Soft Power is the ability to attract without coercion. Hard power makes no one fall in love with you. For decades Britain was the world’s number one soft power projecting cultural and diplomatic authority. The British Council exists to spread knowledge of British culture and make friends and influence people. That is why the BBC World Service formerly funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is so effective at winning hearts and minds. Even the motto of the BBC communicates soft power ‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation’.
But the UK is leaving the EU and the world order is changing. Apart from the anxiety about trade deals there is hand wringing a-plenty in private with the very real fear that Britain could well be Billy No Mates. Existential crisis begone! For Britain is in possession of the ultimate soft power trappings in the guise of beer and pubs.
According to Visit Britain a trip to the pub is in the top 3 activities tourists want to do when they travel to the UK. Seven out of ten drinks sold in a pub are beer. Beer, the world’s favourite alcoholic drink is a lingua franca that connects people regardless of language and background. I have the fortune to experience this magic on a regular basis through pub tours I run for private groups. My clients are the tourist equivalent of the United Nations. They include a group of New Orleans priests, a couple of French doctors who chose to do a pub tour for their honeymoon, the Latvians who spoke no English but we still managed a jolly time, the District Attorney of Staten Island and his wife Judy who is a judge (but not that one), the Norwegian lads from the Fjordland who return to London for an annual football trip, the £10 Poms making their first visit back to the Old Country after emigrating to Australia in the 1960s, the Russian beer consultant, the trans-gender boxer who gave me self-defence tips – don’t punch an assailant, it breaks bones in the hand, shock them instead with slap with your entire weight behind it and then run, the Brazilians who demonstrated their samba moves, an Indian architect who talked of the mystical power of archways and taught me how to meditate with gentle seated yoga moves in a busy pub.
From each person that I meet I learn something about their culture, their lives. It enriches me. We start off as strangers, but by the time we have finished our first beer we are friends. We swap stories, slang – Americans are especially enamoured of British swear words – and jokes. We talk politics, literature, popular culture and high culture, religion, the Royal Family. Almost without fail someone will ask about Brexit and why it happened. And of course we talk beer. I am able to disabuse them of the myth that British beer is warm and flat. I describe what cask conditioned ale is, how the yeast is sensitive to temperature so the beer must be served between 11-13 degrees centigrade. Invariably they say after the first sip ‘Oh I thought it would be warm. It’s not’ and then they profess to like it for its full flavour and lack of carbonation. I explain the provenance of India Pale Ale, and the difference between Porter and Stout. I talk about the how English hops are subtle and delicate compared to their big punchy New World counterparts. Nation Shall Speak Beer Unto Nation.
So British Government, may I suggest a way to use the soft power and supernatural ability that beer and pubs have to bond people? It means acknowledging the potential they offer in attracting in-coming and domestic tourism, the billions of pounds they contribute annually to Britain Plc, the role they play in Brexit’s fractured society of the Dis-United Kingdom, and that beer and pubs are national treasures.
This is my manifesto and you are welcome to purloin every suggestion.
- Reduce beer duty – beer is Britain’s national drink and it should not be so highly taxed that it discourages people going to the pub for a pint.
- Reduce business rates for pubs – especially in regional towns and villages where the closure of a pub is so damaging to the community.
- Reduce VAT on food and drink in pubs to encourage more custom.
- Actively encourage tourism to beer and pubs.
- Appreciate the role of breweries in the community.
- Celebrate the generosity of pub goers for charity fund raisers.
- Appoint beer and pub ambassadors as Soft Power Rangers to work with the British Council and Visit Britain.
- Serve British beer at Government functions.
- Instruct each British Embassy and High Commission to host beer events and to highlight Britain’s pubs.
- Above all, be proud of British beer and pubs. Those photos of Prime Ministers with visiting world leaders holding a pint at the bar of the Plough at Casden near to Chequers are intended to communicate that this is a typically British pastime. It is!
That was a Party Political Polemic for the Nation Shall Speak Beer Unto Nation Party.