Back in 1961 the FCO set up a new group of clever diplomats known as the Planning Staff. They were tasked to think up new policy thoughts which might not be welcome, or easy to handle. And earlier this week the FCO hosted a birthday party to mark 50 years of the department’s work. A host of distinguished names appeared – a high proportion of the people who have reached the very top of British diplomacy in recent decades worked there in one capacity or another.
My own role as a Planner was from 1985-87 when I was official FCO Speechwriter for Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe. That period – from the early Gorbachev period through until the early 1990s and the end of European communism – was perhaps a Golden Age of sorts. All sorts of post-WW2 certainties started to crumble and then collapse – new thinking about almost every foreign policy issue was not only desirable, but vital and urgent.
Robert Cooper (now a top official at the European External Action Service leading efforts to ‘mediate’ between Serbia and Kosovo) ran the Planners as the Berlin Wall came down. He reminded the throng at the reception about those heady days, not least the famous Planners’ joke prediction sent to No 10 as a 1989 pre-Christmas joke that Romanian leader Ceaucescu would be toppled and executed. Which then happened, in days.
He also recalled the stern opposition from Mrs Thatcher to German reunification, swept away by the tide of events. Our current Ambassador at NATO, Mariot Leslie, was at the reception. Her famous 1987 paper predicting German reunification had been derided by everyone, including me. Didn’t she get it? There was no way communist Russia led by Gorby would fold and let East Germany go. Yet that too happened.
Mariot reminded me of the speech I wrote for Geoffrey Howe to deliver in communist Hungary in 1987, in which I let my hair down and drafted a powerful text praising free markets and liberty. For once the FCO top brass had all been away and not nibbled out the juicy bits. It was delivered more or less as drafted, and made a huge positive impact – Mariot had been talking recently to a Hungarian who had been there. A most enjoyable occasion.
Perhaps the emerging convulsions in the Eurozone will force our current Planners to think the unthinkable? One bizarre note was struck by one distinguished ex-Planner, whose remarks included out of nowhere a swipe at the US Tea Party movement, which he characterised as “like 15th century peasants”. This footling observation alas prompted a patronising titter from some people who still think it’s clever to make remarks like that about Americans. And it missed in an unPlannerly way one of the main points of our times, namely that the Laws of Compound Interest are forcing to the fore popular discontent in the USA against the stunning mismanagement by Washington of US finances and soaraway official debt. Did I mention the Eurozone?
As any smart Planner kno, peasants may or may not be revolting. But sometimes they are on the right side of history.