Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-378)


19 APRIL 2006

  Q360  Mr Purchase: She was the second Margaret Thatcher, by the way.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: You have put me off my stroke now!

  Q361  Andrew Mackinlay: You were saying it was a model relationship.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: What I am saying is that when things came up in the relationship which were important to the United Kingdom and which the Americans were resisting or if there was a danger that we were going to be taken for granted, if she was in Washington she would storm into the Oval Office and beat him around the head with her handbag or get on the phone, as after Grenada, and really give him hell, and we won important tricks there: Laker Airways, the Siberian pipeline, pulling Reagan back on nuclear arms control after the Reykjavik Summit, a whole bunch of stuff where that kind of really hard-nosed negotiating paid off without damaging the closeness and intimacy of the relationship. What we have had over the last few years is a great closeness and intimacy in the personal and political relationship between the Prime Minister and first Clinton and then Bush, but the other bit of the Thatcher equation has been missing. On things like the ITAR waiver, where you have massive bureaucratic institutional resistance in the State Department more than in the Department of Defense, it requires a huge push from the other side to try and shift this, plus intensive working up on the Hill. We could say the same thing for the steel tariffs which were imposed just at the time when several thousand Royal Marines were arriving in Afghanistan—an absolute disgrace that this should have happened. There were strong domestic American political reasons for doing it, but we should have been able to put a stronger counterbalance into that argument. There was the Air Services Agreement where even getting antitrust immunity for code sharing between British Airways and American Airlines we could not get through. Part of the reason for that was that there was not enough velocity and not enough steam coming out of London to counterbalance the very powerful economic interests which were trying to stop us. I love the Americans but they do have this wonderful characteristic of being very sincere and genuine and emotional even about the support we give them, and they mean it, but in this part of the woods when you are doing the hard business they are as hard as nails. We used to be like that in the 19th century. That is why the French called us perfide Albion, which as far as I am concerned is a badge of honour actually. We have rather lost this ability to really go in hard and not worry that we are going to damage the relationship. We will not damage the relationship.

  Q362  Mr Maples: You are quite critical in your book in two or three places. You talk about, with this list of things, there being no clear vision of the national interest, that there needs to be a plain-speaking conversation between the President and the Prime Minister, that the hard and dull detail of negotiation is uncongenial to Tony Blair. You seem to be saying that the only way to solve some of these difficult issues is at the absolutely top level between the President and the Prime Minister and that we just did not do that.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: That is true. Sometimes it is quite hard over here to grasp the kinds of issues that get stuck in the White House. On the ridiculous issue of the banana war between the Europeans and the Americans, I found it quite difficult in London to persuade people that bananas had got into the White House, so to say, and that they were only going to be dealt with in a satisfactory way by raising it to the level of Downing Street and the White House. I had another thing which has gone right out of my head. Just repeat the question please.

  Q363  Mr Maples: You were saying, some of this long shopping list has to be dealt with at absolutely the highest level and several times in your book you are quite critical of the Prime Minister for either not taking opportunities, not seeing what needs to be done, not having an agenda which is—

  Sir Christopher Meyer: The national interest, yes. The only observation I would make on that is that the Americans, like the Chinese, like the Russians, have a very hard-headed view of the national interest. There may be a lot of religious rhetoric around it and messianic, democratic talk. I have just had an email from a very close friend who was a very senior official in the last years of the administration talking about "greetings from the theocracy", but inside of that there is a very hard-nosed attitude to the national interest, a very clear view. There is no mucking around with concepts of the post-modern state and all that sort of flim-flam. I think that is something that we have lost over here, where it is almost indecent, almost politically incorrect now, to talk about the national interest, however you define it. I was quite struck by reading Tony Blair's speech, the first of that sequence of three which I think he is making on foreign affairs, where he counter-poses an agreed set of global values on the one hand against national interests which at different points in the speech are described as narrow or immediate or old-fashioned. I think the trick is to go for your global values; I have no objection to that, but inside it you have got to be crystal clear about national interest, that as long as heads of state and government respond to national parliaments and national electorates it is not going to go away.

  Q364  Mr Maples: Whatever the global picture is going to be, the multinational, multilateral picture, there are always going to be some bilateral issues which affect only the two countries and can only be settled between them. It seems to many of us, whether you regard the Iraq war as right or wrong, whether you regard Britain's wholesale commitment to supporting the United States as right or wrong, that we have frankly got absolutely nothing in return. Not only did we not get the items we have just talked about on the shopping list, and I am sure you could enumerate a lot longer list than I can, we did not really seem to get much of a role in the post-war planning or listened to in that either. It seems to me, recognising this very tough national interest that you are up against and the problems between the two governments, or the one and a half governments in the United States, that whoever is the Prime Minister of Britain has got to realise that they are only going to resolve these things by extracting them. It is like pulling teeth. These are going to be difficult concessions to extract and the time to do it is when you are about to give them something that they want.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I would agree with that entirely. It is something which is almost wholly missing from what is in other respects the quite admirable latest Foreign Office strategy paper which does not talk about that at all.

  Q365  Ms Stuart: Sir Christopher, I have not read your book closely enough to know whether we are all pygmies or whether the description was just over the part of the politicians but I am glad you talked to us anyway.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: It was a faint-made metaphor floating up in the air.

  Q366  Ms Stuart: Can I take you back to the days when you were an ambassador in Washington and when the Foreign Affairs Committee visited you because, just listening to John Maples, something occurred to me? I think you are quite right that Britain ought to be firmer in its expression of national interest. I do not entirely agree that all that is lacking is a handbag which needs to be wielded at regular intervals. Would there not be a point in Her Majesty's ambassadors, when things like the Foreign Affairs Committee come, giving the committee an indication that you probably thought might be helpful, because if that is helpful we could come back and actually say, "Dear Government, we actually think you've got it wrong", whereas whenever we go anywhere we are told it is all absolutely wonderful. I do recall very clearly being told by you how absolutely wonderful it all was.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: The trouble is I cannot remember. I may well have been having one of those polyannish moods, to use an American phrase, but if you had come—no; I think that there could be—did I not go on about air services and steel tariffs?

  Q367  Ms Stuart: No. I have a very clear memory of the debriefing because it was following the Blair/Bush meeting.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Which one? The first one?

  Q368  Ms Stuart: I just remember what was eaten at great length and how long it took for the second and the third course to arrive but I have no recollection whatsoever of what anybody said of any substance.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Did I talk about food?

  Q369  Ms Stuart: Yes.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I must have been out of my mind.

  Q370  Ms Stuart: It must have been a bad day.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I tell you what: if you came after the very first Bush/Blair meeting in February 2001, the opening one, we were all a bit euphoric by then because the meeting had gone terribly well. There was not a lot of substance to the meeting, to be perfectly frank, that very first one.

  Q371  Andrew Mackinlay: It was a corporate meeting, I think, we claimed afterwards.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Was it the first one?

  Q372  Mr Pope: It was the spring of 2003.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I was not there in the spring of 2003. No wonder I was—that was David Manning.

  Q373  Ms Stuart: I can tell the difference, even without my glasses. There is a serious point to this, and the very serious point is that you are sitting here as an ex-member of the Diplomatic Service, you are looking back and some things clearly have not worked out the way they should have. If there was a way in which the mechanisms, like toughening-up actions, could be looked at so that we could act a little bit more positively if we changed some things, what would you do differently?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I must say I did think that when your committee came out to Washington while I was there I did talk about not only the wonderful meals but also the pebbles in our shoes. I thought I did talk about the air services. I certainly was sufficiently steamed up about steel tariffs in about February 2002 to talk about them, and I did think I was talking to people about the ITAR waiver and the real difficulty we had in getting licences for the export of American military technologies in the UK.

  Q374  Ms Stuart: Is that your chief accusation, that this Prime Minister is not handbagging as much as Thatcher did and that is what got her the goods? That certainly never came across, that you needed a greater steely determination at the top.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: No, and, to be fair, this was not just handbags where Thatcher was concerned. It was an attitude that pervaded the whole government machine, as it should do. Again, I am not going to say that Tony Blair was the only reason that we did not get steel tariffs stopped, because I know perfectly well that Patricia Hewitt, when she was Trade and Industry Secretary, tried pretty hard as well, but it is something where you need all hands to the pump from the Prime Minister downwards, to the Foreign Secretary, to the functional Secretary of State, and above all in the bureaucracy of the Foreign Office. It is an attitude of mind that national interest matters, and I did not express myself in those terms when you came, I know that, but I think I did mention the problems.

  Q375  Sandra Osborne: Can you tell me if, during your time at the Foreign Office or in Washington, you saw any evidence of the policy of extraordinary rendition?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: None whatsoever, no. I did not know anything about that at all.

  Q376  Sandra Osborne: So you would not be aware of any British complicity in it?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: No. I think all that happened later. Guantanamo had been set up while I was there and we were able to get somebody from the embassy down to Guantanamo a couple of times before I left, but extraordinary rendition and all that has been something that has blown up long after I retired.

  Q377  Sandra Osborne: On Guantanamo the British Government have been criticised for not publicly opposing Guantanamo or criticising it as strongly as they could do. Do you think that is a fair criticism?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: When I was Ambassador this was, if you like, in the first flush of all this stuff. Guantanamo had just been set up. We had just dealt with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and it was pretty early days. Now, of course, the Government talks about it being an anomaly, I think is the euphemism it uses. My personal view now is that you cannot go on indefinitely without introducing some due process for the people held there. I am not quite sure what I mean by that. Just as in Northern Ireland for a time we used the Diplock courts because of the difficulties of holding trials in a conventional way, it cannot be beyond the wit of man to come up with something similar which would at least allow those held in Guantanamo to be submitted to some kind of due process. Whereas in the early days I could understand it perfectly well, now, five years on, it is a different period.

  Q378  Sandra Osborne: So are you saying that because it was early days it could almost be justified? In private was the British Government critical of the policy? Did they question it or were they in agreement with it?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: They did not question it while I was there.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. We have covered a very wide range of areas. We would like to thank you, Sir Christopher, for your time and for coming along today.

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