The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written Evidence from Sir John Graham, GCMG

I have seen the submission to your Committee by Mr Oliver Miles. I write to support the case he makes. I served for 36 years from 1950 in the Foreign, later the Diplomatic, Service and my career included ambassador to Iraq 1974-77, ambassador to Iran 1979-80 and Permanent Representative on the North Atlantic Council 1982-86. I am therefore no doubt biased.

The fundamental role of the F.C.O. is to contribute to the development and implementation of policy, so that, where it may affect other countries, the likely reactions of and impact on those countries are taken into account. This also gives the implementation of policy the best chance of success. Equally importantly, the role must include the formulation, in conjunction with other relevant departments and subject to ministerial guidance and approval, of an overall strategy embracing Britain’s national objectives and place in the world.

For these purposes it depends on the analysis and reports of staff serving in posts abroad whose primary task is to get to know and if possible understand the culture and motivation of the country, both the people and the government, or institution in which they work. Knowledge of the local language is obviously a considerable help in this. Some of our biggest disasters stem from the failure to take account of likely reactions – Suez in 1956 for example when the reaction of the US and in the Arab world to the Franco-Israeli-British operation, concocted without the participation of the normal apparatus of the Foreign Office or the embassies in the area, was so badly misread.

Commercial work, trade promotion and consular work are important but secondary to the primary tasks. In my experience senior business executives want advice on the nature of the country with which they are seeking to trade, including whether the government will survive and pay its bills. Such advice can only be based on understanding of the country concerned.

Linked to this is the importance of ambassadors and other staff being able to speak and write with candour, even if their views are out of line with established policy. The reported recent ban under the previous Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary on so-called valedictory despatches, or whatever new form of formal communication might replace them, is a deplorable attempt to restrict such freedom of speech.

4 January 2011