The British Council as an institution did not think Brexit was a good idea, and in the post-Brexit reality, remains committed to connecting individuals and organisations in the UK with their equivalents in the 27 countries that will remain in the European Union.
That emerged in an interview with the British Council’s chief executive Sir Ciarán Devane during his two-day visit to Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, his first since taking office in 2014 and the first by a Council CEO for several years.
“We didn’t think Brexit was a good idea because we’re very much internationalists, we believe in engagement, we believe in the European Union as having made a huge contribution to peace in Europe and as having made a huge contribution to prosperity in Europe,” he told sofiaglobe.com.
Sir Ciarán characterises the work of the British Council as cultivating cultural relations.
“We got our charter in 1940, during the Second World War, and the idea was to use the cultural resources of the UK to promote what they call the interchange of knowledge, ideas and discoveries; the reason to do that was to create what they said was a basis for friendly knowledge and understanding between peoples.”
He underlines the value of dialogue, in building mutual understanding: “There was this idea that where you have a dialogue with people, good things are more likely to happen than if you don’t, if we understand each other and we learn from each other, then we’re more likely to like each other and less likely to dislike each other”.
The world did not change on June 23, the date of the UK’s referendum that resulted in the decision for the country to leave the EU, he says – in the sense that all the problems that existed on June 22 continued to exist on June 24. “So the mission and the challenge of the British Council to create those connections remains the same.”
Those problems include, he says, misunderstandings between societies, people abusing privilege, or saying that their identity is superior to someone else’s identity. Nor can it be forgot that he has said on several occasions that one of the chief tasks of the British Council is to be a positive counterbalance to the growth of extremism.
However, Sir Ciarán does emphasise what he sees as one big change emanating from the 52-48 per cent vote in the Brexit referendum.
While he was one of the 48 per cent, “Are we making sure that we connect everybody in the UK, including the 52 per cent (who voted Leave) with people and ideas from other places, or are we just talking to people who are like ourselves, who believe what we believe?”
“Fundamentally, I think the world is as complicated, as difficult and as optimistic on the 24th of June as it was on the 22nd. But we do have this check to do, that we’re not just talking to people like us, and for me, that is the big change for the British Council.”
On June 24, he issued a statement on behalf of the British Council saying, in part, “we have always believed in the strength of engaging with multilateral institutions and we will find ways to continue to work in partnership with other European countries and with EU institutions to create opportunities, build connections and engender trust”.
In the interview at the British Council Bulgaria’s Krakra Street offices, he returns to the theme, in response to questions about the road ahead in fulfilling the ambition to continue to work with partners in the EU, in the context of Brexit – and to what extent the practicalities have been worked through.
The British Council does a lot of work jointly with the EU, but, he points out, working with programmes such as Erasmus Plus – the EU programme for education, training, youth and sport – does not necessarily require EU membership.
“And clearly we would be saying that we absolutely want UK students to be able to avail of that, for all the reasons we’ve just been talking about,” Sir Ciarán says.
For UK universities, which have international students who come from elsewhere in the EU, paying lower fees than people from other parts of the world, and which have science collaboration projects – allowing for the fact that it is collaboration among various institutions that make that work – there may be issues of serious concern.
But for the British Council, “it’s not existential at all, it’ll be inconvenient potentially in one or two ways”.
In the past decade, the British Council reorientated its emphasis in terms of parts of the world where it works, with a shift of focus from parts of Europe such as France and Germany towards the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. He notes that now, “there is a question as to whether we need to increase our level of activity with the 27 member states, and in some places potentially we will have to do that”.
“The honest answer is, we’re still working it through,” Sir Ciarán says.
“Britain’s not going to stop being a European country, it’s not going to float off into the middle of the Atlantic, we are going to continue to have very strong relationships with all 27 countries.”
He concedes that “confidence in the relationship has taken a knock over the last few weeks”.
“And we will certainly be making sure that we play our part in continuing to engage and continue to connect individuals, institutions and organisations in the UK with their equivalents in the 27 countries, but also elsewhere.”
Given the British Council’s stated contemporary mission goals, such as countering extremism through cultural exchange and building understanding, Sir Ciarán is asked how success – or otherwise – is measured in this respect.
It is really difficult to measure, he says, but points, as one example, to the British Council’s Active Citizens programme in northern Nigeria, through which young students are empowered with organisational skills to benefit their communities.
“The bit that makes it a British Council project is that we are supporting those bright young Nigerians to do great things for their country, and one of them in time will, I’m sure, be a governor of a state or will be an MP or perhaps even Prime Minister.”
That may be a long-term measurement goal but, he emphasises, what is important is the belief that such engagement works.
“My job is to make sure that the bit that relies on faith is as small as possible and the bit that relies on data is as large as possible,” he says, noting that there are measurables, such as the fact that 49 per cent of overseas students who study at UK universities have benefitted in one way or another from the work of the British Council.
“Can we prove that the world is a safer place because of what we do? Well, case by case, we can point to contributions, but at some point you have to believe that engagement is important. I often use the counterfactual – would you rather have isolation?”
Meanwhile, Sir Ciarán’s first visit to Bulgaria and to the British Council here have left him impressed.
The British Council has a longer history in Bulgaria than you may imagine. Its first office was set up in the country in 1939, when the body was known as the British Institute – even before the British Council was granted its charter (it got the order of the boot from Bulgaria’s Defence Ministry in 1941, as Sofia allied itself to Berlin; later, Bulgaria’s communist era brought its own interruption).
The longevity of the relationship with Bulgaria, the long-term commitment, has proved important.
“We were here long before Bulgaria’s membership of the European Union, and we didn’t give up and walk out the door and say ‘job done’ when Bulgaria did join,” Sir Ciarán says, emphasising the British Council’s key commitment is to the people of Bulgaria.
He praises the British Council Bulgaria for “when it spots a good idea, it takes it on and does something very good with it” – such as its strong track record in promoting science communication, through FameLab.
It was the British Council Bulgaria that took the FameLab idea from the Cheltenham Science Festival and set it on the path to internationalisation. In turn, the Sofia Science Festival has become a landmark event on the calendar, and the British Council Bulgaria also is in discussions with Sofia University on the founding of a master’s degree in science communication.
“It would have been easy to have one bright idea like FameLab, and to stop there, but actually what these guys do is they keep pushing, and saying there’s more that we can do, and there’s more…I have no doubt they’ll be knocking on the door with the next bright idea after that as well.”
His first brief encounter with the capital city also has been inspiring, he says.
There was time for a visit to the Sofia History Museum and, in that precinct, to encounter the nearby juxtaposition of Roman-era archaeology and the houses of worship of various faiths – the cathedral, the synagogue, the mosque.
“That cosmopolitanism and all that history represented in one place is really inspiring, it shows what these cultural relations we have been talking about really mean.”
Of Bulgaria, he adds: “It feels like a country on the move, where things are growing, are moving forward – and long may it be so. And everyone’s been incredibly charming”.