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Parliamentary power: Promoting British interests through Westminster

The United Kingdom has many parliamentary groups that promote its interests abroad (Alamy)

7 min read

The United Kingdom is ranked second in the world for its soft power. As parliamentarians continue to jet off round the world on inter-parliamentary visits, Sophie Church speaks to foreign delegates to understand how we are promoting British interests through Westminster.

“I think sometimes we are our own worst critics. When I have spoken to foreign parliamentarians, we are held in a lot higher regard than I think we internally appreciate.”

Gagan Mohindra, the Conservative MP for South West Hertfordshire, has just returned from the 146th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Bahrain, representing the British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union. Whilst there, he was frequently approached by parliamentarians from other delegations, probing the United Kingdom’s views on various matters.

Now, Mohindra says he wants to set the record straight. “They are not always going to agree with us. But we are very, very well regarded…we shouldn’t be embarrassed about saying that.”

For a country that once took pride in “punching above its weight” on the world stage, as former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd put it, the United Kingdom seems to now doubt its own position. However, the evidence suggests these reservations are unfounded; in 2022, the United Kingdom placed second on Brand Finance’s Global Soft Power Index.

While the United Kingdom has many parliamentary groups that promote its interests abroad – the Speaker’s Office, the Inter-Parliamentary Relations Offices of both Houses, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK and various All-Party Parliamentary Groups, for instance – Phil Goff, New Zealand’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom, says monarchy is one of the most important sources of our enduring soft power.

“I met [King Charles] first over a decade ago, and we had quite a long conversation… I was incredibly impressed,” he says. “He was engaging, he was well informed, he listened and he responded. I thought in many ways that the King is the number one diplomat for the United Kingdom, and not simply for us as a realm country, but for a whole lot of countries.”

“I say to my people about the importance of the United Kingdom, as the birthplace of values, democracy, human rights, free trade, a free market economy, rule of law – there are so many”

But it is the foundations of our parliamentary democracy that see us tacitly yet consistently leading by example, says the South Korean ambassador to the United Kingdom, Yoon Yeocheol. “The UK Parliament is… the paragon of parliament in the world. I say to my people about the importance of the United Kingdom, as the birthplace of values, democracy, human rights, free trade, a free market economy, rule of law – there are so many.”

Emulating our democratic system in principle has made tangible effects on other nations’ policies in practice. For instance, Yoon says South Korea’s “Global Pivotal State” vision – to promote freedom, peace and prosperity – is “perfectly geared with the values…represented by the United Kingdom”.

By constantly reaffirming our democratic system, Yoon says, British parliamentarians can continue to promote the United Kingdom abroad. “I think parliamentarians can also re-emphasise those values presented by the UK in the beginning,” he explains. “That will also remind other parliamentarians everywhere of important principles that go beyond their imminent issues of difference and trouble.”

Other nations have benefitted from the policies our British democratic system has enacted. Goff says that our Proceeds of Crime Act was implemented in New Zealand following his open dialogue as minister of justice with British parliamentarians. “If I had started from scratch, and not been able to draw on British experience,” he says, “I would have been way behind the eight ball. But I was able to look at what you have done, where it had worked well [and] where it needed to be adapted. That is just so valuable.” Goff also applied former-prime minister Tony Blair’s slogan “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” to his own work.

Communicating the values of our democracy and policies comes down to something quite practical: our mastery of English. “British MPs are normally very good in international meetings and gatherings because they have first of all, one advantage… the language,” says Pertti Salolainen, Finland’s ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1996 to 2004. “In the Inter-Parliamentary Union, for instance, where I have been representing Finland, they have been very good and made many good speeches. So their influence is much stronger than many other countries.”

Goff says parliamentarians from the United Kingdom are also distinguished by their tendency to discuss, not direct. “I like the way in which British diplomacy works where it is not telling us what to do,” he explains. “New Zealand is very bad at being told what to do; as one of our former prime ministers said to our very good friends the Americans, ‘well, we may do anything that you ask, but we’ll do nothing that you tell us’. We are fiercely independent.”

However, political goings on at home have tarnished the United Kingdom’s reputation abroad, says Salolainen, despite the efforts of inter-parliamentary groups. “I don’t think that recent events, around changing prime ministers and so forth… have improved the image of Britain,” he says. “They have been, I’m sorry to say, they have looked very negative.” Since Brexit, Salolainen’s friends, who he says used to travel to the United Kingdom regularly, have stopped visiting.

“I like the way in which British diplomacy works where it is not telling us what to do...New Zealand is very bad at being told what to do”

While Brexit may have dealt the United Kingdom a reputational blow in Europe, Goff says New Zealand has capitalised on the United Kingdom refocussing its soft power on the Pacific. For instance, the Youth Mobility and Working Holiday scheme enables young Brits and New Zealanders to work in the corresponding country for a period of time, with the length of stay recently extended from two to three years, and the maximum age permitted raised from 30 to 35. This stemmed from “a desire, particularly post-Brexit….[to] do a whole lot more things together,” says Goff.

Fostering personal relationships across parliaments has been key to cooperation, Goff adds. He points to the United Kingdom joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership as an example. “[Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch] has got a very good relationship with our minister for trade…Damien O’Connor,” he says. “They got on together when they met at Davos and other places. The fact that we were able to achieve a really gold standard free trade agreement so quickly was a reflection of the strong relationship that we had, and to do [her] credit, Liz Truss before her as minister of foreign affairs was very keen to develop that relationship.”

Now, Mohindra says we need to act in a way that mirrors our reputation abroad. “[One thing] I think we need to learn from,” he says, “is the perception of how other people look at us. Where a government minister is right at the back of the plane versus what their equivalent would be in the front of the plane – that potentially has the problem of ‘actually, if the minister is so junior he is not sitting in the front row, why is he even in the country?’”

Regardless of the seat number, Salolainen, Yoon and Goff all agree on one point: that parliamentarians from the United Kingdom should get on the plane and visit.

“What I [have] found talking to senior people in government, non-elected and elected,” Goff says, “[is that] they come into two categories: one category of people who have been to New Zealand and said, ‘fantastic experience, we want to do it again’. The other category of people said, ‘we must get to New Zealand, we’ve always wanted to go there’. Distance shouldn’t be a barrier to the closeness of the relationship that we have.”

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