'Oh, so that's who Richard Morris is..." Lord Hattersley on The Daily Politics

'An influential activist' - The Guardian

'Iain Dale, without the self loathing' - Matthew Fox in The New Statesman

You are a tinker...' - Tim Farron

Monday 2 May 2011

With great power comes great responsibility...*

When we usually hear about Britain's influence on the world we default to one of two themes.

Theme one is Britain's attempts at righting the world's wrongs through military intervention - occasionally getting it right (Kosoveo, Sierra Leone), often getting it wrong (Iraq, and increasingly, Afghanistan), and certainly being mightily inconsistent (Libya vs. Syria, Yemen, Bahrain - and most shamefully Darfur).

Theme two is the overhang from our Imperial past - be it through the influence in the Commonwealth, through the fact that the default lingua franca in the world is increasingly English (more thanks to the US than to us, but still..), or even just that a third of the world's population watched the Royal Wedding.

Both of these themes make most people shift uncomfortably in their chair and stare fixedly at the floor.

But yesterday, I was pulled up short by a piece on 'From our Own Correspondent' on Radio 4, as a third route of British influence was outlined - one which made me both proud, and slightly nervous at the same time.

The piece was about changing life in India. The presenter contrasted life in the old India of the colonial clubs with 'another India' - not that of the slums and the poor, but a third India, the India of the middle class - the India of the Shopping Mall.

Now of course, the Mall is an entirely American construct. But the programme didn't mention the normal shops which we feel have come to colonise our own high streets and shopping centres - the Starbucks and Gaps of this world. Rather he cited the presence, indeed the dominance, of British organisations like Marks and Spencer and The Body Shop. And this is of course an increasing trend. Tesco, when publishing its results last week, reported strong growth - but mainly thanks to its performance overseas.

This is a new thing for British influence. Of course, Britain's had strong business interests abroad for hundreds of years. But the growth of stong international retail brands is new. When corporate business operates abroad, generally it,s other businesses that detect that influence, not consumers.(The exception is generally only when something goes badly wrong - BP in the Gulf of Mexico for example).When British shops begin to dominate the high streets of foreign cities, suddenly vaste swathes of the population begin to make a judgement about whether they approve of that trend or not.

Now I believe (though many I know will disagree) that we should have a sense of pride at these British companies doing so well abroad. But I was also reminded that colonising other countries high streets isn't always welcomed. The announcement of the opening of a new McDonalds over here is seldom greeted with open arms by every part of the local ommunity.

My old boss, Keith Reinhard, recognised the dangers of foreign brands annoying the world and his wife in their local markets a few years back, when he started a group called 'Business for Diplomatic Action'. To quote from The Economist at the time,

'“I love American brands, but they are losing friends around the world and it is vital to the interests of America to change this,” Mr Reinhard told a packed meeting of business students at Yale University .... His basic argument is that something is amiss in the perception of America abroad, that this perception is economically damaging, that it must be changed and that it can be changed.'

Now of course, we have The British Council, who already do a great job in representing British cultural interests abroad. But again this is something new for them. And it is the scale of that success that can hail trouble - no one here at home queries the presence of Zara (Spanish), Hennes (Swedish) or Benetton (Italian)as they are individual successes from those countries. It is the swathe of an 'imperialist' takeover of the British high street that seems to rile people in the case of US retailers.

As British business does better around the world, we must do all we can to make sure that the work we do there not only benefits the local community in which it operates, but also that it is seen to benefit them. That British business is seen as a force for good and for growth and opportunity for all, not just for British self interest. And I'm not sure we're really doing that right now. But we should be.

Then British influence in the world can be something we are all genuinely proud of.

* For all those wondering where this quote comes from - and I know you're all wondering - is it Churchill? Is it Rosevelt? Neither. Its from Spiderman. I am aware this is something of a David Brent moment in this blogs history. Sorry. But it will probably get my search engine stats up...


  1. Nice post Richard except you seem to have had a double David Brent moment if that is possible. The quote originally comes from Voltaire and has been a spoken cliché for hundreds of years. Spidermans uncle was just passing on his folksy wisdom.

  2. Ha ha! Dave Brent squared! I hang my head in shame....