Rebecca Walton: “We have to be very creative and very imaginative”

Rebecca Walton: “We have to be very creative and very imaginative”


Rebecca Walton has just retired from her post as Regional Director EU Europe at the British Council. Since the referendum in the UK, her professional life focused largely on the cultural and educational relations between the UK and the rest of the EU. In this interview she explains how Brexit will affect cultural relations and cooperation between the UK and other European countries, and the continuing role of British Council.

What does Brexit mean for the cultural relations and cooperation between European countries?

“The British Council is fairly clear that Brexit will damage a lot of the underlying structures that we have come to rely on across Europe. It will be hard for the UK to retain many of these. We have to become more conscious of cultural relations in Europe. Over the last thirty or forty years we have enjoyed many different levels of engagement that will be damaged if not totally withdrawn or absent. Student exchange programme Erasmus is a very good example of this. The Erasmus exchange enables students to experience other countries and cultures, as well as scientific engagement between European cities and cultures. We’re all anxious about the damage that Brexit will do.”

What kinds of challenges and opportunities does Brexit give?

“The British Council is not very excited about Brexit. We’ve done a lot of practical engagement and quite a lot of really strong advocacy on potential damage. We don’t see opportunities there. I think Britain’s reputation has radically deteriorated. In Europe everybody’s first feeling after the referendum was shock but there was still quite a lot of affection towards the UK. There was also a lot of positivity in the cultural sector, as there was a common understanding that whatever happens, Britain will still be embraced in a range of cooperation. But nobody ever foresaw all of these months of failed negotiation. And I think that the affection that was previously shown to Britain has now turned into a slight fear.”

What is British Council’s stand on Brexit?

“From the beginning the British Council warned of potential damage to education and cultural engagement if the UK left the EU. Based on the wording and the intent of its Royal Charter the British Council stated that it was in favour of remaining in the EU. This aligned with what the organisation stands for, its belief in international engagement and the work the organisation does. Taking such a public position in the UK was unique in the history of the organisation.”

What is the British Council currently doing to protect cultural links with European countries?

“We have had extensive conversations with European cultural and educational institutions about future activity. In September 2016, we began a consultation with senior cultural and educational leaders in governments and non-governmental institutions across Europe. We consulted every country in Europe and brought people together for meetings. Through this engagement we wrote a short document for our government. It stated some of the highest priorities for retaining links in culture and education through the leaving process and after departure. The point of it was to represent the thinking of the others and not just our own thinking. One of the interesting things was that everybody advised us that if we could get the government to gain some ‘easy wins’ in education and culture, demonstration that the UK wanted to retain strong educational and cultural ties, before the negotiations, we might secure some goodwill in Europe.

Many of my colleagues appeared on panels, television and newspaper interviews to talk about those things. The Christmas time 2017, the European Commission expelled the UK from the European Capitals of Culture programme, before they had any rights to do so. It was a little symbol and a negative message from Brussels. In response to that I said that the British Council would continue to make a consistent contribution to the European Capitals of Culture to link British culture to the programme and ensure that we stay ‘in the family’. We also paid much more attention to the cultural institutes in London because previously we didn’t really work in the UK. We have done a lot, but I’m not sure about how much of it has made a lot of difference.”

How do you see the future?

“We know that there is going to be a shortage of resources in Britain for cultural and educational work. Previous links and programme money will diminish and not everything is replaced easily and cheaply. All the institutions in the cultural sector are really aware of that. There are some strong, good-hearted civil servants in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Department for Exiting who don’t want the cultural sector to suffer but culture doesn’t come high on the government’s priority list. At the end of the day we have to be very creative and very imaginative. And of course people who work in the cultural and educational sectors do come with both those attributes.”

Text: Kaisa Paavola Image: Camilla Schleutker