Jottings after an absence

A few mainly disconnected thoughts on return from a couple of weeks at sea and a week at home to catch up:

Gordon Brown's speech to the Labour Party conference seemed to me a bit banal.  We had heard all the personal stuff before, several times, and the rhetorical bits ("So this is my pledge to the British people:  I will not let you down. I will stand up for our schools and our hospitals.  I will stand up for British values.  I will stand up for a strong Britain. And I will always stand up for you") were merely embarrassing.  The list of specific policy promises was long but so pathologically detailed — deep-cleaning hospital wards and letting matrons demand more cleaning, for example — as to reinforce the impression of a control freak.  No coherent philosophy could be distilled from the speech apart from a heavy emphasis on equality of opportunity for all, itself an inherently platitudinous, indeed Tory, concept: a party of the left should be concentrating on the greatest possible equality of outcomes, on which the Labour leader was eerily silent.  He even called at one point for "a genuinely meritocratic Britain, a Britain of all the talents", suggesting that he and other luminaries of New Labour need to read or re-read —

"Michael Young's 1958 book Rise of the Meritocracy, which is set in a dystopian future in which one's social place is determined by IQ plus effort.  In the book, this social system ultimately leads to a social revolution in which the masses overthrow the elite, who have become arrogant and disconnected from the feelings of the public"

— as Wikipedia puts it.

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However, Mr Brown's speech seems to have done the trick in attracting vast amounts of new support, mainly from women voters, even giving Labour an improbable 11-point lead in one poll.  Predictably this has further encouraged the boring media obsession with speculating fruitlessly about whether there's going to be an election in the autumn, or if not this autumn then next spring (apparently you can't have elections in the winter because voters are scared to go out to the polling stations in the dark).  Banging on in interview after interview about this jejune question in the certain knowledge that neither Brown nor any other Labour politician either knows the answer to it or, if he did, would dream of providing it to the media, saves our political commentators the trouble of doing a little research on genuine political issues and seeking to elicit enlightenment from our political leaders about their attitudes to them.

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Insomniacs might have watched in last night's Newsnight a discussion recorded in the fringes of the Labour Party conference, led by the increasingly world-weary Jeremy Paxman, on the rights and wrongs of the US-UK attack on Iraq, with spokespersons leading and summing up for both sides.  This confirmed the impression that defenders of the war have now taken up their positions behind the argument that it was right to attack and occupy Iraq and to topple the evil Saddam Hussein, and that it was only after this had been achieved that mistakes began to be made (by the feather-brained Americans, of course, having no experience of ruling colonies).  This fatuous proposition needs to be ruthlessly exposed whenever it shows its head.  The key fact is that the attack was illegal, because it was in breach of the fundamental legal obligation under the UN Charter not to use force in international affairs (other than in self-defence) without the prior approval of the Security Council, approval which despite intensive efforts we never managed to obtain.  Blair promised publicly not to go to war without UN approval unless approval was frustrated by "an unreasonable veto" (in itself a reservation with no legal basis).  There was no veto, reasonable or otherwise, and contrary to the myth assiduously propagated by our ministers at the time, no veto was even threatened.  But we went to war anyway. 

Blair had also accepted publicly that overthrowing Saddam could not be a legitimate objective for the use of force, yet he was happy to support Bush in his criminal enterprise when Bush was proclaiming that his objective was régime change.  The reliability of the 'evidence' for Saddam's possession of WMD was deliberately and knowingly misrepresented to persuade parliament and the public to accept the case for war.  On every count the attack itself was a criminal blunder of the first magnitude, involving lies and misrepresentation at every turn.  You don't need to look for mistakes made subsequently in order to recognise that the decision to go to war in the first place was itself indefensible.  In the Newsnight debate, Bob Marshall Andrews made all these points with lethal economy.  We'll miss him in the next parliament.

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Talking of Tony Blair (which by the way hardly anyone at the Labour conference has been doing), I'm struck by how many commentators have been describing his new job as "the Quartet's envoy charged with bringing peace to the middle east", whereas in fact his brief falls well short of this, as the BBC reported at the time:

Observers point out that Mr Blair's mission, as defined by the "Quartet" of international mediators which appointed him, is narrow.  His brief includes Palestinian governance, economics and security rather than the wider conflict between Israel and Palestinians – at least initially.  Mr Blair replaces the Quartet's previous envoy, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn who last year resigned in frustration at the lack of progress.

Obsessive watchers of BBC News 24 (of whom I am one) might have caught a glimpse of our former charismatic leader appearing in his new, current role, at a news conference held at the UN, alongside the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and a couple of other unrecognisable luminaries.  For the first half an hour or so all the questions from the international press were directed at Dr Rice or Mr Ban Ki-moon, who answered them in impressively detailed terms.  At last someone directed a question in narrow terms to Mr Blair, whose face lit up with evident relief.  He launched into a long generalised waffle about the conditions required for middle east peace, clearly going well beyond his limited mandate.  A cut-away shot showed Condi Rice glaring at him.

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We owe an extraordinary and so far unremarked revelation in the New Statesman of 6 September, headed "The gagging of the Mandarins", to Sir Edward Clay, formerly British High Commissioner in Kenya where he was famous for his hard-hitting public denunciations of corruption at the highest level in that now sad country ("the evidence of corruption in Kenya amounts to vomit, not just on the shoes of donors but also all over the shoes of Kenyans and the feet of those who can't afford shoes").  Clay, now retired, has exposed a new example of corruption in high places:  the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, for which he (and I) used to work, has now gagged its diplomats to prevent them from publicly expressing their personal views on political and international issues, not only while they are still in the public service (which is perfectly reasonable), but even after their retirement, for the rest of their lives!  In Clay's words,

[The FCO has] enlarged the scope of rules inhibiting serving diplomats from speaking, writing, or otherwise expressing any view, without prior clearance. Retiring mandarins are now warned that the rules bind them for life.

If enforced, this new prohibition will deprive public debate on international issues of the benefit of the input of, eventually, hundreds of former diplomats with unrivalled collective experience of international affairs and the ways of government in conducting them.  There will be no more fascinating insights on Iraq from the successors to the always judicious Sir Jeremy Greenstock;  no more open letters to the prime minister critically analysing government policy in the middle east from 52 former ambassadors or their equivalents, of the kind that rattled the bars of the government's cage in April 2004 to salutary effect.  (I declare an interest as one of the signatories.)  If the new gag had been introduced before I retired, I would have been unable to make many of the comments on public affairs that I have contributed, for whatever they have been worth, in articles, interviews and letters in the press and indeed on my website and this blog (of course some might well say that this would have entailed no great loss). 

It's hard to see any conceivable justification for this attack on the freedom of expression of people with potentially so much to contribute to political debate.  Its only possible objective is to spare ministers and their officials embarrassment:  no threat to national security or the proper conduct of public business can be said to arise.  I wonder if it would survive a challenge under the Human Rights Act and the European Convention?  It would surely be unconstitutional in the US. 

It's reminiscent, incidentally, of the FCO's equally indefensible recent ban on ambassadors and high commissioners writing 'valedictory despatches' immediately before leaving a post, and especially just before retirement, such despatches having often been the occasion for swingeing criticisms of the way the Diplomatic Service is run and major decisions of foreign policy are taken.  (Admittedly such despatches have sometimes had a funny way of getting into the public print.)  Instead of taking these documents seriously as constructive analysis, based on experience, of the way the FCO operates, with potentially useful indicators of desirable reforms, the Office has chosen instead to ban them altogether.  Our diplomats are now reduced to establishing a samizdat system for the dissemination of their views in defiance of the censors of King Charles Street.  Unbelievable!


6 Responses

  1. Oliver Miles says:

    Lots of good stuff here, as usual.
    May I comment on two points? – I hope it isn't confusing to put them together.

    On Iraq, I too was incensed and I wrote to Mike Gapes MP, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (which has, as I mentioned later in the letter, made some sensible suggestions about what used to be called the Middle East peace process when there was such a process), provoked by his remarks on Newsnight on 28 August.  I kicked off "I was surprised to hear you say on Newsnight last night something to the effect that we went to war in Iraq to overthrow the tyranny of Saddam Hussein (and slightly shocked that someone did not correct you). As you know the then Prime Minister made it quite clear at the time that we went to war because of weapons of mass destruction, and that if Saddam had met his international obligations on WMD we would not have done so. I think I could challenge you to produce any statement by any senior political figure in any British party who argued at the time for intervention for the reason you gave. Moreover if this had been the reason for war, the Chief of the Defence Staff would not have been given the confirmation of legality of the war which he sought and received from the then Attorney General." Those involved in the discussion who might have corrected him included Gavin Esler and Tony Benn. 

    On Tony Blair's Middle East mission, I wrote to a senior official in the FCO on 22 August asking several questions, for example who is paying for Tony Blair and his staff, since the Quartet as I understand it do not have what one might call an establishment and a budget. I have seen it claimed that the Russians okayed his mission but refused to chip in, and that he is in fact paid for by Washington.

    I have not had a reply to either letter yet.

    Brian writes:  Thank you for these comments, Oliver.  They speak for themselves!  Whatever we might think about Tony Blair, it's hard to take any satisfaction from his current humiliation and banishment into almost total obscurity, so soon after serving as our prime minister for ten years and winning three general elections in a row.  As for the ineffable Mike Gapes, it's worrying that a man apparently so capable of either hypocrisy or self-deception should occupy such a prominent and potentially influential position.  Perhaps the most damning words in your letter to him about his shameful performance on Newsnight were "As you know…".

  2. Ed Davies says:

    I notice your last jotting doesn't mention Craig Murray.

    Brian writes:  Only because I have discussed at much length elsewhere (e.g. here and in the many other places to which that entry links) the issues arising from the FCO's treatment of Craig and the question of his wish to publish classified documents (related to his time in the diplomatic service) on his website after his retirement, issues which are different from those raised by the new FCO ban on retired diplomats and others publishing personal comments on current affairs unrelated to their previous service as diplomats, even after they have retired, for the rest of their lives. 

  3. Whatever we might think about Tony Blair, it’s hard to take any satisfaction from his current humiliation and banishment into almost total obscurity

    It’s hard to take satisfaction from humiliation and banishment because that is not a suitable punishment for committing the supreme international crime.  I’ll get some satisfaction when I see him in the dock in the Hague.  Or preferably on the end of a piece of rope in Nuremberg. 

  4. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

    It's reminiscent, incidentally, of the FCO's equally indefensible recent ban on ambassadors and high commissioners writing 'valedictory despatches' immediately before leaving a post, and especially just before retirement,

    As a foreigner,  I am puzzled.  Just how does the Foreign Office muzzle a RETIRED ambassador or high commissioner?   Surely barring the disclosure of classified material, such comment is the exercise of freedom of speech.   I know of more than a few retired general officers in the US that a sucession of White Houses would have liked to muzzle.  No chance tho.

    Brian writes:  I am commenting on this characteristically stimulating contribution in a separate Comment (see below).

  5. Brian says:

    Thanks for your comment, Carl. 

    There's no mystery about "how" the government could prevent a retired diplomat from expressing personal opinions on public affairs:  the Foreign Office has the power to terminate a retired officer's pension if there has been a breach of the officer's contract, including his/her duty under the Official Secrets Act not to make public without prior authority information obtained in the course of his/her public service.  As the terms and conditions of public servants' employment are determined under the Royal Prerogative (more or less the equivalent of 'executive privilege' in your country, I think), not by statute, the FCO would probably try to argue that a decision to stop a retired officer's pension could not be challenged in court, although a good lawyer would probably win on that point and succeed in applying for judicial review, or a hearing by some tribunal or other.  

    But the rights and wrongs of this in equity and under our Human Rights Act and its parent, the European Convention on Human Rights [pdf], are a different matter.  Actually to stop the pension of a retired diplomat for expressing personal opinions while not in breach of the Official Secrets Act would be highly controversial and should entail a heavy political and media penalty from which ministers might well shrink.  Moreover on the face of it, the gag would be in breach of Article 10 of the Convention, which allows certain limited exemptions, but none that (so far as I can see) gives the government the right to stifle expressions of opinion on public affairs by retired public servants:

    Article 10 — Freedom of expression

    1 Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

    2 The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

    I hope a challenge will be mounted sooner or later and that it will succeed!

    PS:  A very senior retired diplomat, formerly Dame Pauline (now Baroness) Neville-Jones, is now a front-bench member of the opposition Conservative Party in the House of Lords and Cameron's shadow spokesperson on national and international security matters.  It's interesting to speculate whether, if the gag had been imposed before she retired from the Diplomatic Service, the FCO would have tried to prevent her from going into politics and expressing her hostile views of government policy as a member of the official opposition in the upper house of the national parliament.  On a much humbler level, if the gag had been imposed on me before I retired, would the FCO have forced me to close down this blog?   I have no craving for political martyrdom, but…

    Update:  In view of the importance of the principle at stake here, I have transferred the relevant section of my original post and the substance of Carl's comment and my reply to it into a new post, "Government gags retired diplomats". I hope anyone equally disturbed by this development — and indeed anyone who feels inclined to defend it — will comment there. 


  6. Jeremy Varcoe says:

    At a humbler level I myself experienced pressure not to express poentially embarrassing views shortly before I took early retirement fom the Diplomatic Service, in late 1991. I had served for around 3 months as the senior UK member of the EU Peace Monitoring Mission supposedly trying to observe and contribute to the spasmodic attempts to establish a cease-fire in the conflict in the eastern Slavonia region of Croatia between the Serbs and the Croats. Like the other heads of the national delegations based in Zagreb I was fearful that unless the EU acted more forcefully to curb Serb aggresion the conflict would quickly spread to Bosnia Herzegovina – as of course it soon did. On returm to London  I put this to the Head of the relevant Department (which I have forgotten) and asked to see a Minister . I was told they were all too busy and instead I saw Jeremy Greenstock who was pretty hostile towards any suggestion of pressure for a more active Balkan policy. I told him I felt so strongly that since I would be on pre- retirement leave I was thinking of  trying  to be interviewed on the Radio 4 Today programme. I was later rung by the Head of POD, speaking on behalf of the Chief Clerk, and  told that if I went public with my views my FCO pension would be in jeopardy. I was very angry, saying that I felt insulted if it was believed that I could be so easily muzzled. However, I had the next day to fly to Florida to stay with my father would do nothing until after I returned two weeks later. As it happened, by then events had moved on to the extent that I doubted that I was sufficiently up to date to be able to give  a valid contemporaneous account of the disgraceful Serb abuses in Croatia in pursuit of their "Greater Serbia" ambitions. But the FCO action -not long after Wendy’s death- left a very sour taste in my mouth that I shall never forget. So I totally share your views on Edward  Clay’s experience. Incidentally a more decent man would be hard to find.



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