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A Soft Power Coup

Last Saturday, the UK became loved in Europe again (for the moment, at least). We came second in the Eurovision Song Contest, something we haven’t done since 1998. Between that date and now, our performance had been appalling. Once we had been regular winners or challengers (back in ’98, we held the record for coming second); after then, we hardly ever made it onto the top half of the scoreboard.

The popular mantra became that this repeated failure showed that ‘they hate us’. Now this is no longer true, it seems. What does this mean?

Well, to start with, that mantra was never true. It was saloon-bar stuff. ‘They’ did not hate us, but were puzzled by and disappointed at us. We did badly in the contest because (with a few exceptions like our 1997 winner) we entered a string of weak entries, featuring rather ordinary songs by singers that nobody had ever heard of. We did this because we didn’t really ‘get’ Eurovision, thinking it was a kind of variety show rather than a serious showcase for the very best of a nation’s music (true, some other countries’ entries did sometimes encourage this, but that’s no excuse). This misconception went right back to the 1980s (some people say earlier). However, in that decade and the one that followed, we were protected from its consequences by a rule that every Eurovision contestant had to sing in their own language, which gave a huge advantage to the UK and Ireland, singing in the then universal language of pop. When this rule was abolished in 1999, we fell off a Eurovision cliff and have languished at the foot of it ever since. Or had...

While down there, our negativity about the contest festered and grew. Sir Terry Wogan, the BBC’s lead commentator, became ever more disenchanted, and his humour, always sharp, lost all its gentleness and became ever more barbed. The cynicism that resulted fed into the wider gathering stream of anti-European thought in the UK.

Now, however, we seem to have rediscovered our respect for Eurovision, and the contest, in turn, has rediscovered its respect for us. This neatly parallels political events, where events in Ukraine have reminded us that we are first and foremost a European nation, threatened by an enemy common to us and mainland Europeans.

The mechanism for our Eurovision rediscovery is a deal done by the BBC with management company TaP, who are big hitters in the music business – they look after Ellie Goulding and Lana del Rey, and built the career of Dua Lipa – and who genuinely believe in Eurovision. Company co-founder Ed Millett wrote: “Rather than viewing Eurovision as just a bit of fun, let's look at it for what it is; the world’s biggest live music event – 200 million viewers at last count... We’re going to go for it.” TaP made it a priority to find an outstanding entrant for the 2022 contest, and succeeded with Sam Ryder, a singer who is not in the variety tradition at all, but comes from the more earnest – but fully and authentically British – tradition of rock.

It is to be hoped that we will now enter a virtuous circle where better Eurovision entries get better results and lead on to wider success for the artists – as it did for last year’s winners Måneskin, who have gone global since their victory.

Unless you are a Eurovision fan like me, why does all this matter? It matters because our relationship with mainland Europe has been horrendously damaged, and Eurovision is a superb vehicle for Soft Power – international influence that comes from being admired rather than feared – that has been completely ignored up till now. We can’t afford to do so any more.


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