David Green: 'Cultural relations are tools for building a stable world'

From a speech by the director general of the British Council, on receiving the Prince of Asturias award for cultural relations, in Oviedo, Spain
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The Independent Online

In the 1930s, Britain set up a new cultural institution charged with countering the propaganda of the Axis powers by promoting the values and culture of Britain. The British Council succeeded and it quickly became clear that strong, lasting relationships could be built through education, literature, film, and debate.

Since the 1930s the world has changed and cultural relations have become powerful tools crucial to building a stable world. Consistently crafted relationships over time earn trust, and that trust is a general good. But our current uncertainties over Turkey are a worrying sign of regression, the attitude of many Europeans to Turkey is shaped by culture, not rational interest. Placards saying "Remember 1683" (when the Ottoman armies last besieged Vienna) tell the sad, inadequate story.

The European landscape is disfigured by a growing intolerance of the "other". A Belgian policeman in 2005, commented of his city's ban on face-covering by Muslims: "If you put on a Mickey Mouse mask and you start walking around in Antwerp you will be stopped by the police. It's that simple. It's not only women in a burka."

Attacks on migrants across the continent are increasing - not only on Pakistanis and Turks but on Poles and Roma. In Antwerp, 35 per cent voted for the anti-migrant party, Vlaams Belang. In Bulgaria, 8 per cent voted for the anti-semitic Ataka party. In several countries, opposition to Turkish accession is explicitly framed as opposition to Muslim membership of a Christian club.

The way to respond to this growing crisis is to bring together our young leaders to find common cause in discussions about faith, identity, culture and modernity which their elders may lack the courage to explore.