The British Empire may be dead, but the British Council lives on. By definition, its myriad range of activities are little known to the British people it represents, and whose taxes keep the show on the road. Since being founded in 1935 - in the face of the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy - it has enjoyed a fairly cosy existence, free to promote British culture and technology abroad as it sees fit - through exhibitions, theatre tours, literary events, educational programmes or support for local projects. Now, however, the council is feeling the wind of change that has accompanied the arrival in power of New Labour. Questions over policy and funding have created uncertainty about its future.
A fundamental review of the British council's spending is being conducted by the Foreign Office, the source of two-thirds of its pounds 100m annual grant. The other pounds 32m comes from Clare Short's Department for International Development (DFID). But for how much longer? There are suggestions in Whitehall that DFID may sever its direct grant to the British Council, leaving the Foreign Office alone to administer a possibly reduced budget. The difficulty here is that Britain's aid budget, which the Government is committed to increasing, would lose out. The alternative is that DFID may start to impose its own priorities on how council money is spent.
Ms Short's emphasis in taking charge of the newly-formed DFID has been on providing help to the poorest nations. The British Council, meanwhile, sees a broader role for itself, with an intellectual, not to say rarefied tradition that goes back to the era when WH Auden and other 1930s poets could travel under its auspices.
Running educational courses - chiefly in the English language - remains fundamental to the council's raison d'etre, and such enterprises worldwide earn it more money than it receives from the Government. Nobody has any complaint about that. What the British Council fears is that if Ms Short is going to require it to direct more cash into aid-type projects, it might be deprived of the money it needs to keep open the offices it has in 109 countries. "You can only keep open our network of offices abroad if you have security about funding," a senior council source said last week.
The irony is that the dispute should have arisen at a time when the council ought to be enjoying a new lease of life under Labour. Tony Blair has given new emphasis to cultural exports and the promotion of the English language in its attempt to "re-brand" Britain. And Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, has pledged himself to an ethical foreign policy. In the words of one defender of the council, it represents "one of the principal contributions that Britain can make around the world as distinct from the past when we had a powerful economy with armed forces to back it up. The council is more important now, relatively, than it has been."
The council's outgoing Director-General, Sir John Hanson, has said, "For the UK to make its way in the world, traditional government-to-government links must be complemented by networks which operate society-to-society and people-to-people." Many argue that concentrating on poverty alleviation, at the expense of other projects, may be a mistake because education, democracy, accountability and good government are vital to the plight of the poor.
But what relevance does any of this have to the citizens of Britain? "In everything we do, we promote British expertise," says a council spokesperson. "We match up local demand with skills in this country. When countries use British expertise, they are more likely to use British products and skills in the future. We attempt to present the best of Britain. That fits in with branding Britain as a modern, dynamic, innovative, young country, and we're conscious of that."
The writers and artists whom the British Council selects to represent the country certainly have no complaints. Benjamin Zephaniah, the performance poet, has now been on so many council tours, he says, that he's lost count. He lists Australia, Argentina, Colombia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the West Bank among the places he has gone to fly Britain's cultural flag. "The council wants to show the variety of cultures and voices in Britain," he says. "In Africa and on the West Bank, the locals were pleased to see someone from Britain who's not white, who's performing musical poetry from Jamaica. It changes their image of Britain."
Zephaniah's endorsement of the council's cultural policies is echoed by David Glass, whose "visual theatre" - a mix of mime, dance, melodrama and clowning - has been seen in 20 or 30 countries, thanks to council tours. "The wonderful thing about the British Council is that it's trying to reach out," he says, "to show that Britain is not just a physical space, that it's an intellectual space as well."
The council does not rely merely on the goodwill of performers to fulfil its cultural role. Artists on council junkets receive their normal performance fees as well as the Equity rate and expenses. For writers, the financial rewards are less generous - usually a small honorarium and expenses. Many writers waive the honorarium and agree to tours just for the hell of it.
The author Jonathan Coe admits he went on a six-day trip to Romania with a group of British writers only because he'd always wanted to go there. He remembers it as "a rather tense kind of experience. I was slightly overpowered by the interest in British writing and British writers." Even so, he still managed to be "fairly permanently hungover. The Romanian culture revolves around drinking, and drinking quite toxic potions. We didn't have enough sleep, we talked too much, we weren't eating properly and we were drinking too much, so my memories of it become blurred after the first few days."
A more hard-headed approach does now seem to prevail. A group of British writers - comprising Margaret Drabble, Michael Holroyd, Jim Crace, Liz Lockhead, and Christoper Hampton - is in Singapore at the moment for a series of seminars. Jim Crace said that he had first come across the British Council in the 1960s when he was in Sudan working for VSO. "It was immensely helpful then, but it's much changed now. If you asked then: 'What use is the British Council?', some pompous old boy would say, 'Not a lot, really'.
"Now things have become focused. You don't come to Singapore to swan around and turn up at one conference. They work us hard now, but it's enriching." The council must hope that Clare Short approves.
From 'Othello' in Warsaw
to art in Sudan
IN ANY week The British Council supports no fewer than 40 arts events worldwide, in addition to dozens of scientific missions, research projects, and trade fairs, writes Paul Mungo. It also runs hundreds of educational courses. Here is a selection of Council activities taking place around the world this week:
Australia: Pictura Britannica, show of contemporary British art in Sydney.
Bosnia: club DJs Huyshe Yeatman-Biggs (Drum Club) and Tim Gunning (Ministry of Sound) at Internet cafe in Sarajevo.
Brazil: New Works: Future Visions, exhibition of British architecture in Sao Paulo.
Bulgaria: Sir Anthony Kenny lecturing on mediaeval philosophy at Sofia University.
Finland: Dimensions Variable, touring art exhibition at Helsinki art museum.
France: Nottingham Playhouse's Measure For Measure at Festival d'Automne in Nanterre.
Germany: Robert McLiam reading from his Eureka Street.
Hungary: social welfare conference on child minding.
India: The Enduring Image, exhibition of 300 works from British Museum, in New Delhi.
Israel: Surroundings, exhibition of work of five British photographers at Tel Aviv museum.
Japan: the Michael Nyman band in Tokyo.
Nigeria: workshops in investigative radio and economic journalism in Ibadan and Kadouna.
Pakistan: Traditions Of Respect, exhibition on British and Islamic cultures, in Lahore.
Poland: Royal National Theatre's Othello in Warsaw.
Sudan: art exhibition by Abdul Rahman Shangal in Khartoum.
Thailand: English language centre opens in Bangkok.
USA: Stanley Spencer - An English Vision, retrospective of 64 paintings in Washington.
Vietnam: presentation in Ho Chi Minh City on UK universities.Reuse content