The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written evidence from The Rt Hon Lord Owen

The Rt Hon Lord Owen CH FRCP

David Owen was a Member of Parliament for 26 years from 1966-92. Under Labour Governments, he served as Navy Minister, Health Minister and Foreign Secretary. From 1992-95 Lord Owen served as EU peace negotiator in the former Yugoslavia. He currently sits as a Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords. His business interests include director of Abbott Laboratories Inc and Hyperdynamics Corporation and Chairman of Europe Steel. He was formerly Chairman of Yukos International, Global Natural Energy and a director of Coats Viyella.


· The National Security Council should be put on a statutory basis to ensure it is a sustained innovation. Legislation should enshrine:

- the specific personal responsibility of the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary for the overall Ministerial control of the intelligence agencies

- the over-arching role of the Foreign Secretary in relation to the UK membership of the United Nations, and in particular our permanent membership of the Security Council, NATO and the Commonwealth clarifying the relationship with the MOD and DFID.

· Our shocking record of incompetence over the last decade in foreign and security policy at many levels will not begin to be set right if we focus only on Ministerial decisions and do not attempt to correct, in the case of the Diplomatic Service, its overriding culture of wanting, not just acquiescing in, ever greater integration within the EU.

· We have no interest in damaging or destabilizing the euro even though the UK should stay outside the eurozone. The smooth working between the eurozone and the non eurozone within the EU is in the interests of all Member States. The UK coalition government, in this context, is right to take special measures to help Ireland facing grave difficulties within the eurozone.

1. Though there are matters of detail that I will briefly touch on, the main thrust of my evidence is to focus on Question 1 on "What is the FCO’s role in UK Government?" and the "creation of the National Security Council".

2. I begin by asking how we can put right the defects in the working relationship between the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister and No 10 that have been revealed in many different ways during the Prime Ministership of Tony Blair, but particularly from 2001-2007.

3. The Blair presidential style is not a totally new problem. There are at least three major warnings from the last hundred years of the adverse consequences of concentrating the determination of foreign policy in No 10 with a Prime Minister.

4. The first warning comes from the period of 1921-22 when Lloyd George’s personal diplomacy meant that the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon’s role and that of Foreign Office advice was greatly diminished on a number of Treaty negotiations to the detriment of British interests. Lord Curzon, however, put up with every form of humiliation in order to stay in office. Sadly he was not the last Foreign Secretary to adopt such a posture.

5. The second warning comes from 1937 when Neville Chamberlain began to bypass the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, over Anglo-Italian rapprochement. Then Chamberlain without consulting Eden in 1938 poured a "douche of cold water" on President Roosevelt’s proposal for Anglo-American cooperation. Eden’s brave resignation, sadly, had little effect on Chamberlain’s dominance in developing the policy of appeasement. Eventually when Lord Halifax, stiffened by Cadogan, the then Permanent Secretary in the Foreign Office, criticized the Godesberg demands in Cabinet on 25 September 1938, it still did not stop Chamberlain flying off to sign the Munich Agreement.

6. The third warning came from the handling of the Suez Crisis by Prime Minister Anthony Eden. As the months went by following the nationalization of the Suez Canal, Eden became ever more controlling of foreign policy. This was highlighted by him summoning the then Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, to return overnight from New York, where he was negotiating with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, only to immediately fly out with Eden to France to meet the French Prime Minister Guy Mollet. At that meeting Eden confirmed that if an Anglo-French clandestine agreement that Israel would attack Egypt took place Britain would intervene militarily on the Canal with France. This momentous decision was taken with no time for the Foreign Secretary to be advised by officials of the consequences of denying any prior involvement for relations with the United States and the Arab world.

7. It will be argued by some that a similar bypassing of the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office took place under the Prime Ministership of Margaret Thatcher. I do not think that the Thatcher period came anywhere near as far in undermining the collective handling of foreign policy as the Tony Blair period. In my judgement the best, briefest, and fairest, description of Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office comes from the concluding chapter of Sir Percy Cradock’s book, In Pursuit of British Interests [1] , pp. 200-210. Over Rhodesia, the Single Market, Hong Kong and China, as well as German reunification, the Prime Minister’s initial positions were substantially modified and Cradock as her foreign policy adviser from 1984-1990 was in a unique position to assess relations between the FCO and No 10. Another insight comes from a former Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir John Coles, in his book, Making Foreign Policy, [2] pp. 38-39.

8. The years of Tony Blair’s Prime Ministership, in relation to foreign and security policy, has already been analysed in the report on intelligence under the Chairmanship of Lord Butler. It will soon be reported on more generally by the Inquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcot. I have written a chapter entitled "The Ever Growing Dominance of No 10 in British Diplomacy" in British Diplomacy: Foreign Secretaries Reflect [3] and a chapter on "Bush, Blair and the War in Iraq" in In Sickness and In Power. [4]

9. Amongst the mass of information on the handling of the aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, the Committee might find it useful to focus attention on two specific illustrative aspects of the decision making between the Foreign Office and No 10 in the Blair period. Both have, hitherto, received, in my judgement, insufficient attention though this may be corrected, in part at least, by the report of the Chilcot Inquiry.

10. Firstly, the handling of the second UN Resolution from early January 2003 until 8 March when it became apparent that the French Government had counted the votes in the UN Security Council more precisely all along than the UK Government and that the six undecided countries, Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan, would not support the UK’s advocacy of a second Resolution. It has been a long standing practice that the Foreign Secretary is the main determinant on how the UK positions itself in the Security Council relying on an assessment made within the Foreign Office of other countries’ voting intentions by a specialist unit drawing on all available information. Though of course the Permanent Representative’s Mission in New York plays a key role, it cannot be the sole source of guidance. In many cases it is essential to have a feedback from the Member States’ capital and to rely for this not just on the British Mission in that country but sometimes information from the intelligence services. Did such a system operate in 2003? To what extent were judgements made inside No 10 rather than in the FCO?

11. Secondly, the handling of the de-Ba’athification and the disbandment of the Iraqi army. Also the memo of our then Ambassador in Egypt, John Sawers, on 11 May 2003 suggesting bringing the British 16th Air Assault Brigade in Iraq, but due to return home, to Baghdad, also supported by Major General Albert Whitley, the most senior British officer with US land forces, serving in the US Headquarters of Lt General David McKiernon. De-Ba’athification was an area of policy on which the Foreign Office had considerable knowledge, particularly from the time in 1990-1991 when detailed consideration was given as to whether or not the British Government would support going on from liberating Kuwait to using armed force to take Baghdad and dismantle by force Saddam Hussein’s command and control of Iraq. The reasons why it became an agreed policy between the US and UK under President Bush and Prime Minister John Major not to do so at that time was highly relevant to the necessary preparation of planning for the aftermath of the military invasion of Iraq in 2003. Yet not only does it appear that there was an insufficient input from the FCO but one official has recalled "I don’t think that the Prime Minister felt he had to take any more of a personal interest in stabilizing Iraq. He was leaving it all to the Americans." [5] The Sawers’ memo was of immense potential importance, coming from someone who had been asked to go to Baghdad as the Special Emissary of the Prime Minister. According to Anthony Seldon "when Blair heard the plan, he gave his full backing. But nothing happened. It ran into the implacable opposition of Michael Walker who had succeeded (Admiral Sir Michael) Boyce as Chief of the Defence Staff". [6] Yet this was one of the rare moments when a British decision to deploy British forces into Baghdad could have had a profound effect on the continued success of the US/UK military operation. Had the Prime Minister ensured such a deployment was implemented it would have been virtually impossible for President George W Bush not to have increased American forces in Baghdad as well. The US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, would also not have been allowed by the President to bring home the 16,000 soldiers of the 1st Calvary Division. How did the decision-making procedures in No 10 relating to this request operate? Why did no UK deployment result?

12. The coalition government established on 12 May 2010 a new National Security Council (NSC) to oversee all aspects of Britain’s security as their response to perceived failings in the previous arrangements. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, appointed Sir Peter Ricketts (Permanent Under Secretary at the FCO) as his National Security Adviser, a new role based in the Cabinet Office and charged him with establishing the new Council’s structures and to coordinate and deliver the government’s international security agenda. The Council is chaired by the Prime Minister and its permanent members are the Deputy Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence, the Secretary of State for International Development and the Security Minister. Other Cabinet Ministers and the Chief of Defence Staff and Heads of intelligence services attend as required.

13. Sir Peter Ricketts reported to a meeting in Chatham House on 21 October 2010 on how this NSC process was working. He described in a published document, the NSC as "classic cabinet committee government as far as I am concerned. But the key thing is that the Prime Minister is driving it" …..". That, in itself, drives Whitehall because if departments can see that there is a prime minister–chaired committee meeting systematically, taking decisions on national security issues, then Whitehall pays attention." The Prime Minister has regularly chaired weekly meetings and the Chief of Defence Staff, the Chairman of the JIC and the heads of the intelligence agencies have normally attended NSC meetings. In this sense the NSC is different from previous Cabinet sub-committees.

14. The NSC clearly has important implications for the role of the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office. It should ensure that they cannot be sidelined by the Prime Minister as has happened before and the very existence of an NSC could enhance the FCO’s role. Sir Peter Ricketts mentioned, for example, that joint working on conflict prevention and on stabilisation has meant that "we have found more money for the conflict pools in Whitehall, most of it coming from the DFID budget but to be useful, you have to have not just DFID money which has to be spent under the ODA (Official Development Assistance) rules set by the OECD, but also money from other Departments for more military training and the military assistance programmes for which ODA money does not qualify. So you need a mix of it, and it needs to be flexible and as rapidly usable as possible." There appears to be scope in the context of the NSC for the FCO and DFID to operate in a more integrated way. At present the separation of their activities seems less cost effective and driven by an agenda which appears to want separation for its own sake and is suspicious of sharing tasks and facilities. We cannot turn the clock back to the situation in 1977 when I was sworn in as Minister of Overseas Development as well as Secretary of State although Judith Hart was responsible for overseas development and able to attend Cabinet. We have, however, lost something important in the Foreign Secretary’s dual role and it is worth the Committee examining this area to see if a more structured relationship can be achieved. There are no doubt many questions about the NSC which the Committee will also wish to tease out in oral evidence from Ministers and officials. But I wish to highlight one matter.

15. First and foremost, in order to be sure that the NSC represents a real and sustained innovation and not one subject to the whim of a particular Prime Minister, as the Cabinet Committee structure has been, I recommend that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee examines whether the NSC should be put on a statutory basis. This would make it very difficult in the future for any Prime Minister to bypass the NSC without first having the legislative authority to do so.

16. As part of that legislation the Committee might wish to consider some aspects of the statutory role of the Foreign Affairs Minister in the Dutch government. There is much to be said, in my view, for defining the role of the Foreign Secretary in legislation covering the National Security Council and some other Ministers’ roles. In particular I think it is very necessary, in view of the private wish and pressure from many former Prime Ministers to take over responsibility for MI6 and MI5, to enshrine in NSC legislation the specific personal responsibility for the overall Ministerial control of these agencies to the Foreign Secretary and to the Home Secretary. These responsibilities, it should also be made clear, are not ones that can or should be delegated to other Ministers within their Departments.

17. It would be worth clarifying in relation to the MOD and DFID the over-arching role of the Foreign Secretary in relation to the UK membership of the United Nations and in particular our permanent membership of the Security Council, also our membership of NATO and of the Commonwealth. In relation to the UN and the Committee’s Question 5 "What should be the role of the FCO’s network of overseas posts", I believe strongly that the closure of Missions in UN member states must stop. There is a need for the permanent members to keep in direct contact with all member states and narrowing UK representation in the Member States is of itself damaging to our credibility as a permanent member.

18. Inevitably the conduct of UK government policy in relation to membership of the European Union, because so much of its activity relates to domestic affairs, will have to extend across many departments. This is best coordinated, therefore, by the Cabinet Office and the present system should continue where the Prime Minister of the day determines the cabinet committee structures for dealing with EU matters and which Ministers should chair such committees when they are not being chaired by the Prime Minister. But it is nevertheless a fact of life that EU membership has recently weakened the power of the Foreign Secretary and the FCO on overseas policy, so much so that the growing public backlash to ever greater integration has in part stemmed from concern that the powers of the UK as a sovereign nation have been stretched so tight that they are in danger of breaking. There is legitimate public concern over the Lisbon Treaty’s potential to further erode essential sovereign powers and the public demand for referenda as a restraining mechanism is both understandable and correct.

19. There are gathering pressures within the EU for the European Council to take ever more decisions on EU foreign and security policy. The Council now meets regularly four times a year and has increasingly taken to having ad hoc meetings, something that is likely to increase with the two new positions of a single President of the Council, Herman Van Rompuy, for a renewable two and a half year term to a maximum of five years and the new powers for the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton now chairing all meetings of EU Foreign Ministers. These pressures are compounded by the frequency of visits to London by Heads of Government from all over the world. They expect to meet the Prime Minister. These pressures to focus all decision making around one figure, the Prime Minister, needs to be resisted if one wishes to retain Cabinet government and reject the presidential model. This is quite apart from the difficulty any one person has in being able to involve oneself in so much of the detail that accompanies many of these issues. One of the ways that this pressure on the Prime Minister’s time can be reduced is if the Foreign Secretary adjusts their travel schedules to be more available in London and in Brussels. The days of leisurely travel around the world are over if the Foreign Secretary wishes to exercise their role as the Cabinet’s principal adviser in developing, discussing and agreeing British policy overseas.

20. Finally, Question 8 relates to using the FCO to promote UK trade and economic recovery. There is apart perhaps from a new emphasis little that is original in this proposition. It was discussed and advocated by the CPRS Report on our overseas representation published and in part implemented in 1977 when I was Foreign Secretary.

21. Firstly, a few words of caution. One of the lessons arising from the internal report I commissioned in 1979 over the fall of the Shah, which is soon to be made public, was that we had focused too much attention in the FCO on trade and economic activity in the Embassy in Teheran and that this had been done at the expense of political reporting.

22. We also need to remember that there has been no more persistent an advocate of British entry into the eurozone within government than that of diplomats within the FCO often in open conflict with Treasury officials. There was little readiness within the diplomatic service generally to learn the detailed economic lessons from the structural problems in the design of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) and the reasons why the UK had to leave the ERM in 1992. It was also a tragedy that the very valuable contribution British diplomats made to the negotiation of the intergovernmental pillars in the Maastricht Treaty by John Major gave way to embracing the dismantling of most of this structure in the run up to the proposed Constitutional Treaty ensuring that much of that valuable ground was never recovered in the subsequent negotiations over the Lisbon Treaty.

23. It is easy for diplomats to claim that they only serve politicians and that it is the political leaders who are responsible for all that has gone wrong. But this is too simplistic. The Diplomatic Service is given a special role in overseas policy, not wholly dissimilar to the special role of the Armed Services in the development of defence policy. The climate of opinion amongst officials within both the Diplomatic Service and the Armed Service can have a profound influence on the end result of Ministerial negotiations and decisions. The last decade has seen in the actual conduct of our foreign and security policy a quite shocking record of incompetence at many levels. We will not begin to set this right if we focus only on Ministerial decisions and do not attempt to correct, in the case of the Diplomatic Service, its overriding culture of wanting, not just acquiescing in, ever greater integration within the EU.

24. Without the commitment to a referendum, forced on the Conservative Party in large part by the Referendum Party, before the 1997 General Election, and reluctantly conceded in opposition by the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats, it is almost certain the UK would have entered into the eurozone during Tony Blair’s Prime Ministership and be now having to cope with a far deeper crisis than just our structural fiscal deficit. It also has to be faced that the culture within which Foreign Office diplomats work has been insufficiently concerned about the exact wording of EU legislation. This has had a profoundly adverse effect on British life and business practice. Examples are the European health and safety legislation, the working time directive, and EU regulatory activity concerning the financial services industry. There are many other examples where too great a readiness to go along with the majority within the EU has had damaging consequences on efficiency, unit costs and the competitiveness of British industry. There will have to be a fundamental change within the FCO itself if diplomats are to carry much conviction in any enhanced role in trade promotion and economic recovery.

25. It is undoubtedly a good idea that UK Missions abroad should focus more on promoting UK trade and economic recovery but it is questionable how much this should become a specialized skill of diplomats. It is at least worth the Committee very seriously considering the alternative of more mixed Missions with representatives from other departments in Whitehall serving overseas. They have, provided they can acquire the language skills, the requisite specialized knowledge and can arguably make a greater contribution to this necessary reorientation. One of my personal regrets is that some of the aspects of the CPRS Report that were agreed by Ministers in the Labour government were never fully implemented after we lost the election in 1979. While there have been some notable exceptions, there has not been the cross fertilization between the home and overseas departments that was envisaged in terms of secondment both ways. Nor have we maintained our global representation by cutting back to one person Missions supported by local staff. Such a single representative does not always have to be a diplomat; in some very poor countries a representative from DFID might be more appropriate and in other small islands for instance someone with a Treasury or a Ministry of Trade background to deal with an offshore financial service industry might be more appropriate.

26. In the summer of 1977 the Labour Cabinet held an all-day meeting on the European Community, on the basis of a detailed memorandum which I was asked by the Prime Minister to prepare personally. Under the 30 year rule it should be available within the National Archives but it has not been placed there despite the document being referred to as the ‘Property of Her Majesty’s Britannic Government’. Perhaps this is because it was written to form the basis of a party political discussion as well as providing guidance for a distinctive policy over the EEC for the then government. For anyone interested I have forwarded a copy to the Clerk of the Committee. There is an important section in it dealing with the enlargement of the Community from nine to twelve to include Portugal and Spain as well as continuing with the enlargement negotiations for Greece. It was argued that enlargement, in the section on Commitment to Confederation, would provide an antidote to federalism and so it has, in the main, proved to be.

27. Today’s challenge for the UK is how to help restructure the eurozone. Many of us who have long argued against British membership have nevertheless accepted that a euro currency within the EU was a legitimate objective for other Member States and that we had no interest in damaging or destabilizing the euro. In this regard it was reasonable for the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to assure other Member States that the British would not stand in the way of sensible changes in the working practice and running of the eurozone, even if they involved Treaty amendment, with the essential proviso that they would have no consequential changes in powers relating to the UK and the provisions for our opt-out of the eurozone. Such a clean separation will, however, be very difficult to achieve. For example, the Swedish position outside the eurozone is not really compatible with the existing Treaty language. There is also a strong case for the UK helping to establish that Member States not in the eurozone are part of a settled structure within the EU and not in some anti-chamber waiting for inevitable entry to the eurozone. It is, for example, very apparent that as a result of the present difficulties of Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain and even Italy, there will be a far greater reluctance of eurozone countries to enlarge membership than existed hitherto. Therefore the non eurozone part of the EU needs to have a less transient nature with each country free to make their own mind up as to whether they wish to join the eurozone and entry not to be assumed to be automatic if they fulfill specific criteria. The UK coalition government, in this context, is right to take special measures to help Ireland as it faces its economic difficulties within the eurozone, particularly since we have a common border, history and a great many economic links.

28. What this crisis within the eurozone has revealed are structural problems that may yet still require some countries to leave the eurozone and for a period, at least, have the freedom to fix their own exchange and interest rates. We are facing growing demands within G20 and from countries dependent on commodities currently linked to the dollar, for consideration of a basket of currencies. The non eurozone part of the EU may consider it worthwhile examining some of the detailed discussions about a hard Economic Currency Unit (ECU) along with other innovative ideas being discussed in the wake of the 2007 global financial crisis. There are dangers in the UK adopting a totally hands-off attitude to the changes and rebalancing that is starting to emerge as a result of the continuing crisis in the eurozone. We are proving day by day that we are not hostile to the eurozone itself but that we will not become a member. How the non eurozone operates is a matter of fundamental interest to the UK and the smooth working between the eurozone and the non eurozone within the EU is in the interests of all Member States.

18 November 2010

[1] Percy Cradock, In Pursuit of British Interests: Reflections on Foreign Policy under Margaret Thatcher and John Major (London: John Murray , 1997), supplied to the Committee in hard copy.

[2] John Coles, Making Foreign Policy: A Certain Idea of Britain (London: John Murray, 2000), supplied to the Committee in hard copy.

[3] Ed. Graham Ziegner, British Diplomacy: Foreign Secretaries Reflect (London: Politico’s, 2007).

[4] David Owen In Sickness and In Power: Illness in Heads of Government during the last 100 years (London: Methuen, 2008).

[5] Anthony Seldon “ Blair Unbound” (London: Simon & Schuster, 2007) p191.

[6] Ibid , Anthony Seldon, p189-190.