Here is my piece in the Telegraph (newspaper and website hurrah) on the glum state of the UK’s foreign policy machinery:
What does it mean for a nation to exert “influence”?
Partly it’s about attitude: the confidence and determination to push hard and long for national objectives. But it’s also about organisation: having the institutions, skills and discipline to turn foreign policy goals into real changes. Taxpayers might think the UK has that in hand, in the form of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) which commands the space between Downing Street and the Treasury. But those grand offices hide a momentous decline over the past four decades …
Historic diplomatic assets have been sold off to make savings which would be lost as rounding errors in other Whitehall budgets. It’s impossible to imagine any other country having an imposing ambassadorial residence in Whitehall but deciding to sell it and move into a smaller inconvenient house in Shepherd’s Bush – yet that is in effect what the UK has done in Warsaw, a signal that we don’t take ourselves (or our relations with Poland) seriously …
Maybe worst of all, intelligent thought was replaced by junk “management”. For 20 years now, we have wasted incalculable time and money fretting over Strategic Priorities, Key Policy Goals and (now) Priority Outcomes. These processes were invented under Thatcher and Major to make government more “businesslike”, and accelerated absurdly under Blair and Brown.
Yet, after all this useless chuntering, there is still no consensus on what “business” foreign policy actually is. In fact it is a complex mix of different businesses: consultancy, farming (planting seeds of goodwill abroad), insurance (cultivating allies everywhere, just in case), fire fighting, and services (consular and visa work).
Because this work often shows no immediate measurable “outcomes”, it’s devalued in Whitehall calculations. In 2006-07 the EU section of our Warsaw Embassy mustered Polish support for the UK’s position against the EU Working Time Directive. This saved UK taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds. Treasury methodology allows no way to calculate that benefit, or to boost capacity in embassies so as to repeat it. Instead, we cut and devalue our embassies in Europe. It is madness.
All this and more has demolished the FCO’s effectiveness. Once one of the planet’s most respected, authoritative policy institutions, it is now a forlorn Prometheus upon whom Whitehall swoops for a tasty snack. Unlike Prometheus, the scrawny FCO does not grow back new flesh overnight.
Might Brexit start to change some of this?
Read the whole thing, although not this paragraph that disappeared in their pitiless editing:
Back in 2005 as UK ambassador to Warsaw I sent London trenchant observations on our EU membership following the Dutch and French referendum debacles. I pointed out that the USA had the Eagle; Russia the Bear; and China the Dragon. The EU saw itself as Bambi, a friendly trusting creature having exciting growing adventures but now adult: impressive (but mainly decorative) antlers, a superior lord of a benign deciduous global forest. Given what was in fact happening in the world, wasn’t the Ostrich the EU’s symbolic animal?