What Is Going on at the British Council?
Sardar, Ziauddin, New Statesman (1996)
The British Council has received some severe blows lately. It has been condemned by some of our most celebrated artists for scrapping its visual arts, theatre and dance departments. The council's offices in Russia have been closed. It is being accused of funding activities in the Muslim world rather than promoting British values. Just what is going on?
The British Council is a vast, incoherent, acronym-riddled bureaucracy. A project that would take perfectly sane people a couple of months
to complete requires so much "consultation" and so many "partners" that it takes two years to get off the ground. Its workforce does not reflect the diversity of Britain. And it has too many right-wing nuts for my liking.
The council's current problems have, I think, something to do with it having finally realised that it needs to change. The old method, whereby isolated "country directors" ran mini-empires, is just not conducive to an interconnected, globalised world. The new century demands not promotion of nebulous British values, but an appreciation of diversity and complexity.
The council is adjusting to change by focusing on regions rather than individual countries, and by concentrating on a few large international projects rather than undertaking numerous small ones. As a result, many cherished projects, particularly adored by writers and artists who have benefited immensely from them, will have to be jettisoned.
Living Together is a good example. It involves more than 30 European states, dozens of working partners, educators, artists and academics, conferences and workshops, and a string of action-based programmes for young people. Add a travelling photography exhibition and educational materials for schools, and you get some idea of how big and innovative this project really is.
The prime focus is on the complex diversity of Europe, how its conceptual space is being utterly transformed by globalisation, and where the past, present and future of its various communities collapse together. …