The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written evidence from Sir Edward Clay

About the writer:

I was a diplomat from 1968 – 2005. I served as High Commissioner in Kenya (2001-5), Cyprus (1999-2001) and Uganda (1993-7, during which period I was for a time accredited on a non-resident basis to Rwanda and Burundi); between 1997 – 9 I was the Director of Public Services in the FCO, responsible for consular, visa, information and news, cultural and parliamentary work, and for managing the FCO’s relationships with the British Council, BBC World Service and the Wilton Park Conference Centre.

I otherwise spent my overseas career in Eastern and Southern Europe (twice in Cyprus), and Eastern Africa (including twice in Kenya). In London, I spent most time on issues of defence and international security, and human resources.

I am particularly interested in development issues, and their relationship to governance. I became known in Kenya in particular for speaking out on human rights, constitutional reform and corruption. I was declared (as I remain) PNG in that country three years after I retired, soon after the violent end to the disputed presidential election of late 2007.

Since I retired, I have served as a trustee or committee member of a number of NGOs, all with a development aspect. I am an associate director of the Centre for Political and Diplomatic Studies.

Note: what follows has not been cleared with the FCO. My last encounter with the Foreign Affairs Committee concerned my argument with the FCO about their attempt to constrain tightly what retired diplomats could say. I was grateful for the FAC’s support for the case I made for relaxation of the offending Rule. The regulation concerned, DSR 5, had been tightened indefensibly at Mr Straw’s behest in 2006. It was finally relaxed in 2009. I attach for ease of reference at the end of the following submission my letter of thanks to the Chairman of 16 March 2009. [1]

The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Main points:

§ Government needs a foreign policy co-ordinator within Whitehall.

§ The role and standing of that co-ordinating department, and its Secretary of State, should be appropriate to the role and standing HMG seeks in the world.

§ The department must be resourced so that it can take an authoritative, independent and intelligent part in inter-departmental discussions of issues on which other departments enjoy a recognised lead, and with parliamentary groups, NGOs, media and think-tanks which have important perspectives of their own.

§ Its essential expertise lies in its ability to influence, argue, negotiate, and to report, interpret and advise upon how international developments bear on British interests, and vice-versa.

§ Its authority rests upon recognition abroad, in Whitehall and at Westminster, of the foreign ministry’s primacy in the United Kingdom on foreign affairs.

§ Reflections on possible conflicts of interest.

1.1 The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) – or any alternative ministry responsible for international policy - needs such standing and authority in Whitehall as is needed to serve successfully British society and its governments. The Office cannot for long make up for weaknesses in British society or within British governments. The question is, not of boxing above our weight but how to box most effectively at our weight: foreign governments will scrutinise our country for its health, and our system of government for evidence that international affairs are no longer dealt with as seriously as they need to be. If our foreign ministry and its servants want to be effective and taken seriously abroad, they and their ministers need to be taken seriously at home, and in Whitehall.

1.2 The FCO must be the principal means by which HMG plays its effective part in international organisations to which we belong (the UN and its family; the European Union, including the new European External Action Service; NATO; the Commonwealth; the World Trade Organisation; the International Financial Institutions, and so on); the leader in influencing and persuading, negotiating treaties and understandings, and upholding those to which the UK is party; and fulfilling in relation to international institutions and other countries our shared and bilateral obligations of all kinds, in partnership with other Whitehall departments.

1.3 The UK’s ambivalence about its European avocation has been a handicap to this country’s international standing, security and foreign policy for much of the last thirty years. It has arguably made us less successful in areas of our strength and emphasised (but sometimes disguised) our weaknesses. Our hostility towards Europe has divided the FCO from much political opinion; it has not demonstrably made us more useful as a pivot of Atlanticism, nor strengthened our effectiveness in NATO – arguably the opposite. Europe is one of those issues on which the consensus within the FCO for perhaps thirty years has been far from what was fashionable, and may have helped lose it parliamentary and public respect and support in its continuous battles over resources. Another major issue of which the same can be said include Arab/Israel and Middle Eastern policy more widely. In any case, our national interest and the drive for a more economic diplomacy should lead us to engage wholeheartedly in the EEAS and in the formulation of an effective European international policy.

2.1 Only one - and preferably just one - department is needed to bring together analysis of international issues, assessments of the interests of the United Kingdom and of pressures bearing upon those interests. One department is needed to focus HMG’s conduct of our international policy accordingly, in the light of inter-departmental views. That department must also engage with, harvest ideas from and gain the respect of the many non-governmental sources of expertise on international policy. International policy is not a preserve of one department: many or perhaps most Whitehall departments have policies with international dimensions.

2.2 The new National Security Council (NSC) might not have been invented if the FCO had not lost important capabilities and suffered particularly debilitating attacks on its resources in the early part of the 21st century. The FCO should be re-skilled to do what it used to do very effectively in co-operation with the intelligence, security and defence authorities.

2.3 The NSC is an extra cost to government, a source of rivalry where we cannot afford it, and represents a large intrusion of prime ministerial power into foreign policy: our postwar history of prime minister-driven foreign policy is not encouraging, and it undermines the post and potential contribution of the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. We should not, at any rate, need two (or more) Whitehall departments running foreign policy.

3.1 The FCO does not need to be greater – in size or budget or in any other sense – than other Whitehall or non-governmental stakeholders in international policy. It does not need to compete with the expertises of other, lead departments. There are urgent reasons for the favour in terms of funding shown to the intelligence agencies in recent years and their increasing public profile. Such phenomena are not the problem. The relationship with the Ministry of Defence worked admirably for years despite the disparity of size and the MOD’s high profile.

3.2 What the FCO must do is recruit, retain and organise itself to remain a first-class policy department, in the first place. Successive governments have demeaned its role (‘the ministry for foreigners’) and blamed it for failures, reduced its resources deliberately or negligently, and increasingly behaved as if service delivery is the department’s only or chief function at the cost of policy formulation and implementation. Service delivery is important, but it is not a substitute for a foreign policy.

3.3 The Prime Minister’s declaration that ‘ambassadors must be salesmen’ is not a startling new departure: the security and prosperity of the UK have always been basic purposes of the diplomatic service. The question in the present era of globalisation of promoting exports is more complicated than it was (what is a British company or a UK-branded good?), while promoting inward investment in the UK is perhaps the more important task. Since I did commercial work when it was passing through one of its periods in fashion thirty years ago, the number of commercial posts abroad has shrunk as it has taken a lowly place behind other priorities. Diplomats need the chance to get experience of commercial work in their youth, before they are called upon to do it as an ambassador. The purpose of a diplomatic career is to train people in key skills and give them a chance to develop and practise them before they reach senior positions: the planning for a proper structure and cultivation of talent is something the FCO needs always to do, to realise full value from its investment in its people.

3.4 The establishment of the Department for International Development (DfID) with a mandate embodied under the International Development Assistance Act and a ring-fenced budget is a huge innovation in the UK’s international policy framework. DfID has sometimes behaved as an alternative, overseas representative of HMG. The department’s institutional character as a spending agency is marred by its profligacy and weakness on governance. Its flaws reduce the effectiveness of a large and otherwise well-conceived aid programme, and cut across efforts to make international policy coherent and cohesive.

3.5 DfID needs to shed its old resentments, stop avenging itself on the FCO for decades of co-habitation, re-join Whitehall and adapt itself to the collegiate formulation and execution of foreign policy in partnership with other stakeholders, under the leadership of the FCO. Ministers must show a lead on this. Some of its large budget needs putting to purposes not usually regarded as aid. The argument that DfID’s big budget is insignificant in terms of overall UK government expenditure, is false: the aid budget is about equivalent to what we plan to spend on the Olympics or a bit more than the very hefty increase in funding steered by the last government towards policing in the UK. DfID’s budget needs to respond to the wider objectives of HMG and to be assessed more rigorously, like other departments’ spending. The new Independent Committee on Aid Impact may be useful, though whether its remit extends to recommendations to spend less or spend differently is doubtful. DfID money is badly needed for conflict prevention or resolution, and to fund a proper FCO, for example.

4.1 The FCO’s unique role and contribution within government is to assess the significance of developments beyond the UK to British interests, and to report confidently and confidentially to London upon them. In doing so, they will need to draw upon the resources and interests of non-governmental organisations, the media, think tanks and other important stakeholders and departments. They must have a more open dialogue on key foreign policy issues with parliament, through the FAC and all-party groups, under the supervision of their ministers.

4.2 The continuing ICT revolution and differences in the way countries do their business have arguably made the collection of information easier, but the interpretation of its reliability and significance more demanding. The FCO will continue to post most of its best people to its multilateral missions and functional desks in London to promote the UK’s role in the management of key international issues. The network of bilateral missions has, however, an essential role in informing policy on those issues, and in its promotion and delivery in other countries. For a member of the P5 with worldwide responsibilities, non-resident missions are not an adequate substitute for resident missions in other states, flexibly and lightly managed, but capable of representing HMG’s interests properly, seeking to exert influence and interpreting foreign governments and countries to HMG. Rwanda in 1994 is a reminder – and not the only one - of that.

4.3 Of course, the FCO will continue to need to hire and pull in expertise from other departments to help do this work of reporting, analysis, influencing and negotiation. The personnel should be systematically and appropriately selected elsewhere. But if work needs doing in support of our international policy, the budget of the FCO should provide for it to be done.

4.4 The pool of expertise may also include experts contracted from outside the public service altogether, including foreign citizens recruited in third countries. Such recruitment should not, however, prevent the acquisition of expertise and experience by career members of HM Diplomatic Service. Nor should liberties be taken with the requirements of discretion and trust which would compromise the delivery of confident and confidential advice to the process of international policy-making.

5.1 The domestic utility of the FCO as a foreign ministry relies substantially upon three things: first, its expertise in international policy-making and diplomacy; second, wide acceptance of the weight within Cabinet and Parliament of its Secretary of State; third, the clear acceptance by foreign governments and heads of international organisations of the unique authority of ambassadors and high commissioners to speak on behalf of HMG as a whole (which in turn will reflect their assessment of the weight the FCO and its ministers carry within government).

5.2 However good the FCO, its skill in promoting British interests depends primarily on the international reputation of the United Kingdom as an effective, economically successful and respected independent State, taking seriously its accepted obligations and aspirations to maintain and develop an international system based upon rules and law.

5.3 Foreigners will not take seriously a country or a government which seems not to take foreign policy seriously, appears unreliable or uncertain, and undernourishes its foreign ministry.

6.1 I have not so far dilated on the question of possible conflicts raised in your inquiry’s terms of reference. I have left it and my reflections of my personal experience until last.

6.2 Diplomats may, as individuals, sometimes be torn between conscience and duty, and very occasionally driven to question whether they can continue to do their public duty. Your terms of reference suggest there might be a special conflict between supporting British exports and promoting human rights. Such was widely supposed to be the Prime Minister’s dilemma during his recent visit to China.

6.3 In fact, in my experience, the conflict has arisen much more often when domestic actions by the British government have belied the high moral tone we have taken over the denial of democratic freedoms and liberties to citizens of other countries. Such conflicts arose during the Cold War when we wished to encourage freedom of movement or of expression among citizens of Warsaw Pact countries while applying a visa regime designed to prevent such movement; applying domestic restrictions on our rights during the troubles in Northern Ireland posed similar problems. In recent years, our response to international terrorism has resurrected those difficulties. British diplomats are prudent not to get too het up about the rights of others lest their presumed moral high ground turns into a slipway or swamp and drops them in it at a crucial moment.

6.4 Your terms of reference ask whether conflicts would be caused as diplomats’ tried to follow the Prime Minister’s injunction to promote trade. The cause of my disagreement with the FCO in 2006/7 concerned my public criticism of the then Prime Minister’s interference with the inquiries of the SFO into the business in Saudi Arabia of BAe Systems. I knew nothing of that company’s business, but I knew quite a lot about the lectures the British government had read over many years to the governments of countries like Kenya about the Rule of Law, due process and anti-corruption. Mr Blair’s instruction undermined all that.

6.5 I was retired by then, and felt free to speak my mind about this hypocrisy. Our bad example would do a great disservice not just to our own institutions but to the efforts of brave people in badly governed countries to get action against corruption. Whitehall did not agree, and DfID and No 10 demanded that the FCO act. They did. Corrupt governments took note. Kenya stopped its residual co-operation with the SFO and the latter accordingly closed down its assistance in looking into the scams known collectively as Anglo-Leasing and Finance.

6.6 One dilemma your terms of reference should highlight is the diplomats’ twin responsibilities for promoting British business and suppressing corruption. The new Bribery Act, whose enforcement has been delayed by six months to allow for further consideration, makes corrupt behaviour abroad a crime, if it is carried out by a British company or its representatives. British diplomats have to grass up such companies or individuals if there is evidence of misbehaviour. Perhaps there will be no evidence and the Act may prove otiose. Or, since Parliament saw fit to pass it, perhaps cases will arise. But companies operating in some venal environments may feel vulnerable, and diplomats may feel adrift when a foreign government decides fairly – or more likely, unfairly - to accuse a British company of misbehaving. Let’s hope both businessmen and diplomats will have clear guidance on how to behave and how their roles differ.

6.7 Among the worst things a British diplomat can expect is to take a high profile on human rights or governance issues, only to be undermined by her or his government breaching our own standards. It is a form of British myopia or arrogance that thinks that what we do in our own country has no bearing on how we are perceived abroad. Oddly, modern communications mean that people in very poor countries – who have more curiosity but can afford less ICT - often have a clearer idea about what makes our society tick than we – with more means but less curiosity - have about theirs.

6.8 Whatever the justification may be, such blundering is a sure sign that domestic policy-makers at home have ceased to think that the way we are seen abroad should influence our conduct at home. So that adds another dimension to the question posed in your inquiry: how do we get the rest of Whitehall to empathise with the FCO in its task of projecting British values, protecting and promoting British security and prosperity and the welfare of our citizens? EU membership has immeasurably improved domestic departments’ awareness of the European dimension. But there is still the rest of the world to worry about. Throwing our weight around works less and less: our ability to engage with others – meaning being ready sometimes to concede things – and persuade, influence and negotiate depends on our example, our resolve and our adherence to the rules of international institutions we value, and to international law we domesticate as our own.

25 November 2010

[1] Not published.