Martin Hope (Director of Benelux and the EU Office, British Council; Former Director, British Council in Moscow)

06.11.2009 - Interview conducted by Izelle Wagner & Max Marioni

Martin Hope graduated from Oxford University with a BA in French and Russian in 1986. After working in the Government Relations Industry he transferred to non-profit management and organisation. From September 2006 until September 2008 Hope was the Director of the British Council in Moscow. He currently holds the role of Director of the Benelux and EU office of the British Council.

Hope attended the “World Without Walls” congress as a guest speaker and gave a lecture entitled, ‘Cultural Relations in the 21st Century between the EU and Major International Partners.’ He spoke about the British Council’s ongoing initiatives as well as the importance of cultural relations in promoting security, prosperity and sustainability. Mr. Hope kindly took the time to speak to CD News about the British Council, EUNIC, the role of cultural institutes and language learning.       

What is the role of cultural institutions such as the British Council in your opinion?

Cultural institutes such as the British Council are very important in building strong ties between societies. This is done not only through governments but between people in order to create sustainable networks. These people can be young or old and can communicate across what are considered to be cultural divides. Organisations such as ours are important for building these bridges and for addressing some of the cultural challenges that face us today. In the past Institutes such as ours focussed on promoting national culture. But Europe and the world today require a different approach from cultural institutes. Working together to solve common problems is the required approach. Some of the problems that we face include global warming, migration, the need to develop skills for the knowledge economy and finding ways to approach the challenges that we face as European countries and as European citizens. So it is no good to purely say that Britain has good artists and that Germany has a great education system. We need to bring people who have experience and expertise in these areas together so that we can and find a European or Global solution.

Do you find that working with other cultural institutions outside of the UK has helped the British Council with its own initiatives?

What we do at the British council is build a network of future leaders. Some of these leaders are from the UK but many are from other international partners with the UK. This is because we have some of the knowledge, expertise and skills required to address the issues previously mentioned but we also acknowledge that a lot of it comes from other countries too. So we want to listen and learn from other country’s experiences that will in turn benefit our country. We believe in an exchange of ideas and an exchange of experience for mutual benefit. This is a very different paradigm from what cultural institutes used to be. We could previously characterise public and cultural diplomacy as an effective way of promoting national culture. But that paradigm is shifting towards a new one which involves collaborative working partnerships and alliances, which address issues that are common in every country. We come together to share our ideas and there are a number of projects that we are doing as the British Council that are also in partnership with our European colleagues.

So you work together with other European institutes to achieve that?

Yes. The organisation actually has a name it’s called EUNIC, European Union National Institutes of Culture. At the moment the president is the director of the Danish cultural institute Mr. Finn Andersen. A lot of the European cultural institutes meet and plan programmes together now. For example the ‘celebration of 1989, twenty years on’ is being celebrated in Berlin as that is where the Berlin wall was. However EUNIC clusters are organising events to commemorate this occasion across Europe. So in Brussels we have a big film and debates program with guests that used to be dissidents. We are looking at what life used to be like before the fall of the wall, what it is like now and to what extent the fall of communism was the end of history.

But can cultural institutes from a variety of countries really be detached from national interest when working together?

The British philosopher John Grey talks about human progress and illusion and that we should never believe any theories religious or secular, which are based on human beings actually getting any better. We have to assume that we will remain quite selfish and individualistic and work on that basis. It’s a more pragmatic realistic approach to life and within that framework we have to find common solutions. We’re working all together with the institutes and the institutes that have been of course particularly active in putting the wall celebrations together are the Romanian cultural institute, the Polish cultural institute and the Czech cultural institute. So you have old Western Europe and new Europe working together to do programmes where the participants who come are seeing a pan-European, kaleidoscopic and panoramic view of how 1989 had an impact across Europe. So it’s a much richer experience for everyone who takes part and I as well as the British Council have certainly learnt a huge amount by working together with our European partners. This is where the British Council can actually lead Britain in terms of engaging with Europe. We do not actually represent the UK government; we represent UK society which is a very different thing. We work at arm’s length from government, so what they do is they empower us by saying that we know how to conduct conduct cultural relations. So they will give us some money, we have to get some of our own too and then we work on cultural relations as we see fit. We feed back to them on the impact that we are making, the numbers of people we are reaching with our programs and the influence that we are having. So we feed back to them on what we do and we have reviews but they ultimately empower us and leave us to get on with the job. There is nothing worse for cultural relations organisations than when governments interfere too much and try to direct our work. It quite often takes away the freshness. It makes us too politicised and it means that our fundamental currency, trust, is often taken away. When our audiences and our networks think that there is too much governmental influence and think that we are fulfilling a national agenda, the level of trust is more difficult to maintain. We are pleased that people come to work with the British Council because they see us as a bit like the BBC, as an independent organisation which is not aligned to a political viewpoint.

How did the collaboration with the EUNIC come into existence?

It started in Brussels in the 90s as one cluster in Brussels which was trying to bring together cultural institutes and find common agendas. I imagine that it was difficult to find those common agendas in those early days. There was lots of scepticism at first, just as there was about the European community. When considering this you can see that we are still in relatively early days. We have just got a management structure for EUNIC now for example. But over the last 15 years the Brussels cluster has assumed more importance and the European commission has started to recognise that EUNIC is a very powerful force. Once you get all those institutes together and you begin to count the number of staff, the number of teachers and the budgets you are talking about big figures. There are a lot of teachers of languages around the world now and when you consider this you realise that there is a strong presence of cultural relations. If we are all working individually we are not going to have the same effect. Each cultural institute has to balance the bi-lateral and the multi-lateral workings. Just in my time in the last 3 or 4 years in Russia and now in Brussels I have seen how EUNIC is now really beginning to deliver on what it promised. It’s beginning to deliver large scale projects across Europe with a much bigger impact than the cultural institutes are able to generate alone. I think that the European commission increasingly sees EUNIC as being one of their key tools for cultural relations between Europe and the big powers such as China, India and Russia. In fact EUNIC hosted a China-European cultural forum in Copenhagen where both China and Europe were represented and we negotiated on what we mean and what we understand by cultural relations and cultural diplomacy.

Have your approaches to cultural relations differed much to outer European countries?

China and Russia for example generally like to do the big set pieces. But the sustainability of that is one of the things that I would question. It is a great thing to do and everybody enjoys it but what happens afterwards? Because my experience of this has shown that every country has a showcase but it then it just moves on to the next country and the next year. Little impact is left behind because the funds just go around from country to country. So you get a lot of focus on that one event but it is not really sustainable unless you build into that event and the networking opportunities that are then going to sustain themselves afterwards.

I know about the British Council because I went to University and actually did a language assistantship as part of my year abroad here in Berlin. But I don’t know how readily available the British Council is for people that do not go on to higher education. Is there quite a big presence otherwise?

We are certainly looking to do more work in schools. We do build a lot of links between schools in the UK and schools overseas through projects like the one called connecting classrooms. But it is not just about taking a class of kids to Russia for three weeks. The main connecting classrooms projects are actually online now. So it is like what professor Barber was saying, we’ve got to use the technology. As cultural relations organisations we’ve got to get with the times and start thinking appropriately. How can we make ourselves relevant by using this technology that young people use? The face-to-face element is very important but now it is going to be about online collaboration where you can get three or four classes from different sides of the world all focussing on climate change together. We find that large virtual networks facilitated by British Council are good platforms to address intercultural issues of dialogue and skills development. So I think that we do have products and projects for younger people, particularly for secondary education.

Do you work with English people trying to learn other languages?

I’m actually the director of a new project which is quite revolutionary. The British Council normally teaches and promotes the English language but this project that I am a part of is about multi-lingual approach. It is about the British Council promoting language learning in general, not just learning English. We want to compare statistics and both anecdotal and valuable evidence from experts that describes the language learning situation in the UK, in schools, in universities, in business, in communities and to see how migrants do in terms of their language learning being supported. So we want to do a comparative study from that, also building on initiatives that have already been done by the council of Europe, the European commission and other universities across Europe. Educationalists, business people, can easily see how the country’s doing compared to others. And you know how powerful these league tables are, they’re provocative, divisive, but I also believe that they’re motivating and you can learn from them. We could find out for example that France has a more enlightened secondary school policy towards language learning than we do in the UK. Then maybe we can learn something from them.

Indeed, language learning policy in the UK is perhaps a very important issue that the British Council has to work with.

One of our key problems in the British Council is that it is no longer compulsory to learn a language post 14 in the UK.  This was brought in by the labour government policy. In almost every country that I’ve worked in I get challenged by people saying, “why don’t you learn languages in the UK past the age of 14?” So one of the things that we want to do is persuade decision makers that, whilst we are very happy that they’ve made languages obligatory at primary school, they need to follow it right the way through. In the UK people who don’t speak other languages are going to university then graduating and finding it difficult to get jobs because many jobs require that you speak another language. If you’ve learnt a language you’re immediately aware of the way that people think and you have a critically different way of seeing the world, which is useful for any job. In all sectors of society and business, languages and intercultural competence is crucial. And yet somehow this message is not getting through to kids who are opting out of languages. We’ve got to make a change and we have got to get kids motivated again to learn languages because it can be so much fun. And you can’t talk about cultural relations unless you are listening and learning. You cannot fully understand the message that people try to convey unless you make the effort to learn their languages. That is where the British Council comes in. We are taking on projects like this which are not our traditional faire but which are core to our cultural relations mission.

Mr. Hope, thank you very much for your time and for participating in this interview.