What Is the British Council, and Does It Still Serve a Useful Purpose?
Savage, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
The big question
Why are we asking this now?
Because the British Council has found itself at the centre of a diplomatic row after the Russian government ordered it to close two of its offices. It will be left with just the Moscow headquarters if it is forced to close the offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg by the end of the year but a British Embassy spokesman said they had no intention of closing the two offices.
What did it do wrong?
The Russian foreign ministry says that the British Council has been operating illegally by breaking Russian tax laws. It says that as a profit-making operation, the council is subject to revenue taxes. The council says that it has complied with all necessary tax laws, in accordance with an agreement signed in 1990.
In reality, many believe that the council has become the victim of a longer running diplomatic row between the UK and Russia, which saw the expulsion of four Russian diplomats from the UK in July. The diplomats were sent home after Russia refused to co-operate with the extradition of a man wanted in connection with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London last year. Moscow responded by dismissing four UK diplomats. Its action against the British Council could spell a further deterioration of relations between the two nations.
So what is the British Council?
Its purpose is to "build mutually beneficial relationships between people in the UK and other countries and to increase appreciation of the UK's creative ideas and achievements". In effect, it is tasked with promoting British culture, language and business around the world. It is a not-for-profit charity and though it is -independent, it is partly funded by the British Government.
The council has often faced the difficulty of being something of a mystery to the public. Part of the problem is its nondescript name, which gives little clue to its activities. Its leaders have often been asked about a name change to something that better explains what the council does. "Market research shows that organisations that change their name often lose out in terms of public recognition," its former head, David Drewry, once said,
When was it founded and why?
It was founded in 1934, after the Foreign Office realised it needed a means of promoting British culture, language and enterprise overseas. France and Germany had already set up cultural organisations to serve that purpose. The new organisation was initially called the "British Committee for Relations with Other Countries", but changed its name to the British Council two years later. Some argue that there were more political motivations behind the formation of the council, suggesting that its creation came as a response to fears that British democracy was coming under threat from fascism. Its first overseas office was set up in Cairo in 1938. It now has offices in 110 countries .
Is it totally funded by the government?
It receives an annual budget from the government, but tops that up through its other projects. In 2006, it received a 189m government grant, but its contracts to manage development projects and its teaching activities boosted its total turnover to 517m. Its funding has remained pretty stable in recent times, when inflation is taken into account. Its budget was 460m a decade ago. Historian Nicholas Cull has described it as "one of the great bargains on the Treasury's list".
What does it actually do?
Everything from putting on Shakespeare plays in Afghanistan to working with businesses in developing countries to help them benefit from British expertise. Its remit has become ever wider as it seeks to move with the times. It is now even involved in the fight against climate change by linking up British technology projects with partners overseas. …