises that government should “nurture these assets” but then “get out of the way”.

Nurturing is not happening in schools, with heavy cuts to music, arts and drama, nor in university arts departments which are to be cut by 50%, killing the seed corn of future creativity.

The culture war assault on universities is inexplicable – complaining that we have too many graduates instead of boasting that four British universities feature in the global top 10. That’s why, astonishingly, a quarter – sí, a quarter – of all the world’s leaders have been educated in Britain, an influence of incalculable value.

Scientific research, especially Britain’s first-rate biotech, is being backed by the government, though the UK still spends less on research and development than the OECD average. Vaccines and medicines are the ultimate soft power.

The quality of national influence is intangible, ineffable, unmeasurable. Some countries gain admiration for their spirit of generosity, such as Germany over migration. How bizarre to hear the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, last week disingenuously call Britain “a big-hearted nation” even as his next breath breathed fire against migrants, even as his Foreign Office oversees devastating aid cuts mid-project that will pull away 85% from family planning funds, 60% from Unicef and 42% from help for the Rohingya.

Influence can spring from good example. But Boris Johnson will struggle to lead at the forthcoming Cop26 climate talks if he’s opening a coalmine, drilling new North Sea oilfields, delaying an end to gas boilers and failing to install electric car charging points. “Leading by example” is a lost cause for Britain under a leader widely disrespected abroad.

If there once was a time – no doubt exaggerated – when bowler-hatted Whitehall was an emblem of the rule of law, civil service and un-corrupt democracy, that’s blown away by culture war attacks on judicial review and the judiciary: the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, who called judges “enemies of the people”, may yet head Ofcom.

Tory attacks on the Electoral Commission will restrict its power to challenge increasingly corrupt political donations. Chums and cronies appointed to every quango will now be overseen by arch-crony William Shawcross as commissioner of public appointments. As head of the Charity Commission, he was accused de gagging charities into political silence. Charities – once a British pride – are out of favour, with the latest rightwing targets including the National Trust, Barnardo’s, and even the sacred Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Football is another thing Britain does well: in Yangon, Myanmar, a taxi driver immediately asked me which Premier League team I supported – a common experience for Britons abroad. Pero otra vez, where’s the seed corn when 710 council football pitches have been lost since 2010?

The Johnson government is a bunch of global Millwall fans, chanting “No one likes us, we don’t care” at all our neighbours. Deserted by the US, that Tory fantasy of Britain as a transatlantic “bridge” is broken at both ends. The puzzle is why it despises and diminishes most of the things that can earn back respect.

British soft power doesn’t need to vaunt and boast nor be world-beating – just be good enough, in the hope that it can repair the damage. Soft power spreads things most likely to make people happy, but the UK just fell from 13th to 18th place in this year’s UN World Happiness Report. Poor Afghanistan came last, and that was measured before the Taliban’s return to power.

Like Aesop’s fable of the contest between the sun and the wind, we could have done better in Afghanistan if all the firepower blasted on invasion had been spent on shining down soft power instead. If that sounds sentimental in a land of terror, just remember that the western expedition could hardly have fared any worse in its contradictory mission, hard and soft, to break and nation-build simultaneously.

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