The Big Question: What is the British Council, and does it still serve a useful purpose?

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. A mainstay of its work remains the teaching of English abroad. Last year, it conducted more than a million hours of English lessons, employing more than 2,000 teachers.

It also aims to promote British culture through art and writing, and its international reach can be a boon to aspiring artists and authors. It championed the talents of British sculptor Henry Moore throughout the 1940s, and has exhibited the work of Gilbert and George overseas, helping them gain international recognition.

And it hasn't just been British artists who have benefited from the council's support for the arts. It also had a hand in the career of Australian film director Baz Luhrmann. It funded the director's visit to the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in the 1990s.

Has it come in for criticism in the past?

Some have regarded it with derision in the past, characterising it as a liberal organisation sending the great and the good of British high society around the world to attend jaunts with foreign literati, as depicted in the novels of Malcolm Bradbury, who was actually one of the council's most ardent supporters. It has now largely shed that reputation and developed a harder nose, becoming more focused on the promotion of British know-how and technology, as well as education.

Has it hit trouble before?

Its decision to promote the controversial show Prostitution by Genesis P-Orridge in 1976 raised some eyebrows in establishment circles. The British Council has been in greater peril, though. Funding has always been very tight and it has been the target of sporadic cutbacks over the years.

Its very existence has even come into question. When the Department for International Development was created with the arrival of the Labour Government in 1997, some thought the new office might render the British Council redundant. Despite it all, though, it has managed to survive as the key promoter of British culture.

Isn't it just a producer of propaganda?

Russia has been clamping down on foreign institutions it suspects are being used for political ends, which may help to explain why it has targeted the British Council. But though the Council does have the express aim of promoting all things British, it has always tried to retain its independence from government. It has had an independent chairman and board since its inception.

The British government has been tempted to use the British Council for propaganda work in the past. At the start of the Second World War, it considered bringing the council under the aegis of its propaganda machine, the Ministry of Information. The council managed to escape that fate after its chairman, Lord Lloyd, persuaded the government that there was more long-term value in keeping the council's work strictly independent.

Does the British Council have a meaningful role in today's world?

Yes...

* It has helped many thousands of people overseas to learn English, which has benefited our economy and our image abroad

* It doesn't just help Britain it also helps developing countries to benefit from British expertise

* It has helped to launch the international careers of many of Britain's cultural icons, such as the sculptor Henry Moore

No...

* With a British tourist board, British embassies, a Foreign Office and an International Development department, we don't need it

* It serves as a type of cultural imperialism, allowing a rich country to push its culture on to poorer regions

* It pays for the great and the good to go on glamorous 'cultural exchanges' at taxpayers' expense

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