(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Soft power means a lot to a country like Britain, which will soon have to live off its wits outside the European Union, even as it discovers that favorable trade deals are as hard to find as Lewis Carroll’s Snark. Might the answer lie in part with the country’s longest-surviving “Firm,” the Royal Family, as much as trade delegations and the U.K. prime minister’s recent upgrading of “Boris Force One” to fly the flag for Britain?
Unfortunately, both Boris Johnson’s and the Windsors’ brands have taken a bit of a battering recently. But some of the Royals — Prince William and Kate Middleton uppermost — still have plenty to offer.
Help is certainly needed. While the U.K. has always been a leader in securing global good opinion, largely through its world-class culture industries and universities, it has been slipping recently. Last year, France overtook Britain in Portland’s league table of world soft power, while the Nations Brand Index saw the U.K. fall to fourth behind the U.S., China and Japan.
The power of the national brand is big business. Foreign direct investment, tourism and attracting international students all depend upon this cultural and political feel-good factor, mixed with respect for institutional integrity and intellectual firepower. With “Global Britain” taking a hit from Brexit uncertainty and a pretty dismal response to the Covid-19 health crisis, some fear the U.K. is losing its luster.
Perceptions matter. For instance, although the U.K. has more science research papers cited than Germany or Japan, it is widely supposed to lag behind both those nations. Perhaps Oxford University’s work on a virus vaccine may change the picture. Even London’s appeal as the world capital of theater and the arts is under threat from clumsy coronavirus restrictions. Bars and restaurants may now be open; West End theaters are still dark. This week, the government stumped up a welcome billion-pound plus financial package to help the arts and live entertainment, but Germany and France have provided sums that dwarf that.
As we emerge from the Covid and Brexit crises, the country is sorely in need of attractive “brand” ambassadors.
Can Johnson rise to the challenge? The prime minister is a famous example of the British sense of humor, but not all foreigners get this particular joke. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s high moral tone right now is more appropriate and better appreciated. One metric for soft power is the ability to work with other governments, yet the U.K.’s post-Brexit trade negotiations with Brussels are stormy and the special relationship with Washington only gets intermittent interest from a White House in election year.
Given the limited appeal of the political class — not every country thrills these days to the thought of an upcoming visit from the British Foreign Secretary — the royal family is still the U.K.’s chief attraction.
Almost 2 billion people watched the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, with millions more Americans and Indians glued to their television screens than loyal natives. The young royal couple, disliked by many traditionalists for their “woke” opinions, were in tune with young people’s concerns about race, gender, sexual identity and history. Nothing new here: Queen Elizabeth II famously disagreed with her powerful prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, on the importance of the Commonwealth and supported a firmer line against apartheid South Africa.
Sadly, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have now sought voluntary exile in a Californian McMansion, pursued by vengeful tabloid newspaper furies. Meanwhile, the Queen’s favorite son, Prince Andrew is mired in the Jeffrey Epstein scandal and the two men’s mutual friend Ghislaine Maxwell is in the custody of the Feds. A photograph of her lolling with actor Kevin Spacey on the Queen’s and Prince Philip’s thrones in Buckingham Palace is acutely embarrassing. Prince Charles long ago proclaimed that the royals should be slimmed down to a small active core, but until his brother’s latest scandal he did little to make that ambition real.
The Windsors still have a golden asset, however: William and Kate. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are successfully carrying the public relations burden at home, a picture-perfect couple who loyally fulfill their duties despite the scrutiny of a world press that hunts eagerly for flaws even as it offers treacly adulation.
In my meetings with Prince William, I have found him to be a steelier, sharper-edged figure than his public image or soft-toned voice suggest. He’s nobody’s fool. Many of his barbs are aimed at organizations like Facebook Inc., which think they can easily patronize him or deflect him from his concerns about the malign effects of social media on the mental health of young people.
That steel was in evidence when his brother, for so long a comrade-in-arms after the death of their mother, Diana, appeared to go off the reservation and embarked upon a war against the press. In the unlikely venue of a south London pub during a televised England football match against the Czech Republic, William, in that oblique way the royals speak, told me he couldn’t “put his arms around his brother’s shoulder” any more. Not long after, Prince Harry was off on his American travels.
Don’t underestimate William’s importance to the British brand. The Foreign Office looks to his star appeal and that of his wife. Former Prime Minister David Cameron and Ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne relied on them to help woo the emerging superpowers of Asia — China and India, as well as old friends and allies. The couple’s tour of Narendra Modi’s India in 2016 was designed to assuage his fear that Britain put the prize of Beijing’s favor first and to counter Merkel’s own attempt to win Indian business.
Back home, the Union is under threat from a Scottish National Party whose prestige has grown throughout the corona crisis: Polls for the past six months have consistently shown majority support for Scotland’s independence. Last year William was appointed Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and Kate had begun making flying visits north of the border before the lockdown. With so many royals in semi-retirement, one hard-working pair is still trying to protect the U.K. brand.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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