Whether you’re a flag-waving royalist or ardent republican, the royal wedding will be hard to ignore.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have been keen to keep their nuptials as private and apolitical as possible, yet the eyes of the world will be on Britain this weekend.
In many ways, it is the ultimate soft power opportunity.
Fans of the popular Netflix show The Crown will be familiar with how the royals have evolved to encapsulate the mood of a changing nation. A future episode may well place this wedding in the context of the UK’s uncertain position with a backdrop of Brexit.
Soft power is usually understood in Joseph Nye’s maxim that “power with others can be more effective than power over others”. In global business terms it symbolises something akin to brand power: an assurance that promises will be met, and that trade will be mutually beneficial.
The UK’s own identity seems far more fragile than when the nation welcomed Kate Middleton into the royal family in 2011. Since then, the Scottish referendum and the future of the Irish border are just two of the most significant political challenges facing the nation.
The impact of such political uncertainty has been seen in ACCA’s global membership surveys. Our recent quarterly Global Economic Conditions Survey highlighted the fragility of business sentiment in the UK, at a time when global confidence is at its highest point since 2009.
The recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London was a welcome opportunity to explore another aspect of the UK’s future role as a global leader. The Commonwealth is made up of 53 countries across all continents, at vastly different stages of development. Their relationship with the UK must be based on understanding mutually beneficial opportunities in the twenty-first century, rather than reliance on a complicated historical bond.
Provided we recognise that the Commonwealth is a distinct entity with its own unique benefits, and not a like-for-like substitute for the European Single Market, the potential for reframing the UK’s place in the world exists. The goodwill generated by the increased role of Prince Harry in the proceedings is a strong reminder of the opportunities such networks and soft power can play.
The UK has significant work to do to capitalise on such advantages, however. One of the most pressing is to increase the global trading focus of British business. The GREAT Britain campaign has been lauded for its contribution to UK soft power during turbulent times.
As part of that campaign, the Department for International Trade has been working hard to promote and educate businesses around export opportunities.
It is vital in particular that UK SMEs – which make up 60 per cent of private sector employment – have the advice and support needed to continue to expand into international markets. UK businesses cannot wait for the right trade deals to emerge before focusing on how to boost exports.
Yet, even more important is putting talent at the heart of any new trade strategy. The UK is the world’s largest exporter of financial services, partly because of the skill and knowledge of the 2.2m people the sector employs nationally.
The sector benefits from the ability to attract the best talent, which in turn attracts foreign investment. At the same time, it also benefits from the mobility of its employees to easily work across borders and time zones as the need arises. Questions around the continued openness of the UK after Brexit is a major concern. The ongoing fallout from the Windrush scandal has undoubtedly represented a further blow to UK soft power, especially with the Commonwealth countries it is seeking to cultivate.
What is important, whatever the post-Brexit settlement, is that the UK continues to show a commitment to supporting talent flows, and remaining a cultural beacon for the value of the highest global standards in business, education, and law.
This wedding therefore represents an opportunity to continue to celebrate the UK as an open and diverse twenty-first century nation with a business environment to match.
Alternatively, for those not so invested in royal matters, you could instead look east of Windsor. The FA Cup final between Chelsea and Manchester United will also reach an audience of more than 90m across more than 100 countries, thanks to the enormous global appeal of the English Premier League.
Combined with the forthcoming appearance of Liverpool in the Champions League final – a team I will be proudly cheering on – there are many reminders of the UK’s strengths and appeal as a centre for global excellence.
As many married couples will attest, the real work starts after the big day. Similarly, soft power can only open doors, and facilitate opportunities. Now is the time to ensure that the UK shows the leadership and dynamism to reap the potential benefits.