20/11/2012 12:48 GMT | Updated 20/01/2013 05:12 GMT

Britain's Gold Medal in Soft Power

Before the Olympics, if you'd asked me where the UK would rank in Monocle magazine's annual Soft Power Survey this year, I'd have hoped for a podium finish. After the Olympics - even though our natural national modesty holds me back - I am proud, but genuinely not surprised to find us carrying off the Gold. As I've always said, 'to know us is to love us'. And when the UK has the self-confidence to put its culture and excellence on the world's stage as it has in 2012, there is no country in the world with more to offer.

If you're not au fait with international relations jargon, 'soft power' is a country's ability to make friends and influence people not through military might - but through assets such as culture, education, language and values. In short, the things that make people love us rather than fear us.

When I was interviewed on CNN on a grey morning just before the London Olympics, I was asked what I thought might be the legacy of the Olympics given that 'everybody worldwide knows the UK anyway'. I said: refreshing the 'shortbread and Beefeater' image of the UK with one that's modern, diverse and about all four countries of the UK, plus doing a job on ourselves - rediscovering our national sense of belief that we can do what the French call 'grands projets', big buildings, great events and huge infrastructure projects.

Everything that happened in the glorious weeks that followed more than fulfilled my hopes and predictions. Danny Boyle's Olympic Opening Ceremony, the stunning summer of sport. But the day I took my little family to the Paralympics stands out. I literally could not believe it. The scale, the build quality, the welcome, the volunteers, the Army, the packed venues, the landscaping - even the McDonalds - it was all so wonderfully well done. In the words of the campaign: the Olympics and Paralympics really were GREAT.

We may call it 'soft power', but there's nothing soft about the economic dividends that sharing culture can bring. Our own British Council research shows that English, education and culture - the UK's prime soft power assets - are helping to build trust for the UK worldwide and that trust translates into people wanting to study in the UK, visit and do more business with us.

But if we want to stay on top, the UK's great cultural and educational institutions and brands will need to keep on finding new smart ways to share those soft power assets. And we'll need to use the all the UK's historic spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship to do it. Spending more public money isn't the answer.

We've taken 'legacy' and the 2012 'call to action' to heart at the British Council. We already work in more than 100 countries worldwide to build trust, opportunity and prosperity for the UK through English, education and the arts. But we are growing through entrepreneurship, not government spending. Three-quarters of the British Council's turnover is now earned through teaching English, delivering contracts for donors and funders and in partnership with great brands like the Premier League. Core public funding now accounts for less than a quarter of our turnover.

The Daily Mail, welcoming Monocle's Survey, asked how much better it would be if the UK had topped a global poll for prosperity. I say that, if we keep investing in, sharing and growing through entrepreneurial educational and cultural institutions - public and private - we can, and we will.

A few weeks ago I was talking with some thinkers in the UK and the question 'is the UK a 21st century cultural superpower?' came out of my mouth. I immediately wanted to put it back in again. Why? Because, for British people of my fortysomething generation, to say something proudly of our country traditionally requires a joke, a self-deprecating remark or a hint of sarcasm.

Perhaps it's time to recognise that English, education and culture - along with a sustained commitment to International Development - are some of the UK's biggest and best contributions to the world in the 21st Century. We should learn to talk about that, with due humility and just a little national pride.