School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


Helena Kennedy on Cultural Diplomacy

French Global Cultural Relations Conference

Speech delivered by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
at the annual meeting of staff from France's global cultural relations network

Paris, 23 July 2001

I grew up in Scotland, the child of Catholic working-class parents. I have no memory of seeing my mother reading a book when I was a child but she taught us a wealth of nursery rhymes and occasionally told us fairy stories from memory at bedtime. My father, though, was a great reader and it was on his hand that I went every week to the public library from age six.

I loved reading. It created a wonderful other world. I used to go off into a corner and shut out the cacophony of close-quarter living. Meals could be prepared, raucous arguments conducted, visitors entertained, children bathed, and I would be oblivious. I had aunts who were suspicious of my bookworm tendencies, thinking my greed for books was a sign of excess that boded ill. I loved the fact that that this activity was so private, in our circumstances, where privacy had no meaning.

We were not only Glaswegians, but also Southside Glaswegians. We did not know the north end of the city. We did not travel. Our world was the Catholic community of our church, our school and our huge extended family. But reading took me outside of that confine. I did travel. Into all those secret gardens provided by childhood authors. Then, in adolescence around the England of Jane Austen, D. H. Lawrence, and George Eliot and that other country that is the past. On to the Ireland of Edna O'Brien and the America of Mary McCarthy. And then of course there was the France of Françoise Sagan and Sartre and De Beauvoir. There is a whole catalogue of books that for me explain my journey out of Glasgow. Like Emma Bovary, I wanted to leave behind the vestiges of childhood, to escape the confines of the place I called home. I wanted to smoke Gauloise in the Deux Maggots in the Quartier Latin.

Those books, those dreams of other worlds, which grew within me, were my first taste of what I now know is a small piece of cultural relations. The pictures conjured up by Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus had a profound effect upon the course of my life. They gave me courage and confidence to imagine a different future. It was these literary journeys that took me out of my native Glasgow, up and away, out of the familiar and on to the adventures that would shape my life.

This is one of the things that we do in our work as diplomats of culture. We give people the opportunity for new experiences, which change their view of the world and transform their understanding of themselves. We give them the chance to connect with people in new ways and to find new paths to achieving their dreams.

Diplomacy has undergone radical change. When Hans Holbein painted his portrait of 'The Ambassadors' in 1533, he painted a picture that would not be unfamiliar 400 years later. The two ambassadors are men at ease with themselves. They are relaxed. Clear about their role and their importance. They are confident about the world they live in, a world they influence.

The rules and conventions that men like these developed over the next four centuries to govern the business of diplomacy did not depart radically from the construct represented in Holbein's painting. Traditional diplomacy has gradually evolved, but it still has at its heart the idea that a small priestly class of experts mediates the destiny of nations on behalf of their citizens. Holbein's ambassadors transported to a present-day embassy would still find the core work familiar.

But it has been clear for some time that relations between states go well beyond the limits of conventional diplomacy. The continued rise of democratic models of government and the rapid developments in mass media have given ordinary people an access to information and experience and the means to act upon it undreamed of before. Face-to-face diplomacy based on personal contact and reasoned argument is still important in an uncertain world, but the context for that work is now profoundly different. The conduct of international relations is deeply marked by these changes.

Present-day realities demand a kind of diplomacy that reaches beyond traditional diplomacy and engages with a much greater number of people, who individually and collectively have the power to drive change in the world. Cultural diplomacy is the name of game. The work of organisations like the French Cultural Institutes, the Alliances Françaises and the British Council is no longer a peripheral pursuit. As the world shrinks and homogenises and as authentic cultures see their identities threatened, the deep and long-evolving currents that travel subsurface and create the diversity of the world's peoples need to be more profoundly understood. They need to be related to the other in a weave of dialogues and dialectics. It is understanding of difference that roots the surface sway of political and economic relationship in cultural meaning and respect. Cultural diplomacy needs to appropriate for itself a hold on international 'security', for invested in that concept of security is the increasingly threatened craving of individuals for their defining cultures. The interface of the world's cultures - of the world's peoples - is the most complex and the most crucial place of interaction and change in the world. That is where cultural diplomacy presumes to place itself. However, if it lays claim to such a role it must assume the burden of conscience, responsibility and cerebral hard-grind that goes with that territory. It must also be positioned and properly resourced by its governmental sponsors to do so.

But the shrinking of the world also means that we need to think of new ways of reaching people. New ways of getting in touch with their interests, their concerns, and their priorities.

The palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould has described the history of evolution and the evolution of history in this way: "The history of life is a series of stable states, punctuated at rare intervals by major events that occur with great rapidity, but they in turn help establish the next stable era." Of course, every generation lives through its own modern times, but it seems to me that we are experiencing one of those rare intervals of huge change, our own equivalent of shifting tectonic plates. Globalisation is transforming the social, economic and political landscape. The world map has been ideologically redrawn; multi-national corporations are ever expanding their reach. Our material world is being transformed in a myriad of cultural changes. Microelectronics, computing, telecommunications, broadcasting, genetics. A terrible beauty has been born.

Over the past year at the British Council we have been trying to adapt ourselves to these new realities. I know that the work of French cultural centres around the world has also been put under similar scrutiny in Yves Dauge's recent report to the Foreign Affairs Committee of your National Assembly. The concerns that he expressed in that report are ones that we share. The need to challenge outdated perceptions of our countries. The importance of working with larger numbers of young people. Making the most of the information age.

So, we are dramatically increasing our commitment to IT services, access to which is not limited by time or space. New knowledge and learning centres, which will provide high-tech access to information and distance learning, are being set up in India and Russia, while information on international human rights practice will be available through our new our human rights website.

We are trying to build stronger relationships with people who share our aims, both in the UK and with organisations in other parts of the world. This is a priority for all of us. Yves Dauge speaks in his report of 'cultural dialogue'. I know that the Germans emphasise that cultural relations should be a 'two-way street'. For me the work of the British Council is a vibrant and vital part of the "great conversation of mankind".

We have also questioned our devotion to bricks and mortar. We have taken the difficult decision to close some offices and to reduce the size of others so we can spend more money on the real work of the British Council - on the marvellous, often magical work that makes the French Cultural Institutes and the British Council so dearly loved in many countries.

I am also anxious that we understand culture in a broader sense. In the British Council our understanding of cultural relations is a broad one, embracing not just arts, language and education, but also science, human rights and law. In this vein we have built partnerships between civic authorities in London and Berlin, between NGOs in Glasgow and Ekaterinburg, between divided communities from Bosnia to Cyprus, from Israel to Ireland.

But I also want us to remember that culture is not just about the established canon. It also embraces what young people are creating, on the margins of the mainstream, away from spotlight. Stuart Hall, the eminent British professor of sociology, suggests that we should abandon a notion that culture is all about opera and Milton and Molière. He sees culture as "lived experience, the consciousness of a whole society; that configuration of valued experience, expressed now in imaginative art of the highest order, now in the most popular and proverbial of forms, in gesture and language, in myth and ideology, in modes of communication and in forms of social relationship and organisation." He does not separate high culture from low, but draws in modes of communication and forms of social relationship. Feeling has become as permissible as rationality. The purpose of culture and the mode of communication have, in the metaphorical sense, been feminised. Its overriding preoccupation is establishing personal connection and common ground across classes, across racial groupings and across corporate hierarchies. The whole focus of culture has shifted from the life of the mind to the life of the heart. The arbiter of life is how you feel, not how you can analyse. Contemporary culture is dominated by the ethos of social connectedness, perhaps in an effort to replace the weakened links of family and community.

In a way this is one of the beauties of the kind of work that all of us here are committed to. We can draw on both the established talent and the shock of the new. Some of the arts events we have staged here in France have done just this - such as 'Typiquement British', the film festival we staged here at the Pompidou Centre earlier this year, or the UK theatre season, which we ran two years ago and which was inspired by your French Theatre Season in London in 1997. All of it helping to keep our work fresh, enabling us to draw in the new currencies, the new ways of connecting - while also championing the established heroes of our cultures. Giving people the opportunity to dream new dreams and imagine other possible paths - just as Sartre and Sagan did for one teenage girl from Glasgow.

I believe that the future of cultural relations is secure. It is because our work is at the heart of our understanding of each other that we have a responsibility, a duty, to renew ourselves for our changing world. I was terrifically impressed by Yves Dauge's vision of our cultural centres as places for the "agitators of ideas". The image is a rich one and it is one that fits perfectly with my idea of the role that our organisations should play. It is an idea that we must keep close to our hearts as we plot the future of cultural diplomacy.

Culture is what distinguishes us as nations, one from the other, but it is also through culture that we can understand each other, as individuals. It enables us to break down the borders - both real and imagined - that keep us apart. The information revolution and globalisation seem to pose a threat to culture, but they also provide a means by which elites are defeated, where high culture becomes accessible to all. Living in a diversity of cultures we can understand each other not simply as different but as bearers of a common humanity. We come to recognise not only the ways we are different but also the ways we are the same. We come to realise that what triggers the beating of our hearts sets pulses racing in others too. We come to see that the very things that distinguish us are the things that make us one. This is the power of cultural relations.

© Copyright Leeds 2014