Cultural ambassadors face curb on global crusade

Budget cuts are threatening the work of the British Council,

Michael Church
Monday 20 May 1996 23:02

It promotes British culture around the world - teaching English to Brazilians, performing Shakespeare for Egyptians, playing cricket with Turks and showing Mike Leigh films to Greek Cypriots.

But while the British Council's worth is not in dispute, its already stretched funding is under renewed threat from Government spending cuts.

Sir John Hanson, the Council's director, has been told to expect a 16 per cent reduction in its grant. He has threatened to scale down activities in nearly 20 countries and pull out of 14 altogether if the situation worsens.

"We're not bluffing," he said. "The Government is threatening huge damage, at a time when there is massive worldwide interest in Britain. To be stuffing that down the drain seems short-sighted in the extreme."

Not only has the Council's grant - currently standing at pounds 131.9m - not kept pace with inflation, but it also had to cover a massive redundancy programme imposed by the Government.

"I think the figure of 16 per cent was plucked out of the air," said Sir John. "They had given no thought to the consequences, which we have had to spell out for them. We have a huge profile abroad, but a very small one in Britain, which makes us politically easy to ignore."

Indeed, abroad, its activities are less easy to ignore. Harbouring thousands of students working for British qualifications, the Council in Thessaloniki operates like a further education college. The Cairo office exudes imperial grandeur, but its library is crammed with locals consulting English exam syllabuses.

After local elections last year put the Islamic Welfare Party in power, Istanbul was in a state of shock. Our scholarly young cultural attache spent a lot of time taking the pulse on the streets; his arts programme was tailored to reflect what European and Asian culture had in common.

In Cyprus, the British Council's offices literally bestride the Green Line separating the warring groups. It exerts a key influence. At its quirkiest, this means bringing Mike Leigh's Naked to a film festival on the Greek side, and providing bats, balls, and cricket stumps for Anglophile Turks.At its most serious, it means a unique attempt to bridge the political gap, by sending student high-flyers from the Greek and Turkish communities to study together in Britain.

The cultural embassies of America, Germany, and France are all competing for the loyalty of this strife-torn island, but none with such a constructive approach.

In Recife, Brazil, last week, there was a whiff of what cuts mean in practice. David Spiller, the British Council's director for north-east Brazil, had just completed his responses to last year's round of cuts. With nine full-timers serving an area as big as Europe, no one could argue there was any fat to lose. But jobs had been lost, and so had the entire arts budget.

But the guts of this enterprise are, for the time being, intact. In this part of tropical Brazil, disease and malnutrition are rife: the British Council stands in the front line against them. One of 40 projects run by Spiller's staff has seen the incidence of elephantiasis dramatically decline, thanks to a simple technological wheeze devised in London.

Another project which they have initiated - and beefed up with World Bank funds - is an assault on rural nutritional ignorance. The Council may have little to spend on work like this, but it is inducing universities, companies, state governments to spend a great deal.

Early in the morning, and late in the evening, the office is thronged with people learning English in their spare time. English teaching is Spiller's best hope of staying solvent: his office now takes a commission for every student it places in British language schools.

"We don't like being forced into being entrepreneurs, but the Government has left no other option," he said.

Eddie Edmondson, Spiller's chief English teacher, is one of the most sought-after examiners in Brazil. He's had numerous offers to could get seriously rich in the private sector, but has never felt the urge. "I like working for the British Council, and I believe in what it stands for."

So, very obviously, does everyone else in this hard-pressed office, which costs the British taxpayer a mere pounds 850,000 a year. If this week's news is bad, Spiller has already worked out where his axe must swing next.

But why should it be bad? The Council's current grant amounts to 0.04 per cent of Government expenditure. With Germany investing four times as much in its overseas cultural push, and France even more, ours seems a snip.

Leading article, page 13

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