The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written submission by Peter W Marshall and other former members of the FCO


Once not so long ago the Foreign & Commonwealth Office was admired across the World, and its diplomats were held in high regard and their views were always respected. It was famous for its influential skills, its style and its insight.

Lets  go back to the basics and give the matter some deeper thought, perhaps visionary as we did when Britain was a proud nation and brimming with confidence. We had a role to play then, and the FCO was at the forefront of this. The role of the FCO is as important today as it was then, let us not forget that.

What has gone wrong? Today the picture is one of mediocrity. Clearly something has gone wrong, and it is now a golden opportunity for us to get this right, no matter the cost. All views need to be critically considered and a strategic process needs to be undertaken so that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office can once again aspire to becoming admired the world over. A Diplomatic Service reflects the health and the wealth of a country. The downward spiral can be stopped, and the former prestige of the FCO can be restored.

If we wish to maintain a leading presence in this fast changing world, then we need to take risks and be bold. We need to prepare and spend for the long term, and not cut, as we have been doing for the short term, as this clearly has had a detrimental effect on the working of government departments.
A  unique delivery, one  that is not just about budget! The FCO outlasts a Government.

We are still capable of running and producing a Rolls Royce renowned for its reliability, we should not settle for lesser ambitions!

The FCO has lost a lot of its independence, and Foreign Secretaries of the recent past have given in too easily to No. 10. The PM should be in overall charge of Govt Depts but each Secretary of State should be allowed to make the running and decide policy. Foreign Secretaries of substance and experience are required, in what is and always was a key Government Department. For example Lord Carrington and Lord Howe.

The emasculation of the FCO began in the Thatcher years. The arrival of PM Blair who followed a Presidential style of politics (USA style) made things even more difficult for the FCO. Gordon Brown in his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer was effectively the second PM and the power the Treasury wielded resulted in its pre-eminence in Whitehall. The FCO had become even more marginalised! The Treasury was the final arbiter of policy, if it didn't like something it would be revised or abandoned. Objectives and business plans had to be clear and achievable in no more than 3 years and often within one year! For the FCO this was no easy task as it is no easy matter to define Foreign Policy within 3 years or for that matter one year, a lot of the important work carried out by the FCO is unquantifiable. Sir C. Meyer, in his recent publication makes this point most strongly! Too much examination and scrutiny can sometimes have the wrong outcome.

This detailed scrutiny of the machinery of government and corporate governance, the disappearance of the culture of deference, the increasing sophistication and interference by the media, the greater use of select committees, have made it more difficult for government departments to explain their work to outsiders and to justify their existence.

The complexity of what they do is sometimes difficult to explain. To convince of its necessity and its worth. Government officials need to do this in front of the media and TV cameras.
What can be done to get this right?
To put this right more deft handling by the FCO News Dept will be required. Better training will be needed so that staff are able to handle a more aggressive media in a sophisticated and effective manner. This must be paid for, and funds should be made available to improve upon this area of FCO work.

It requires an elitist role, with independent ways as distinct from a very different Home Civil service.
This leads to another question that should be addressed. What is a good diplomat.
A good diplomat should be someone who is culturally versed, proud to be British in the full meaning of the word and someone who is familiar and comfortable with being abroad. They are surrounded by a different value system and one where they can feel comfortable. In a period of crisis they are the first point of contact in a foreign country and with its government officials at the highest level.
They should be of the highest calibre, recruited as the brightest and the best, and where necessary language competent.

The business of writing first impressions and valedictory despatches was a good business and one that should be reinstated by the FCO. The contribution made by Heads of Post in this regard has been extraordinary and engaging. It is this colour and this know how that gives value to the FCO and the government, along with some healthy and confidential criticism from time to time. These despatches have been written by highly capable people with essential input from colleagues who know about abroad. Why do away with them? This freedom of expression and opportunity should be encouraged and not dismissed.

Once we had a position in the FCO called "Oriental Secretary" the old rank of 3rd secretary. Young graduate entrants who were language competent filled this vital post. One of the last to serve in this position was Mr C. Stitt, who was sent to Kabul, Afghanistan. It is a vital part of the reporting process of any mission, a listening post that can provide some excellent information of matters on the ground, in  key areas of political reporting.

Staff recruitment should be decided purely on merit and not on tokenism, to fulfil the urge to reflect the wider/broader society! A key strength that we should look for in our diplomats aside from the ability for independent thought and integrity, is a mature sense of perspective and balance in the carrying out of their duties and in making their judgments.
This could be promoted by enlisting a number of retired diplomats to assist the FCO in this crucially important area.

In Sweden the DS service has been expanded and given a larger budget. The view taken that the business of the Foreign Office is more important today to Sweden than it was before. Perhaps we should look more carefully at what our neighbours are doing to meet the challenges of the new world order? Have we done this in any serious way?

Bilateral relations are still fed by self interest. This aspect of our work needs to be maintained, and carried out by our diplomats. This requires special skills, that perhaps only the best can perform. It would then be essential to have our diplomats involved with these essential core areas, rather like the two tier system that was present before with an A stream entrant and an E stream entrant. The A stream entrant was recruited to do the work of diplomacy and the E streamer was essentially an administrator. An Ambassador/ High Commissioner should not be saddled with administrative work and form filling, this should be left to the Deputy Head of Post to do.

In conclusion, we take the view that the FCO should take charge of what it is good at! Namely Diplomacy. That is what it was always good at.

This requires expertise at the highest level, and recruiters should be looking for the brightest and the best. The FCO is a key Government Department and more independence is certainly required for it to be an effective and lead government department. There are many ways that a more meaningful and well directed FCO can operate, one where its integrity and independence are fundamental to its well being.

Too much interference has crippled this ability!

What made the FCO run so well in the past was its ability to win friends and influence. We need to refocus on this core skill. We need to work closely with the British Council and the BBC on information work, matters of culture and education and English a universal main language.

The FCO is in a state of confusion and there is no doubt that its role needs to be more clearly defined. We cannot afford to get this wrong.

We hope that some of the comments and suggestions in the above submission are of value to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

26 January 2011

Bio Details of the contributors to this submission:

Peter W Marshall, Lead contributor. FCO
Last post Beijing, China 1984, retired.
Bernard Marshall, last post Iraq conflict resolution desk, FCO retired.
Mike Hall, last post Strasbourg, Deputy Head of Mission, FCO retired.
Alan Smith, last post Majorca, HM Consul, FCO retired.
Eric Mattey, last post Deputy Head of Mission, Doha, Qatar, FCO retired.
Alp Mehmet, last post UK Ambassador Iceland, FCO retired