ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on a shocking survey that lays bare the reputational damage the UK has suffered, as a result of its handling of the coronavirus.
It will hopefully take more than Boris Johnson to trash the UK’s reputation globally, and leave lasting, irreversible damage; but my God he is giving it a really good go.
There was a time when only the United States, and occasionally one of the Scandinavian countries, could rival Britain in the so-called ‘soft power’ stakes, that inevitably subjective yet significant label applied to statecraft outwith the obvious indicators, such as economic and military power.
Long after Johnson has gone from Downing Street, there will still be Shakespeare and Dickens, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. JK Rowling will still be selling books by the million, Adele and Ed Sheeran will still be topping charts and, once crowds are allowed again, filling concerts the world over. On the cultural and sporting front, we punch well above our weight.
Hopefully the Queen will also still be with us by the time he is gone, and she too adds significantly to our soft power, as does the fact that there is no other Royal Family on earth that gets quite the attention that ours does, good and bad. Then throw in some of the other institutions still standing tall despite plenty of undermining by Johnson and his ilk, for reasons either of ideology or austerity – the BBC and the NHS, our military, our universities – and we should take hope that our strength and standing are about a lot more than one government and one prime minister.
That being said, the damage being done is very real, and should concern all British patriots. Just as Donald Trump is dragging down the reputation of the United States, so Johnson is doing the same to the United Kingdom.
Into my inbox at the weekend popped a French survey, analysing the reputational impact of coronavirus on major countries and leaders. Doubtless Farageists and Brextremists, and those with Twitter accounts with Union flags and lots of numbers at the end of their names, can comfort themselves with a ‘who gives a toss what the French think about us?’ spasm.
But how we are seen by others matters. Power matters. Reputation matters. It matters for the decisions governments, businesses and people all over the world make about where they will put their time, focus, and resources.
The Reputation Squad survey is made up of polling, as well as an analysis of 1.7m tweets on Covid between April 20 and April 26, which mention other countries, and 27,000 press articles. Germany is far and away the country that comes out best, ahead of France, and chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of French president Emmanuel Macron. The US and the UK are the countries that come out worst.
Take the question in the poll asking people to name which of these eight countries – the US, China, Germany, France, UK, Russia, Japan and South Korea – are best prepared to meet the challenges of coming years. Those polled were asked to name two. At the top came Germany, with 32% putting it first, and 45% having it as one of their two. Then came China, France, Japan, South Korea, Russia, the United States and finally the UK. One percent put us first, 4% had us in the first two.
Then the question about which of seven named countries France should be closest to in the years to come. Germany was so far ahead it was the only country in double figures for first choice – 48%. Next Japan on 5%. The UK was again bottom – 3%.
The United States, and Trump, are far and away the most high profile of all foreign countries and leaders, but the profile appears to be in inverse proportion to the esteem in which Trump is held. Only Johnson fares worse than Trump on the question of ‘which leader acts most in the interests of his/her people?’ Again, Merkel was top, on 39%, then Macron on 14%, and Russian president Vladimir Putin on 7%. Trump was on 2% first choice, 6% second choice, second bottom ahead of Johnson – 0% first choice, 4% second choice. Zero. Nul points.
First Brexit, then clownism, now Covid. The world over, the British government’s handling of the current crisis is being reported as a disaster zone. The death toll alone ensures that. It is only in the UK, where the damage is actually being done, that there is still the projection by much of the media of a basic competence and clear leadership that few outside the pro-Johnson crony press appear able to detect.
Recently I was interviewed about the long read The New European carried last week – The Making of a National Catastrophe – by one of Ireland’s best known broadcasters, Pat Kenny. He is not a man known for letting his opinions show, yet he stated without equivocation that Johnson ‘has blood on his hands’. Further … the UK media is giving Johnson a ‘free pass’ because of him becoming ill, and then having a child; the cabinet are ‘a callow bunch’, which is the direct result of Johnson getting rid of talented politicians because they would not back a no-deal Brexit; a decent media pack would ‘tear them to shreds’; Johnson himself has a ‘rather strange relationship with the truth’. He looked ahead to a public inquiry and wanted to know: ‘Will there be a day of reckoning for Johnson?’
It is hard to quantify the impact that the bad global reputation of a leader might have on the country he leads, but it is not to be dismissed.
The man who popularised the term ‘soft power’ was an American political scientist, Joseph Nye. ‘The best propaganda is not propaganda,’ he said, explaining the concept of soft power, adding that ‘credibility is the scarcest resource’. Fair to say that Angela Merkel got that particular memo. Trump and Johnson did not.
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