How James Bond is being let down by Boris Johnson and co in the battle for hearts and minds – Alastair Stewart
Still, it felt like a cultural moment – the changing of the Bondian guard, and we were glad to mark it with a bit of humour and an early showing.
Bond is an undisputed global phenomenon. As ever, the critics either derided 007 as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” or hailed him as a national treasure. Some did both. But what does his licence to kill mean for “Global Britain”?
The films are a classic exercise in projection. It is no different to the swell of national pride, or the bitter taste of defeat, at sporting fixtures. The franchise is entertainment, but it still taps into a subliminal, public consciousness. National identity is elusive, but it comprises tiny, shared telepathic moments: the death of a Doctor Who, a crucial match, or a televised address announcing a national lockdown.
Do our global friends and enemies think that Mr Bond is a walking exemplar of British military might? No, that is wholly absurd. But is he a demonstration of British soft power at its best?
American political scientist Joseph Nye introduced the concept of “soft power” in the late 1980s. It is a notoriously nebulous thing to quantify but differs profoundly from military might. A country, he argued, can be rated on its power to influence others by non-violent means.
According to Nye, soft power rests on three resources: “Its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority).”
Anyone who has lived abroad or travelled will be able to give you some examples of seeing British cultural influence. I've sat in Macedonian bars as the Proclaimers came on and listened as they mouthed the words. Harry Potter, whisky, the Royals, James Bond, Shakespeare and a million other things have shaped how the world sees us.
It is a heinous proposition to think British hard power matters as much. Beyond a nuclear deterrent, we have tragically reduced our ability to act unilaterally. Lord Palmerston once declared, “a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong”.
If we measure a country's hard power by how well it can defend its citizens and national interest abroad, then we are a shadow of what we once were. The Prime Minister had no sway on US President Joe Biden's decision to leave Afghanistan. “Where is 'Global Britain' on the streets of Kabul?” asked Theresa May of her successor.
The year 2012 was the triumph of Britain without empire. The London Olympics, alongside global household names like Andy Murray and Bradley Wiggins, brought global attention. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee was a brilliant reaffirming of what we were, the good and the bad.
Skyfall, released in the same year, was a perfect, complimentary movie, not just because it was the 50th anniversary of Bond. It made itself an allegory for us as a nation – reflective, diminished from a half-century before, but still proud and determined – Britain still mattered.
In 2015, Britain came first in the Portland Soft Power 30 index. Its results are based on culture, digital, education, engagement, enterprise, and government measurements.
But this soft-power triumph was soon being undermined. By 2016, Brexit and autarky became a cult obsession and wrecked the balance. Britain dropped to second after the United States in the index. Somehow the UK government took the best of 2012's worldwide prestige and transformed it into a national disaster and global embarrassment.
France took the top spot in 2017, with Britain second and the US in third. In 2018, we were first again (thanks to the government-sponsored Great Britain campaign). In 2019 the country was back to second, and Brand Finance records the UK as third in 2020/21.
The sheer amount of time given over to Brexit has diminished the credibility of the country. I lived abroad from 2014 to 2019, and Spanish friends were left stunned at the protracted noose-tying that the UK was committed to. They found the Prime Minister buffoonish and considered nationalist politics (of all stripes) poisonous to our global reputation.
The UK government's fatal mistake is thinking soft power is entirely separate from governance and politics. They cannot just say and do as they please and hope the UK's cultural reputation takes care of itself. If it is serious about a reputational rebound, it needs more than maxims, it needs values, and those values must be put into action.
Our cultural reputation can't escape the shadow of jingoistic and aggressive policies towards the international order. That the Royal Navy appointed Daniel Craig as an honorary commander to “spread the message about what our global, modern, and ready Royal Navy is doing around the world” seems a case and point.
It will be the 60th anniversary of the Bond franchise next year. Dr No launched a global phenomenon at just the same time as Britain was losing an empire and struggling to find a role in the world. Little has changed. If you ever need a laugh, stop and remember the different prime ministers each of the Bonds was taking orders from.
With that in mind, the ending of No Time To Die is a testament to Global Britain if ever there was one.
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