Last week I gave evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Foreign Affairs led by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne.


This APPG has been set up this year in part because the House of Lords does not have a Foreign Affairs Committee, yet contains numerous people with considerable expertise in foreign policy work of different shapes and sizes. The APPG has given itself a simple task: to examine the purpose, limitations and structures of UK foreign policy looking forward.


I was an early first witness. A bit like summoning an arsonist to talk about modern fire prevention ideas?


I was asked various questions about (for example) how far the FCO should prioritise Climate Change, what the UK should do about the Commonwealth, and what DFID might do to improve its impact in promoting "development".


I tried to use my limited time to drill beneath such important questions and point out that without restoring Technique to a central place in British diplomacy, grand-looking British policy papers on any of these subjects and more might not make much difference.


I argued that "foreign policy" needed to be broken down into its component parts:


  • Attitude
  • Policy
  • Resources
  • Focus
  • Technique

Under New Labour in general and Gordon Brown’s reign at the Treasury in particular, thick layers of new junk process had been introduced, at the cost of most of those things but above all Technique. All sorts of "resource management" and "risk assessment" procedures had been imposed upon the FCO, as upon government as a whole. The opportunity cost in terms of time and energy lost was colossal. Quality of thought, analysis and presentation consequently had declined.


I gave one example. The embassy team in Warsaw had made a vital impact in working with Poland to help fend off the wretched EU Working Time Directive, thereby saving HMG and British businesses hundreds of millions of pounds. There was no way this magnificent result could be reflected in Treasury bean-counting, so HMG had no way to plan to ensure such success in the future. Madness.


Likewise it made no sense for the Cabinet Office to demand that time be spent on "risk management matrices”. Every civil servant knew that the main risk to any given policy was that Ministers might change their minds and want something different. Yet that sort of risk was not allowed to be mentioned, rendering the whole exercise a waste of time and money.


These effects were made worse by the separating out of the FCO and DFID ("the worst mistake we ever made" — Robin Cook) and the fact that the proliferation of “foreign" activity across Whitehall had not been matched by rigour in the way Embassies were run. Whitehall and other staff at our Embassies could be on all sorts of different contracts without clear lines of command.


Last but no means least, the FCO had failed to put in place intelligent information management structures. Most material now generated by the FCO (basically e-mails) was not being systematically stored in a readily searchable form. When I had joined the FCO back in 1979 there had been paper files to tell the story of the recent evolution of policy. Now as far as I could make out there was nothing like that – no way to follow the policy story back a few years. An organisation which had no useful collective memory was doomed to incoherence.


Various reasons could be given as to why this state of affairs had arisen. The immediate point to understand was that without top-level attention on this sort of background "plumbing” issue, the general British foreign policy process was bound to be much less successful than it could be.


I added the heretical thought that if Germany or Japan had an ambassadorial Residence in Downing Street they would be fighting tooth and nail to keep it, as a symbol both of their own pride and the pride they took in the closeness of their relationship with the UK.


By contrast HMG had long had a Residence in Warsaw opposite the offices of the Prime Minister and just round the corner from the Presidential Palace. Thanks to New Labour this building was now being sold and replaced by a smaller house far away from the centre of town. A dismal signal to the Poles and more widely about the political and business impact we sought to make in that part of Europe.


I argued that when resources were tight it made no sense to ring fence so much public money as "development" funding. DFID’s bureaucratic style and claim to superior ideological insight as to the way the world worked had led to some success, but also considerable waste. The new UK government seemed to me to be doing too little to mainstream wealth-creation and private initiative as the drivers of development, relying instead on socialistic state-centred ideas which had largely failed. One of the APPG Lordships appeared to agree, mentioning a flourishing private scheme in Kenya where e-money was being used to fine effect.


I said that the 2008 UK National Security Strategy had reported that HMG would be spending up to £243 million in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the coming three years. This was a startling sum of money — were British taxpayers really getting good value for it? Had the Occupied Palestinian Territories received only, say, a mere £223 million instead, the FCO might not now be under pressure to sell off key historical buildings, thereby reducing the practical operational impact of all our policy worked overseas.


The key thing in the complicated world we now lived in was not to ring-fence resources earmarked for making an impact beyond our borders. If the APPG started with the assumption that the British foreign policy effort as a whole was disorganised and fragmented, the APPG would be right.


Plenty more where this came from, including lively discussion of the lessons of the Copenhagen Climate Summit debacle, much of it familiar to loyal readers of this blog. And we did not even get on to the always fascinating subject of the new EU External Action Service.


Quite what the APPG made of my febrile thoughts (which went some way beyond what they appeared to be expecting) remains to be seen. As I walked out a wise senior former diplomat looking remarkably like Sir Tony Brenton walked in, so good sense surely will prevail. Their report will issue in the New Year.