BRITAIN IN THE WORLD: What diplomats could learn from Jeremy Paxman

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The Independent Online

The thing that emerged from yesterday's conference, from the speeches of the Prince of Wales and John Major and Douglas Hurd, was that the country needed to promote itself more positively. Britain needed to give a better impression overseas. We need to promote the fact that we are vigorous, vibrant, and successful or, as the Prince put it, "take greater pride in the notable strengths of British character".

The conference was organised by Mr Hurd. Even though Mr Major suggested we stop "the fashionable sneering at British institutions", the talk on the Tory right is of trimming the Foreign Office sails, or its budget. Leave it to the private sector, runs the theory. Businessmen are better ambassadors than mandarins with bloated expense accounts.

In fact, most foreigners gain their impression of Britain from television, music and sport, so why not take the new thinking to its conclusion and use our performers to do the Foreign Office's chores. James Naughtie, for example, was chairing yesterday's conference in a piece of freelancing by a member of the Radio 4's Today staff. The manner in which he handled the occasion, unfussily and discreetly, suggested British media figures might make ideal chairpersons for international trouble-shooting missions. Send Kate Adie to Burundi or Jeremy Paxman to Bosnia and they might do better than Lord Owen.

Attempting to solve others' problems to our advantage is only part of the FO story. Despite speeches about influence and diplomacy, what was going on in the Queen Elizabeth II centre was money talk: how to profit from our image overseas.

Again, the diplomats could look and learn. Gary Lineker achieved more for British trade to Japan than Johnnies in plumed hats. If he had managed to play a few football matches rather than being permanently injured, Tokyo might have been jammed with Minis by now.

Mr Hurd noted the contribution made by "the arts and literature" to Britain's image-building. But he neglected to mention the astonishing job achieved by Brits who fit into a catagory more loosely termed "entertainment".

Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson are more familiar to American households than Lucian Freud and Simon Rattle. There is Samantha Fox, big in India and, she is quick to point out, big in other places. There is Rick Wakeman, making millions for Britain every year in South America. Unfortunately, as he is paid in South American currency, it dwindles into tens when he pops into the bureau de change. And who could give a more accurate impression of Britain than our biggest pop exports, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton and Elton John? Fat, clapped-out and past it.

Five miles down the road, a different view of our country was unfolding for any foreigner who cared to watch it - Ronnie Kray's funeral.