The dangerous decline of the FCO: Labour’s opportunity

Diplomacy is the art of giving all parties in a conflict what they need, if not what they want. Right now, the underpaid, mismanaged FCO staff are getting neither what they need nor what they want. Britain is weaker and less safe as a result.

So writes the Editor of The Independent, Amol Rajan, in Thursday’s London Evening Standard, in a stinging account of the marginalisation of a once great department of state (full disclosure: for which I worked for 30 years).

In her resignation letter of 5 August, Baroness Warsi, a former Co-Chair of the Conservative Party and Foreign Office minister, denounced the government’s policy on Gaza as —

[in]consistent with our values, specifically our commitment to the rule of law and our long history of support for International Justice. In many ways the absence of the experience and expertise of colleagues like Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve has over the last few weeks become very apparent… William Hague was probably one of the finest Foreign Secretaries this country has seen… He dismantled foreign policy making by sofa government and restored decision making and dignity to the Foreign Office. There is however great unease across the Foreign Office, amongst both Minister[s] and senior officials, in the way recent decisions are being made.

The two greatest disasters in British post-war foreign policy, Suez (1956) and UK participation in the illegal attack on Iraq (2003), were at least partly attributable to the failure, indeed deliberate refusal, of the responsible prime ministers, Sir Anthony Eden and Tony Blair, to listen to the advice and warnings of the professional foreign affairs experts, including the legal advisers, in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

As Rajan’s article points out, one consequence of the steady devaluation of the FCO over many decades, as its resources have been mindlessly reduced while its responsibilities have been relentlessly increased, has been the absence of any coherent identifiable British foreign policy. Successive governments have constantly over-estimated British influence in world affairs, endlessly boasting about Britain’s ‘leadership role’, blind to the evidence of relative decline and indeed often explicitly denying it, while actually accelerating it by an extraordinary failure to play an active, constructive and cooperative role in Europe. Neither party has an identifiable policy on military intervention in the affairs of other states: in the weird muddle over the abortive proposal to join in air attacks on Syria, neither Labour nor the Conservatives felt able to declare unequivocally that such intervention without the prior authority of the UN Security Council (and other than in self-defence) would be in clear breach of the UN Charter and thus of international law — therefore an act of aggression and a war crime. No British government in recent times has laid down a coherent policy on the middle east, on China (threat? opportunity? who knows?), on reform of the Security Council (is Britain willing to give up or share its permanent seat and veto?) or on nuclear disarmament and the scandalous distortion of UK defence policy by the irrational refusal to scrap Trident, a so-called independent nuclear deterrent which is not independent and has no-one to deter, as crisply demonstrated by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian of 15 August. In a crisis, why do our prime ministers instinctively rush first across the Atlantic, not across the English Channel?  It’s too late to reverse NATO’s reckless expansion eastwards or Putin’s reactive retrieval of Crimea, but why are we intent on punishing Russia instead of discussing a Ukraine settlement that will respect the interests of all parties to the conflict?

Amol Rajan tells us that —

Cameron’s close circle of foreign policy advisers in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office has explained in closed-door meetings to the diplomats in the FCO that the Prime Minister does not really think about strategy at all. Moreover, the feeling in King Charles Street and some of our missions is that many of these advisers owe their positions to old school ties rather than ability.

This persistent legacy of failure offers Ed Miliband and his colleagues an enormous opportunity to set out a coherent, rational and law-abiding foreign policy, rooted in and executed by the FCO, for an incoming Labour government. This will call for a degree of courage that has been conspicuously missing from our political leaders of all political colours in recent years: courage to take on the puerile sabre-rattling of the tabloids and the Murdoch press; courage to attack such shibboleths as Trident, the burned-out ‘two-state solution’ in the middle east, and the indefensible current composition of the Security Council; not least, courage to acknowledge the foreign affairs blunders of the Blair government, some of whose senior members still insist on defending their flawed records in parliament and the media.  Labour’s motto in these and many other matters should be Danton’s: “il nous faut de l’audace, et encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace!” If Labour dared to adopt it, Mr Miliband’s fate might be happier than Danton’s: not the guillotine, but the keys to Downing Street.


13 Responses

  1. Pete Kercher says:

    A good appraisal, Brian (as I’d expect of FCO matters from you, of course), but I can’t honestly say that I see so much as a glimmer of stature from Milliband… or indeed anyone else at the moment. As you so rightly intimate, before coming down (somewhat illogically, to my mind, but you are entitled to your hopes, like everyone else) on the side of a future Labour government putting the FCO world to rights, the rot set in on both sides long ago. I see no grounds for expecting Milliband & Co to change anything at all about the self-deluding habits of British governments to wallow in past grandeur: it goes down well with the electorate (via the tabloids, of course) and that seems to be the main thing these days, quite regardless of any coherent relevance to the real world.
    And when it all goes haywire (as indeed it will), they can always point an accusing finger at Brussels (as indeed they will, yet again).

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Pete. You articulate the pessimistic view all too convincingly, and you’re probably likelier to be right than me. Still, the (quite short) list of good, very good and great British prime ministers is full of people who looked as if they weren’t up to the job until they did it, and it seems to me quite plausible that Ed Miliband might grow into it and do very well indeed: he seems to me highly intelligent, honest, thoughtful, serious and liberal-minded and sometimes willing to think and act outside the box. I would love to see him having a go at some of the issues mentioned in my post. He couldn’t be a tenth as awful as the shallow, meretricious, unprincipled David Cameron, who has reportedly defined his main qualification for the job as his belief that he would be good at it.

  2. Rob Storey says:

    Brian, I can’t argue with any of that but on “the burned-out ‘two-state solution’ in the middle east”, just what is the alternative? Rob

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Rob. I think, regretfully, that the two-state solution is now a non-starter (and I suspect, without evidence, that most of those engaged in trying to negotiate it also know privately that it’s a non-starter). The only alternative ‘solutiuon’ that I can envisage is a single Palestinian state incorporating Israel, with the Israeli component enjoying very extensive autonomy and international safeguards for its rights and status. The other, probably likelier, answer to your question is that there is no alternative, and no solution, in which case the current situation of virtual relatively low-level war, flaring up periodically, will continue indefinitely, until perhaps it’s swept away by some enormous tsunami engulfing the whole of the middle east. We might even be witnessing the beginning of such a tsunami now, although it’s too early to be sure.

  3. Derek Partridge says:

    You were a member of H.M.Diplomatic Service for 30 years. I was a member for 42 years. Membership of the Dip. Service is no longer a life time career. Members are on short-term contracts. Seeking to get to know and understand a country in which one is serving is no longer considered a merit but is derided. I know of no Minister of Shadow Minister who could be considered an authority on foreign affairs. I heard Jeremy Browne when he was Minister of State in the FCO give an excellent exposition of foreign policy, standing in for William Hague, but he was moved to the Home Office to make way for Baroness Warsi and then sacked. If an MP of mature years speaks with authority on foreign affairs he is bawled down or (as was Ming Campbell) ridiculed by cartoonists. In this situation we are not going to get a Secretary of State who can speak with authority nor who is well advised by his officials. In any case David Cameron’s biggest fault is his appalling judgment in selecting colleagues and officials.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Derek. You make telling points and I don’t dissent from them. I think the rot set in with Mrs (as she then was) Thatcher who undermined the independence of the Civil and Diplomatic Services by insisting that her ministerial and official advisers were people whose values roughly coincided with hers (“one of Us”). The inevitable consequence has been that the senior advisers to our prime ministers tend to give them the advice they want. Those expressing unpalatable views, such as warnings, are either ignored, sidelined, or consigned to backwaters. Of course this is a gross generalisation but I believe it to be broadly true. The result is decades of low-quality government.

  4. john miles says:

    “He (Ed) seems to me highly intelligent, honest, thoughtful, serious and liberal-minded etc”
    Maybe, but unfortunately he comes across as a bit of an old lady.

    Mind you, he’s in a terribly difficult position.
    If I remember correctly just about the first thing he did as leader was announce the death of New Labour.
    Hardly were the words out of his mouth when he found himself lumbered with a shadow cabinet of New Labour stalworts,

    And didn’t he make Alan Jiohnson Chancellor sinply because he wasn’t Ed Balls?

    A difficult team – if you can call it that – for anyone to manage, particularly if he didn’t choose it himself.

  5. Paul Sharp says:

    Thank you for this Brian. I am not sure which prospect is more unlikely – Mr.Miliband coming up to your mark or a single Palestinian state being established. It would help your general argument if we could identify a single state where the MFA remains well-resourced, influential and effective. When one looks abroad, what seems like a very British story becomes an international one. Even when states talk of reviving diplomacy, as did the US at the end of W’s term and the beginning of Obama’s, their leaders rarely have MFA’s and professional diplomats in mind. Effective diplomacy, it seems to me, requires a culture which allows the professionals to be institutionally protected so that they can “get on with it.” This precondition is vanishing from democratic or open states, and was never valued in dictatorships. If everyone can be a diplomat these days, then the only logical answer is that everyone must, in some sense, be trained/educated into the values and priorities of diplomacy. This, of course, is a prospect which is even more unlikely than Mr. Miliband restoring the FCO or the UN restoring the Mandate as a basis for single state.

    Brian writes: Many thanks for this meaty and thought-provoking comment. I agree of course that it’s extremely unlikely that either Mr Miliband will adopt all the controversial policy changes I have proposed, although I wouldn’t entirely rule out Labour coming round to some of them, or that a single Palestinian state is going to be established. All I would say on the latter point is that a two-state solution now looks impossible, given the degree of mutual hostility on both sides; that if there is ever going to be a settlement of the Palestine-Israel problem and conflict, the only conceivable shape that it could take is probably a single Palestinian state incorporating a distinct Israel element safeguarded by international guarantees of its people’s rights and responsibilities; that this too is unlikely to come about unless there’s a sea change in the situation in the middle east as a whole (and in the US); and that accordingly, this is almost certainly one of many international problems that are literally insoluble for as far into the future as it’s possible to look.

    I don’t suggest that Labour should move over to that analysis and prognosis, either in isolation or in a single leap. What I do suggest is that Labour should publicly recognise that there’s now a need for a fundamental re-think of the whole Palestinian-Israeli problem, including a fresh and realistic analysis of the legitimate and defensible interests of all the parties to the conflict and those of their regional neighbours; that such a fresh approach should be undertaken by the EU in close consultation with the US, Russia, China and the UN; and that a Labour government on taking office would seek to initiate a fundamental re-think and consideration of its institutional requirements, in the first place by discussing it with our EU partners. I don’t believe that this approach would be impossible.

    As for the decline in the power and influence of Foreign Ministries generally, and of their professional diplomats, not just of the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office, I’m sure that you are correct in doubting whether this can now be reversed in the kind of open western societies that we now live in. However, it seems to me to be mainly an American and British phenomenon, and rather less apparent in, for example, the chancelleries of continental Europe. Heads of state and government, and other politicians, rapidly become enchanted by foreign affairs, never quite able to recognise their inherent intractability, and ever convinced that they can manage them better than the fusty career diplomats with their tedious warnings and caution. The emergence of 24-hour television news and the power of the media over politicians also militate against letting the professional diplomats “get on with it”, in your striking phrase. Nevertheless it’s surely worthwhile to point out from time to time that sidelining or even ignoring the diplomats entails potentially costly penalties and that the string of failures of western foreign policy in recent decades may be partially attributed to it. Sooner or later some exceptional western political leader may emerge who can see the light — and do something about it!

  6. Brian says:

    This blog post has now been re-published over on LabourList, at It may be worth checking the comments on it there from time to time for the next few days.

    I also want to draw attention to Professor Paul Sharp’s extremely thought-provoking comments above (or below) and to my admittedly lengthy response to them: please see

  7. Michael Hornsby says:

    Thanks, Brian. Some random thoughts by way of response. I wonder if you may be conflating two separate things – what you call the “mindless” reduction in the resources available to the FCO on the one hand, and on the other the over-reliance of recent prime ministers, when formulating foreign policy, on the views of like-minded special advisers who share their prejudices as against those of experienced professional diplomats. The latter tendency, I think many would agree, has been to the detriment of our foreign policy. But, as to the former, it might be argued that a smaller FCO (which need not necessarily imply a less high quality one) is a logical and natural consequence of our inevitably reduced ability, in the post-imperial era, to influence what happens in the world beyond our shores. And, to be fair, I am not sure that Britain has performed strikingly worse in foreign policy than any other western country. You say, for example, that “no British government in recent times has laid down a coherent policy in the Middle East”. Indeed. But what western country has?

    Like several of your other commentators, I too was struck by some of the “shibboleths” on which you hope Ed Miliband, were he to become prime minister, would turn a fresh and critical eye.

    Among these is what you call the “burned-out” two-state solution for the Middle East. This is indeed pretty much a dead letter. But your tentatively suggested “alternative” is surely infinitely more unrealisable – the termination of Israel’s existence as an independent state and its incorporation as an “autonomous region” within a larger Palestinian one. It is inconceivable that any government in Israel would be prepared even to discuss such a scheme, expect possibly under intense pressure from the US, which is equally unlikely to be forthcoming. A marginally less unrealistic goal might be some kind of federated Palestinian-Israeli state, composed of two or more largely autonomous regions with a shared federal government responsible for defence, foreign policy and macro-economic management. But again, as things stand, this too is in the realm of fantasy. It is difficult to see what Ed Miliband, were he to win the next election, or indeed any other British prime minister, could do to change that.

    I was also intrigued by your desire to see Mr Miliband tackle the “indefensible current composition of the [UN] Security Council”. There seems to have been some evolution in Barder thinking on this. When we last discussed this a year or two ago, your view then, as I recall, was that, hard as it was to defend the current permanent membership and distribution of veto powers within the Security Council, any attempt at reform would create infinitely more difficulties than it would solve and that consequently it would, so to speak, be best to let sleeping dogs lie. What has changed your mind?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Michael.

    On your first point, I’m not ‘conflating’ two points: I’m making two points, both relevant and neither inconsistent with the other.

    On the two-state solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict, please see my response to the comment by Professor Paul Sharp, which spells out my views more fully than my post. I would only add that I believe the demographic time-bomb ticking away in the whole concept of Israel as “a Jewish state” will eventually explode, making it impossible for Israel to preserve its Jewish identity without resorting to discrimination against its Arab and other non-Jewish population in ways that will be internationally unacceptable as well as obnoxious to very large numbers of Jewish Israelis. At that point I think it will become increasingly obvious that some kind of single-state solution of the kind I have outlined is the only way out, apart from the extinction of Israel and the removal by death or deportation of its population.

    Incidentally, the “marginally less unrealistic” scenario that you outline is identical to the one I envisage as eventually emerging as the least bad outcome. Of course its time has not yet come, but there’s an obligation in policy-making to try to peer into the future to the extent that that’s feasible, and with appropriate modesty about one’s chances of guessing right.

    On the Security Council, I continue to believe that proposals for reform of its composition raise difficulties that may prove insuperable, especially as any change would be subject to a veto by any of the present P5 (including France!). But I also think a declaration of UK willingness in principle to give up or share our permanent membership would represent a useful spur to the debate on reform: it would win us respect for our realism about our place in the world, and Europe’s; and it would be a healthy antidote to our own political leaders’ tendency to act as if our permanent membership and veto require us to involve Britain in every international issue, thus nurturing our continuing delusions of grandeur (remember Blair explaining why “I decided to remove Saddam Hussein”? Cameron uses very similar language). Permanent membership is increasingly a burden, requiring us to take sides or at any rate to take up a position on every single issue that comes before the Council, when for much of the time our national interest would be best served by keeping discreetly shtum. Even if Charter amendment continues to be elusive or impossible, there could be ways in which we could effectively turn our permanent membership into a de facto EU seat, by exercising it in open and institutionalised consultation with our non-P5 EU partners, including other EU UN delegates in our Security Council delegation, and so on. If the French could be persuaded to act similarly, tant mieux. But pigs might be as likely to fly.

    I don’t underestimate the difficulties in acting like that, but I see no reason why it should not be made to work. It would be a much more constructive and realistic stance than the current “We’ve got it and what we have, we hold” defiance.

  8. john miles says:

    “I think the rot set in with Mrs (as she then was) Thatcher…”

    Is she to blame for Suez?

  9. Michael Hornsby says:

    Thanks for that response, Brian. I had indeed not fully taken on board your reply to Professor Paul Sharp, which answered some of the points in my previous comment. You write of “the dangerous decline” of the FCO. History can lend perspective. Was the FCO ever in much better condition, or conceivably were there times when it was even less well-equipped to recognise and defuse emerging global crises? I am reading “The Sleepwalkers” by Christopher Clark, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge – a gripping if sobering account of how the governments of Britain and its continental European neighbours and their respective foreign ministries drifted into the First World War without realising until too late what was happening. Clark writes of Sir Edward “the lamps are going out all over Europe” Grey, Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916: “He had long been a Liberal MP, yet he believed that foreign policy was too important to be left to the agitations of parliamentary debate. He was a foreign secretary who knew little of the world outside Britain, spoke no foreign languages and felt ill at ease in the company of foreigners”. His main claim to fame before becoming foreign secretary was to have been the Oxford University real tennis champion and “the author of a justly celebrated essay on fly-fishing”. He remained a passionate naturalist, birdwatcher and angler throughout his life and frequently left his desk in London to pursue these hobbies, leading one of his diplomatic colleagues to remark that the foreign secretary would be well advised to “spare some time from his ducks to learn French”. The French ambassador at the time in London, Paul Cambon, who held the post for an astonishing 22 years from 1898 until 1920, was a scarcely less idiosyncratic figure. He spoke not a word of English (or at any rate professed not to). At his meetings with Grey he insisted that the latter’s every utterance – even one-word replies such as as “yes” and “no” – be translated into French. According to Clark, Cambon “firmly believed – like many of the French elite – that French was the only language capable of articulating rational thought and he objected to the foundation of French schools in Britain on the eccentric grounds that French people raised in Britain tended to end up mentally retarded”. Despite holding such views, he was one of the main architects of the Entente Cordiale and a firm supporter of Anglo-French cooperation. So one is bound to ask: Has it really all been downhill since then? Or has foreign policy always been a somewhat hit-and-miss business conducted by sometimes brilliant and often quirky individuals?

    Brian writes: Thanks again, Michael. All fascinating stuff and a useful reminder of the days when foreign ministers and indeed prime ministers could have active private lives, indulge their eccentricities, and not be excessively burdened by their official duties in the way that our ministers tend to be now. However, to return to the theme of my post, I wonder whether Grey partially compensated for his own deficiencies, as described in your comment, by making shrewd and well-judged use of the professional career diplomats of the Foreign Office, or whether he side-lined them and relied instead on his own instincts? Similarly, what was the relationship between the celebrated and distinctly eccentric French ambassador Cambon and his political masters in Paris? Cambon must have gained a great knowledge of Britain and British affairs during his long stint accredited to the Court of St James, but was that asset appreciated and exploited in the Quai d’Orsay (if that was already the French Foreign Ministry then)?

    I agree of course that prime ministers and even foreign ministers who ignore the advice of the career diplomats who work for them are not a new phenomenon. Sir Horace Wilson, anti-Semitic, arch-appeaser of Hitler and Nazism, and a powerful influence on Neville Chamberlain, was a senior home civil servant to the end of his career and apparently much closer to the prime minister than any Foreign Office diplomat, as indeed were Geoffrey Wilson, the editor of The Times, and his deputy Robin Barrington-Ward, both committed appeasers.

    As someone else has pointed out elsewhere, Mrs Thatcher (as she later wasn’t) can hardly be blamed for the catastrophic way that Anthony Eden, perhaps the most experienced and professional minister-diplomat of his time, kept all but a handful of Foreign Office diplomats and officials completely in the dark about the fraud that he perpetrated at Suez in 1956, with predictably disastrous consequences. However Mrs T set a bad example to her (mostly admiring) successors with her distrust of the FCO and many of its diplomats, and her politicisation of the senior ranks of the civil service, much reducing the likelihood that she would have to listen to unpalatable advice or warnings from officials. Didn’t that lead almost seamlessly to Blair’s sofa style government, and to Iraq, ministers — apparently including his Foreign Secretary — even ignoring the advice of the FCO’s legal advisers that the attack on Iraq would be an act of aggression? Perhaps Sir J Chilcot will be allowed to tell us one day.

    So the pattern is by no means new. The danger, it seems to me, is that its almost uninterrupted prevalence since Mrs Thatcher’s premiership has caused it to become semi-institutionalised, and consequently extremely difficult to reverse (if a pattern can be said to be capable of being reversed).

  10. john miles says:

    Further thought on Mrs Thatcher, listening to diplomats, Suez.and – apparently – World Wars One and Two.

    Some people call it Confirmation Bias.
    We’re all inclined to take more notice of facts which confirm our pet prejudices than of those that don’t.

    It really should be the other way round.
    As Francis Bacon said – or should have said – the force of the negative instance is greater.

  11. Timothy Weakley says:

    The above discussion is fascinating. Was there ever a contra-indicatory occasion when the politicians proved right, in either the short term or the long, to have followed their impulses and set aside over-cautious or conflicting advice from the professionals of the FCO or the old FO? I can’t think of any.
    I’d like to put in an unpaid and unsolicited plug for ‘What Diplomats Do‘ – it’s worth every penny!

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tim — especially for your (unsolicited and very welcome) praise of my book.

    Like you, I can’t think of any occasion on which the professional diplomats have been proved wrong and the knee-jerk or self-serving politicans right. But it’s difficult to prove a negative, of course.

  12. john miles says:

    What do professional diplomats think should do, or should have done, about Vladimir Putin?

  13. Oliver Miles says:

    You refer to Mrs Thatcher’s distrust of the FCO and politicisation of the senior ranks of the civil service. That is only part of the story. I remember a lot of concern in the ranks of the FCO when she decided to appoint a senior foreign affairs adviser in No. 10 – and who did she appoint but Tony Parsons, died in the wool FCO man and an Arabist to boot?

    As for politicisation, I can’t recall a single ambassador or high commissioner appointed in her time who was not a diplomatic service professional, indeed I rather think she was the only prime minister in history who made no so-called political appointments at all. No Jays or Caradons (or Soames’s or Harlechs) for her!
    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Oliver. You are of course absolutely right. I believe, although I haven’t checked, that Mrs Thatcher’s only appointment of a senior ambassador who was not a serving officer of the Diplomtic Service was that of Sir Nicholas (“Nicko”) Henderson to Washington after his retirement — from that Service! Mrs T had previously offered the plum Washington job to her great predecessor, rival and foe, Sir Edward Heath, who had very sensibly turned it down. Had he accepted, it would have been her only political appointment to a diplomatic post.
    I think the paradox was that Thatcher was often extremely impressed by and trusting of individual British diplomats whom she came across — not only Tony Parsons whom you rightly mention but even more conspicuously Charles Powell, nominally just the No 10 FCO private secretary but eventually in effect her principal foreign policy adviser and confidant, although a serving DS officer. I think what she distrusted was what she saw as the FCO (and Diplomatic Service) ethos and its officers in the round, not necessarily every DS officer. She thought the DS and FCO overly solicitous of foreigners’ interests and rights and too prone to pre-emptive surrender when faced with a foreign adversary.
    I might add that on the only two occasions when I had a working relationship with Mrs Thatcher during her premiership, she was charming and friendly and extremely effective. One of these occasions was when she came to Lagos for talks with the Nigerian federal government, when I was British high commissioner there. The Nigerians had been baffled to be told that Mrs Thatcher’s accompanying party from London would comprise only one of her private secretaries and her press secretary (to deal with the press contingent accompanying her). They asked why she was not planning to bring with her three or four of her ministerial colleagues and the entire FCO establishment of senior officials. She replied that she would be perfectly happy to rely on the support and advice of her High Commissioner (me). IOW, her suspicion and mistrust of the UK diplomats who worked for her — and for the country — was not generalised but quite discriminating!

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