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Soft Power and the UK’s ‘force for good’ ambitions

Article by Stephen Twigg

October 19, 2021

Soft Power and the UK’s ‘force for good’ ambitions

‘Soft power’ is defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as ‘the use of a country’s cultural and economic influence to persuade other countries to do something, rather than the use of military power’. The Integrated Review describes the United Kingdom as ‘a soft power superpower’ that has been ranked third in the world for soft power. The 2021 Global Soft Power Index, published by Brand Finance, places the UK third behind Germany and Japan.


Soft power has long been seen as an important asset by successive UK governments and commentators. The Integrated Review highlights four key areas of the UK’s soft power as media & culture, education, sport, and ‘people to people’ links. So, what are the challenges and opportunities in this area? I will draw upon my experience as the former Chairperson of the UK House of Commons International Development Committee as well as my current role as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I will focus on the area of political/constitutional systems and values. These have usually had prominence in discussion around soft power both in the UK and internationally.


The Integrated Review explicitly connects soft power with a set of values to which the UK is committed. In exploring the relevance of the concept of soft power to the quest for open societies, it is worth considering some of the values to which there is a shared commitment before looking at the various institutions and networks through which these values might be reflected and implemented.


The Charter of the Commonwealth sets out 16 core values and principles as follows:[1]

  1. Democracy
  2. Human rights
  3. International peace and security
  4. Tolerance, respect and understanding
  5. Freedom of Expression
  6. Separation of Powers
  7. Rule of Law
  8. Good Governance
  9. Sustainable Development
  10. Protecting the Environment
  11. Access to Health, Education, Food and Shelter
  12. Gender Equality
  13. Importance of Young People in the Commonwealth
  14. Recognition of the Needs of Small States
  15. Recognition of the Needs of Vulnerable States
  16. The Role of Civil Society


These universal values and principles provide a helpful and comprehensive framework which can assist in the development of a forward-looking soft power strategy and in our consideration of the role of institutions, networks and citizens both in the United Kingdom and globally.


The Integrated Review sets out some of the well-established UK institutions which contribute to its soft power – including the BBC, the British Council, sports bodies, UK universities and the Monarchy. It also emphasises that the roots of a country’s soft power are often ‘beyond the ownership of government’.[2] Indeed, discussion around this topic has long emphasised the crucial importance of non-governmental actors in a country’s soft power strategy.


Nevertheless, there is no doubt that government priorities, policies and resources can help shape a country’s soft power impact. Indeed, the UK Government has demonstrated this with a series of high-profile Summits and other events, for example:

  • The 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit;
  • The 2018 Global Disability Summit co-hosted with the Government of Kenya and the International Disability Alliance;
  • The 2019 Global Conference for Media Freedom co-hosted with Canada and supported by Luminate;
  • The 2021 Global Education Summit co-hosted with Kenya for the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education; and
  • ‘Safe To Be Me – A Global Equality Conference’ on LGBT rights which is planned for 2022 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first official London Pride March.


Each of these examples is rooted firmly in at least one of the values set out above – including human rights, freedom of expression, access to education and tolerance, respect and understanding. They demonstrate that governments absolutely can show leadership on important issues, but they also reinforce the importance of other (non-governmental) actors in shaping and delivering effective impact via soft power. I would emphasise three crucial factors here:

  1. The importance of multilateral action to bring together an alliance of countries, institutions and networks to take an issue forward;
  2. The vital role of citizens, civil society organisations and other stakeholders in maximising the impact of any strategy built around the notion of soft power; and
  3. The importance of sustainability, which is partly about resources, partly political will and partly about whether an initiative is relevant to the lives of communities/citizens who, therefore, have a genuine stake in its success.


People to people engagement has great potential to contribute to positive social and economic change around the world. Technology has, in some ways, made this kind of work easier to organise and the COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, made virtual engagement much more normal although the digital divide remains an important challenge.


The British Council, which works in over 100 countries, has undertaken excellent, pioneering work in this sphere, particularly with young people. It is one of several institutions and networks working to promote education and empower young people. Critical to these organisations’ success is for them to be adaptable, agile and responsive to the needs of young people. Rightly, there is a strong desire for local ownership as communities and countries across the world address the question of how best to achieve shared commitments like sustainable development and tackling climate change. For the United Kingdom, its soft power will be exercised most fruitfully if it is listening to and engaging with citizens and communities both at home and internationally.


A strength for the United Kingdom’s soft power is the country’s diversity. As the Integrated Review points out, the UK’s population includes around nine and a half million people who were born outside the UK whilst there are around five million UK citizens living outside the country. Diaspora communities have the potential to contribute hugely to soft power. One important example of this is the social and economic impact of remittances sent from the UK by diaspora communities. Another example is the advocacy efforts by diaspora communities around a broad range of issues, including the impact of climate change, responses to natural disasters and human rights.


In highlighting diversity, it is important that the UK is open about its contemporary challenges and historical legacy. The credibility of soft power and ‘people to people’ engagement risks being undermined if issues like racism and the legacy of Empire are not addressed openly. Dialogue is essential here as there will be different perceptions in different countries about these issues and, therefore, an opportunity for countries like the UK to listen and learn from other voices.


The key here is for soft power to be exercised democratically. The movement for disability rights has often used the phrase “nothing about us without us”. If the UK (and others) are going to remain relevant global players, it is imperative that diverse voices are heard, listened to and acted upon – both in the UK itself and internationally. I hope that this will include a distinct recognition of the contribution made to soft power by all parts of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as England; local government as well as central and, crucially, the work of communities at a local level. A brilliant example of soft power is the Scotland-Malawi Partnership which promotes friendship between the citizens and communities of Malawi and Scotland.


Encouragingly, the Integrated Review reaffirms the UK’s continued commitment to girls’ education. One of the highlights of my time as Chair of the UK House of Commons International Development Committee was to visit an inspiring Girls Education Challenge programme in Kenya which was enabling disabled girls to have access to education. Such programmes are the very best of international development and I hope that lessons will be learned from them as the UK and others take forward shared commitments to global education. Crucially, the voices of young people themselves need to be heard, listened to and acted upon.


Two important tools here are programmes for Citizenship/Civic Education and Education for Sustainable Development. The British Council’s “Connecting Classrooms through Global Learning” programme (supported by the FCDO) is a brilliant example of this work. With the International Development Committee, I saw many such examples where the UK’s investment in development, and humanitarian assistance has made a real difference – for example in supporting the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh or Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries.


Media freedom is emphasised in the Integrated Review including the Global Media Defence Fund co-founded by the UK and Canada. As the Review says, the BBC reaches a huge weekly audience and is an important strand of UK soft power. Its international charity, BBC Media Action, works in some of the world’s poorest countries with local communities to support sustainable development, help build democracy and to challenge misinformation. This kind of work is more important than ever as countries and communities address the challenges arising from the impact of COVID-19 and seek to achieve the ambitious goals in the UN’s Agenda 2030.


The Integrated Review emphasises the continued importance of multilateralism and the UK’s commitment to multilateral institutions. Effective coordination with other countries and with multilateral organisation is essential if the fruits of soft power are to be maximised. This is particularly true in the light of the decision to temporarily reduce the UK’s international development spending. Important opportunities arise from the focus on the Indo-Pacific. The renewed commitment to Africa is welcome and the document emphasises East Africa and Nigeria. Clearly, these are incredibly important partners for the UK, but so too are countries in Southern Africa, including South Africa, Zambia and Malawi, and West African countries like Ghana, Sierra Leone and Gambia. I hope that the UK will continue to engage throughout the continent and keep playing its part in supporting sustainable development across Africa as a whole.


This brings me to the Commonwealth. There is a huge opportunity here for the UK to give greater priority in its work to its relationships with Commonwealth nations, institutions, networks and citizens. The set of values and principles listed earlier are drawn from the Commonwealth Charter. I have highlighted areas in which the UK works closely with other Commonwealth countries such as global education with Kenya or media freedom with Canada. There is a diverse mix of expertise, talent and potential throughout the Commonwealth which is reflected in its institutions, networks and civil society organisations. The Commonwealth itself has significant soft power which it exercises across key areas of work including women’s empowerment, tackling climate change, and supporting young people. Around 60 per cent of Commonwealth citizens are aged under 30.


Many of the countries in Asia and the Pacific are members of the Commonwealth including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand, as well as Small Island Developing States across the Pacific and elsewhere. There is a wealth of experience in these Commonwealth countries in addressing key challenges like poverty reduction, sustainable economic development and tackling climate change. There is a vibrant array of Commonwealth organisations and networks working to promote ‘open societies’ including the Commonwealth Foundation, the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, the Commonwealth Equality Network and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative as well as the organisation where I work, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA).


In the same way that ‘people to people’ links are an important strand of ‘soft power’ so too are the connections between parliamentarians in different countries or between local government, business or trades unions at an international level. Networks within the Commonwealth provide excellent examples of how these links can be forged and the role that they can play in promoting shared commitments such as the United Nations Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. In the field of education, the Commonwealth Scholarships scheme is a superb example of best practice.


At the CPA, we deploy a variety of tools to promote mutual learning between our member parliaments and encourage the adoption of best practice in line with both the Commonwealth Charter and the UN’s Agenda 2030. For example, we have three networks which address key priorities: our Small Branches serving jurisdictions with a population of up to 500,000; the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians network; and Commonwealth Parliamentarians with Disabilities.


In conclusion, the United Kingdom has a diverse range of institutions and networks which contribute to its soft power. Many of these are highly respected organisations like the BBC and the British Council with a long-established reputation and wide reach. Nevertheless, it is important that institutions are agile and adaptable so that they can meet the challenges of today – and tomorrow. Governments have a vital leadership role to play, but a lot of soft power is exercised not directly by governments but by citizens, networks and independent institutions. For example, diaspora communities and young people should feature prominently in any future consideration of a ‘soft power strategy’. Crucially, in a complex and interdependent world, ‘soft power’ will have more impact if it is shared both within countries and between countries through networks and institutions like the United Nations and the Commonwealth. By working with other countries, the UK is most likely to be able to fulfil the ambition to be ‘a force for good’.


Stephen Twigg is Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. He previously served as the Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Liverpool, West Derby from 2010 until 2019. He was the Chair of the UK House of Commons International Development Select Committee from June 2015 until December 2019. Between 2005 and 2010 he served as Director of the Foreign Policy Centre. He also worked for the Holocaust Centre and the Aegis Trust. He also previously served as Member of Parliament for Enfield Southgate from 1997-2005. His ministerial and shadow ministerial roles have included Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Education Minister, Shadow Education Secretary, Shadow Foreign Minister and Shadow Justice Minister.


Image by Number 10 under (CC).


[1] The Commonwealth, Commonwealth Charter, 2013,

[2] HM Government, Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, March 2021,

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