Wrong choices in a world turned upside down

Have we turned the world upside down? How else can we explain current chaos?

Have we now turned our political world upside down? I only ask because we appear to be making so many wrong choices.

Currently UK politics are topsy-turvy. Whether you’re for or against Brexit, it’s clear that we’re ill-equipped for the necessary negotiations. Indeed, our negotiators are doing such a great job of appearing hopelessly out of their depth that some in Europe are beginning to wonder whether some cunning plan lies behind this apparent incompetence.

Don’t worry, Brussels. There’s no plot: we are incompetent.

While our representatives blunder around, blustering about trade agreements but achieving nothing, closer to home I fear we’re in danger of destroying not one but two institutions of great importance to us, to our international standing, and to our future.

In yesterday’s Times (5th August), I spotted the headline Free-spending British Council’s era of soft power ended by cuts. David Brown reported: “The Foreign Office’s £39million-a-year grant to fund much of its cultural activity in countries not entitled to aid is being cut to nothing over the next three years. It is reallocating the funding towards poorer countries.”

When money’s short, I appreciate the need to examine priorities. We have a duty, as a comparatively wealthy country, to support areas of the world that are developing and, indeed, struggling. Nonetheless, to assume that we don’t need to work closely with the developed world is short-sighted and dangerous.

First formed in 1934 to counter growing Nazi influence, for 83 years the British Council has reached out to the whole of the world. Exercising what the report rightly termed “soft power”, it has exported and showcased our culture, history, traditions and skills all around the world, and tirelessly promoted and protected democratic and civilised values, particularly where such qualities are under threat.

I don’t reckon Britain looks good to the rest of the world at the moment. We need someone to work on our PR! But we’re making it harder for ourselves.

That’s one British institution, now under threat, that has historically helped the rest of the world to maintain belief in democracy and civilisation: but I said there were two. The other is the BBC.

Poor old Auntie: she’s in a real pickle at present. Finally giving in to demands to publish the salaries paid to its highest-earning stars and presenters, the Beeb is now facing a barrage of criticism. Yet I confess I’m depressed by the contrived outrage of its many detractors.

Of course it’s got salaries terribly wrong. Not only are some leading presenters paid obscene figures: the disparity between the genders is outrageous, too. We should blame the BBC’s management, and its director-general, for sheer pusillanimity in dealing with the agents of its biggest names.

Constant accusations are levelled against the BBC’s integrity. Labour politicians from Blair to Corbyn have lambasted the BBC for its partisan upholding of the Establishment in the face of their progressive or left-leaning politics. Curiously, politicians from centre to right are equally ready to accuse it of a leftist allegiance.

Brexiteers are incensed by BBC journalists tackling half-truths, demanding disclosure of information and questioning the effectiveness of Brexit negotiations: they call that bias, too.

Those critics can’t all be right. If the Beeb manages to upset so many people on both sides of the political divide, perhaps it’s getting things about right.

Besides, none of this, not even the salaries debacle, renders the Corporation rotten all the way through: nor would it justify the demise of the licence fee, requiring the BBC to exist in the commercial world, depend for funding on advertisers and purchasers of its programmes, or else face a permanent Close Down (remember that white dot receding into nothingness on the fuzzy black-and-white screen?).

We need both the British Council and the BBC, and we need them properly funded by government. Both must be free from partisan pressure and allowed to speak truth to power. Both are the sorts of organisations that, once lost, can never be recovered.

As Brexit progresses, and we hurtle down a path that is uncertain at best, let’s not simultaneously destroy two institutions that have the capacity to mitigate the damage done both to our prosperity and to our international standing.

Yet, in this upside-down world that we’ve created, it seems all to likely that we might do precisely that.


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