The Role of the FCO in UK Government - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Letter from Sir Peter Marshall KCMG CVO

I have followed with close attention the timely and searching inquiry which the Committee have launched into the role of the FCO in UK Government. In the light of the evidence, both oral and written, which the Committee have so far received, I venture to offer a complementary line of approach to the question, namely a study of the rise of the advisory role in diplomacy.

The familiar proposition that "foreign policy is about what to do, and diplomacy is about how to do it" has its uses as a reminder that it is one thing to devise a foreign policy and that it may be quite another successfully to implement it. But the proposition is seriously misleading in as far as it is taken to mean that the national diplomatic apparatus at home and abroad has no significant part in the formulation of policy, as distinct from its execution. The truth rather is that while the Diplomatic Service is and must remain primarily an executive body, and while there have been profound changes in its executive role during the past 100 years, the changes have been of even more significance in its advisory role. The latter could be said scarcely to have existed even a century ago. The history of the Diplomatic Service in the last 100 years has in consequence turned largely on the evolution of its advisory function.

At the risk of some oversimplification, the evolution of the advisory role of the Diplomatic Service can be traced by reference to six administrative landmarks:

(1)  the Foreign Office reforms of 1905-06;

(2)  the 1943 White Paper Proposals for the Reform of the Foreign Service;

(3)  the Report of the Plowden Committee, 1964;

(4)  the 1978 White Paper The United Kingdom's Overseas Representation;

(5)  Mr Jack Straw's 2003 White Paper UK International Priorities, and

(6)  HMG's series of statements in October, 2010, on National Security, the Strategic Defence and Security Review and the Comprehensive Spending Review, and the ensuing FCO Business Plan.

These landmarks are examined individually in what follows.


In the 19th century and earlier, diplomats served only abroad. The Foreign Office was staffed by a separate breed of Clerks. They did not necessarily consider it was their duty to offer advice to the Ministers on whose behalf they shuffled the papers. The volume and complexity of business was inexorably rendering untenable any such laid back approach to diplomacy. In the first decade of the 20th century a new system was introduced into the Foreign Office whereby papers were filtered upward through the hierarchy, rather than passed downward from the top. It was inherent in this process of upward filtering, aptly described as the "inverted sieve", that the upward filtering would be accompanied by comment and recommendation on the papers so filtered. At a stroke the Foreign Office Clerks became advisers rather than scribes. The effect on the conduct of business was profound. The Foreign Office started to assume the general character with which we are familiar today, albeit on a far smaller scale, in which the advisory and executive elements in its work became ever more closely related.


The multiple convulsions of the Great War infused the reform process with an urgency which it might otherwise have lacked. But events were moving faster still. There had been a vast increase in the responsibilities of government, especially in the fields of economic and social management; in the volume and speed of communications; in public concern with international affairs; and in the overlap between internal and external affairs.

Sir Victor Wellesley, Deputy Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office from 1925 to 1936, contended that democratic diplomacy and foreign policy—"for all practical purposes they are one and inseparable"—no longer functioned effectively because their background had changed while the machinery and the mindset of diplomacy had remained static. Diplomacy was "in fetters".

This sombre analysis lay behind the presentation to Parliament in January, 1943, by the wartime Coalition Government of the White Paper Proposals for the Reform of the Foreign Service. Its mainspring was the conviction that the process of amalgamation of hitherto separate services engaged in diplomatic work which was started at the end of the Great War needed to be completed. Specifically this involved the combining of the Foreign Office and the Diplomatic Service with the Consular Service and the Commercial Diplomatic Service to form a single Foreign Service. This would require the creation of a comprehensively-trained body of generalists capable of serving all over the world, drawn from a wider social background than previously, administered on a basis adequate to modern requirements, and able to provide career opportunities to all the members of the Service. The White Paper warned that this would require a considerable increase in numbers and a significant rise in expenditure.


The radical and imaginative proposals for reform set forth in 1943 were of necessity outlined only briefly in the White Paper itself. It was natural that putting them into effect after the war would encounter a number of problems. The latter fell into two broad categories. In the first was improvement in the terms and conditions of the members of the new combined Foreign Service, so as to ensure the achievement of the objective of creating a service drawn from a wider social background and fully open to, those without private financial resources. In the second was the nature of the task which the service was expected to fulfil, which in the event proved to be much more onerous than was envisaged in 1943, both as regards prevailing international conditions and by virtue of our chronic post-war relative economic weakness.

Beyond these two categories there loomed the vexed question of the machinery of government for the management of international affairs, including the viability of the increasingly anomalous separate Commonwealth Relations Office (itself an uneasy amalgam of the former Dominions and India Offices) and the related question of whether the Foreign Service could realistically aspire to provide the corps of omni-competent generalists required to implement world wide government policies.

By virtue of my responsibilities at the time, I was principally responsible for urging on HMG the case of a review of the 1943 Reforms in operation. The case was eventually accepted, but with a significant widening of the mandate. In July, 1962, the Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan appointed a high level Committee on Representational Services Overseas, under the chairmanship of Lord Plowden, an eminent business man and public servant. The Committee's Report, presented to Parliament in February, 1964, is a superb analytical and prescriptive achievement. Its simultaneous mastery of the big picture and of operational and administrative detail gives it an authority which attaches to no other document on the subject.

Strategically, the Report insisted that it was in Britain's interest and in the general interest that Britain's voice should continue to be heard, despite the clear decline in our relative military and economic strength. Functionally, the Committee put "advising HMG" at the top of the list of tasks, and specified that economic and commercial work had now assumed a position of fundamental importance and "must be regarded as a first charge on the resources of the overseas services".

Administratively, the Committee recommended the amalgamation of the Foreign Service, the Commonwealth Service, and the Trade Commissioner Service to form "HM Diplomatic Service". For fear of jeopardising the achievement of the substantial improvements they sought in the terms and conditions of members of the Service, the Committee steered clear of controversial questions of the machinery of government. They likewise stopped short of recommending the amalgamation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices, suggesting instead that the two Departments should be administered jointly by a Diplomatic Service Administration Office. (The full merger took place in 1968.)

Diminished national Self-Confidence: the Duncan and Think Tank Reports

Politically and economically, the 1960s were a discouraging decade. Dean Acheson reflected the situation waspishly in a speech in 1962 with his observation that "Britain had lost an Empire and not yet found a role". In 1963 de Gaulle vetoed our first bid to join the EEC. The incoming Labour Government of 1964 was assailed with problems from the outset. A further devaluation of sterling appeared inevitable, and eventually occurred in November, 1967. The UK launched a second bid that year to join the EEC which was similarly rebuffed by de Gaulle. In January, 1968, the Government announced Britain's military withdrawal for East of Suez. There was a general sentiment that it was time to be more modest about our international pretensions. The Plowden Report could seem to be a counsel of perfection.

Such was the background to the appointment in August, 1968, by the Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, of a further Committee of inquiry under the prominent industrialist Sir Val Duncan. Its avowed purpose was to save money. In its report, published in July, 1969, the Committee declared that Britain was now "a major power of the second rank" and recommended that our representational effort should be focussed on what it called "the Area of Concentration"—"a dozen or so countries of Western Europe plus the United States"—and that other countries should be regarded as belonging to the "Outer Area", where our interests were largely commercial. Even at the time the Committee's proposal seemed bizarre. The tide of world wide interdependence was already rising strongly. It soon swept the notion away.

The case for cutting our foreign policy coat according to our diminished national cloth did not disappear. Our efforts to join the EEC finally bore fruit on January 1, 1973. Yet our economic difficulties persisted. The UK borrowed heavily from the IMF in1976. Worse still, there seemed to be in Whitehall, and perhaps also in Westminster, an air of lassitude, if not of defeatism. It was suggested that "in the 1950s we managed decline; in the 1960s we mismanaged decline; and in the 1970s we declined to manage".

It was in this sombre atmosphere that in January, 1976, James Callaghan, at that time Foreign Secretary, asked the Central Policy Review Staff (the "Think Tank") to undertake yet another review, extending to all aspects of overseas representation. As in the case of the Cuncan Committee, the quest was for savings. The CPRS produced a massive Report in August, 1977. Its message in essence was that the Diplomatic Service should do less and, on a selective basis, do it less thoroughly. The CPRS recommended that there should be more interchange, and even a merger in some areas, with the Home Civil Service, and that a special export promotion service and a special aid administration should be created. The CPRS went on to canvass the abolition of the British Council, with a redistribution of its functions between the Ministry of Overseas Development and the Department of Education and Science. As regards the BBC and the notion of a universal broadcasting service, the time had come for a radical look at existing broadcasting patterns.


The bravado of the CPRS Report, combined with criticisms and queries from a number of reports from various House of Commons Committees, seemed to call for an ex cathedra statement of the Government's views. In August, 1978, in the closing months of his administration, James Callaghan, now Prime Minister, and the Foreign Secretary, Dr (now Lord) Owen presented to Parliament a White Paper The United Kingdom's Overseas Representation. It is something of an oddity.

On the one hand, it is a clear and up-to-date expose of the role of the Diplomatic Service in the difficult international conditions in which we found ourselves as a country. It showed how much common ground existed in the various detailed analyses contained in the recent reports, and indeed how much was owed to the hard work which went into their compilation. It emphasised how much reform was already afoot. And it testified to the reality that at the end of the day foreign policy was not about what you can afford to do so much as about what you cannot afford not to do. Interdepartmentally it was regarded at the time as game, set and match to the FCO.

On the other hand, the White Paper was unduly orthodox and defensive. There was considerable feeling among the younger members of the Diplomatic Service that there had been insufficient dispassionate examination of the thornier issues raised by the Think Tank.

On the analytical plane, the White Paper contained weaknesses which proved to be the source of substantial subsequent difficulty. These may be seen specifically to stem from two phrases: first, the surprising inclusion of the outmoded proposition that "foreign policy is about what has to be done and diplomacy is about how to do it". Second, the assertion that "responsibility for the overall conduct of overseas in the broadest sense of the term will continue to be vested in a single Cabinet Minister, namely the Secretary of State from Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, so that the right level of political co-ordination and input is maintained (italics mine)".

The scope for misunderstanding in that remarkable sentence is plentiful. If responsibility "in the broadest sense" is to rest with a single Minister, it cannot be other than the Prime Minister. Below that level, the italicised words suggest that the distribution of labour between the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and his or her Cabinet colleagues consists of the application of a presumably superior political judgment by the former on the presumably non-political activities of other departments. A much more sophisticated rationale for interdepartmental co-operation and co-ordination in the field of international affairs is required and has in fact long been in place. It is also worth noting the use of the word "input", rather than "output". This implies that the prescription applies to the formulation of policy, as well as to its execution, and that diplomacy is about what to do as well as how to do it.

FCO Vulnerabilities in fulfilling a demanding Role

The role envisaged for the Diplomatic Service in the 1978 White Paper is nothing if not demanding. It requires of the members of the Service collectively, and to some extent individually, a simultaneous grasp of both substance and process in the management of our international involvement as a whole. This has to manifest itself as a capacity both to accumulate a vast store of information, analysis, experience and reflection, and to deploy that accumulation usefully and quickly howsoever circumstances may dictate. This cannot be done satisfactorily on the cheap.

It also requires that the FCO is beyond reproach as regards the comprehensiveness and objectivity of its own perceptions. There is a balance to be struck in this regard. On the one hand a professional diplomatic cadre can be expected in general to eschew bias. On the other hand it would also be expected that great Departments of State, including the Foreign Office, would develop by dint of long years of experience a certain ethos or tradition in handling our overseas business. While this is generally beneficial, it may lead to priorities out of tune with the times or the national temperament. Three examples may be given.

(1)  The Commonwealth Lacuna

On its creation in 1968, the FCO was at pains to insist that there would be "no detraction from Britain's partnership with her fellow members of the Commonwealth and her capacity to contribute to that partnership". That is not how events transpired. The Commonwealth tended to slip below the radar screen. Expertise in Commonwealth affairs all but vanished. Interest in them dwindled. The priority of securing membership of the EEC, pervasive economic difficulties, and sharp intra-Commonwealth disagreements all played their part. So did Ministerial disenchantment. But even in combination these factors do not provide an adequate justification for overall institutional neglect. In one halcyon year the only context in which the word "Commonwealth" appeared in the FCO Annual Departmental Report was in the term "Foreign and Commonwealth Office".

The Commonwealth is no sovereign remedy for all our ills. Yet it is a modest boon to its members and, in the UK case a distinct national asset, complementing, rather than competing with, other features of our international involvement. The Coalition Government have already given strong evidence of their declared intention to "put the 'C' back into FCO".

(2)  At odds with "The Third World Coalition"

One of the most prominent characteristics of the post-war world has been the vast expansion of the international community, consequent upon the achievement of a large number of previously dependent countries. Membership of the United Nations effectively quadrupled between 1945 and the end of the century. It was natural that these new members should find common cause and joint organisation in their commitment to the imperatives of decolonisation, and development. This powerful trend, aptly described as "the Third World Coalition", found its chief expression successively in UNCTAD, the "New International Economic Order", the "North/South Dialogue" and "Global Negotiations".

For reasons which are hard to fathom, the FCO appeared ill at ease with all these manifestations of Third World Solidarity. Perhaps the difficulties stemmed from the misleading distinction, all too easily drawn in classical diplomacy, between "political" and "economic", and from an inadequate grasp of the intensely political character of the approach of the developing countries to negotiations with the developed world on matters which the latter generally regarded as "economic" or "social". The crunch came in 1980 when the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee asked the Government's views on the recently published Brandt Commission Report. The Commission was an imaginative effort to find common ground in a dialogue between developed and developing countries which was becoming increasingly unfruitful. It was a challenge which the FCO proved unable to meet. The FCO Memorandum of July, 1980, published in reply to the request of the Foreign Affairs Committee, was roundly condemned on all sides.

The world has moved on. Not least under the influence of the Commonwealth, the emphasis has changed from inter-governmental negotiations between developed and developing countries to agreed international priorities for improving the lot at the grass roots of the least fortunate of humankind, notably enshrined in the Millennium Goals and the concept of "good governance". But the episode has had lasting effects on the interdepartmental handling of development matters in Whitehall. As the Foreign Affairs Committee recently noted, of the 30 members of the OECD, only one other country than Britain—Germany—has a fully-fledged ministry of international development, with all the others maintaining agencies or departments that in one way or another fall under the authority of the foreign ministry".

(3)  Excessive Preoccupation with the European Union?

The FCO has long manifested what can be described as an institutional bias in favour of involvement in the European Union. In general this is not difficult to understand. There is no doubt as to the importance of gaining entry into the EEC, notwithstanding the high price exacted from us by the French in particular for standing aloof at the outset. Les absents ont toujours tort. But even when we were inside rather than outside, and when there had been a marked improvement in both our economic fortunes and our national self-confidence, we seemed inhibited from fighting our corner as fully as the defence and promotion of our interests required. The emphasis instead was tempering assertiveness or reluctance in the interest of "being at the heart of Europe" and of "full membership of the club".

It was the persistent general advice from officials that Ministers should go along with what was being proposed rather than seek to play for time and hope for something better. The upshot was acceptance of collective measures and rulings which went increasingly against the national grain. The culmination was the foisting on the country by dubious means of the obviously flawed Lisbon Treaty. The backlash against the latter, combined with the hardships of the severe recession which began in 2007, and of its aftermath, have effectively put a damper on any further EU integration, except, perhaps, in the context of the crisis gripping the Eurozone.

Neglect of the Advisory Function

When discussing the nature or the extent of the ethos or the tradition of a great Department of State, it is important not to lose sight of the cardinal principle that it is Ministers, not officials, who make policy. Departments are often criticised for their actions when in fact they are quite properly carrying out instructions from Ministers with which they may be out of sympathy. The criticism levelled at the Foreign Office over the appeasement of pre-war Nazi Germany is a case in point.

In the context of the Committee's present inquiry, these examples of FCO vulnerability are less significant in themselves than as illustrations of the vital importance of discharging to the full the extensive advisory responsibilities of the Diplomatic Service. The vulnerabilities do not arise from any executive deficiency. They are about what to do rather than how to do it.


Much has happened since the publication of the 1978 White Paper. Internationally, the ending of the Cold War has been a major benefit, even if it has brought problems as well as opportunities in its wake. The events of September 11, 2001, signalled the advent of a new phase of world wide interdependence, in which international terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction emerged as potentially the greatest threats to security.

The change of mindset required of the Diplomatic Service in order to manage this extraordinary transition can be compared to that which inspired the seminal Foreign Office reform of the first decade of the 20th century. It is encapsulated in the ground-breaking White Paper UK International Priorities - A Strategy for the FCO, launched in December, 2003, by the Foreign Secretary, Mr Jack Straw. "For the first time", Mr Straw explained, "the Foreign and Commonwealth is publishing a comprehensive Strategy describing the UK's international priorities and the FCO's role in achieving them". The White Paper noted that the FCO needed to work more closely with other Departments whose responsibilities covered important areas of international action. "Our diplomacy will also increasingly involve people outside Government: Parliamentarians, business, the media, NGOs and interest groups".

The formulation of the priorities is an object lesson in clarity, succinctness and comprehensiveness. The emphasis was on flexibility and the capacity to adjust to changes in circumstances. The White Paper represented in truth the apotheosis of the advisory function, a perfect fusion between the executive and the advisory components of diplomacy. The two are as inextricably mixed as are substance and process.

Modern Discontents:

(i)  "sofa diplomacy"

Misgivings nonetheless persisted, but of a somewhat different character from those discussed in the Duncan and CPRS Reports. Chief among them were those related to the extent to which under the Blair and Brown administrations the FCO was elbowed aside by a small group of advisers in No 10, and "sofa" or "bunker" diplomacy replaced the orthodox variety. The situation indeed bordered at times on the grotesque. The Coalition Government has made good its promise to put an end to it.

But this does not imply that the Prime Minister will be less deeply involved in foreign affairs. The realities of interdependence mean that it could not be otherwise. There is an inevitable element of the presidential about modern government, extending to external, as well as to internal, affairs. The Prime Minister is ex officio First Lord of the Treasury, which is a useful reminder of his or her locus standi with that great Department of State. It might be helpful if some equivalent formulation could be found to reflect the Prime Minister's position in the case of the FCO.

(ii)  "Managerialism"

A second clutch of criticisms relate to the perceived trend in the FCO, as in other Government Departments towards excessive emphasis on the management of business. There is a good deal of evidence to support these criticisms. Yet the point is not a simple one. In these days of near-ubiquitous "delivery deficit", taxpayers are more entitled than ever to look for value for money. This implies examination of outputs as well as inputs, and the adoption in some form of general criteria for measuring the results achieved against those which were expected.

But this does not justify the adoption by the FCO, in undiscriminating common with other Government Departments, of management tools and practices in conditions which can be so utterly different. Still less does it apply if those tools and practices are imported from the private sector, in the belief that they are universally applicable in the public sector as well. In their Report on the FCO Annual Report 2008-09, the Foreign Affairs Committee were forthright on the matter: "we have consistently questioned whether it is appropriate to have a set of performance indicators assessed in terms of detailed and sometimes quantified indicators".

(iii)  "Hollowing out of the FCO"

Third, and possibly the most serious, group of criticisms relates to the quality of advice offered by the FCO. It has the authority of Lord Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary. Before turning to politics he was a member of the Diplomatic Service and is almost uniquely qualified to express an opinion on the subject. He spoke of a feeling that the FCO was "hollowed" out on the advisory side, and was no longer characterised to the same extent by the solid expertise for which it had previously been known.

There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence to support Lord Hurd's view. While there may be no easy explanation of how such a situation had arisen, it is a legitimate conjecture that it is the joint product of the "managerialism" already referred to and the chronic lack of resources allocated to the Diplomatic Service to discharge its great and growing tasks. When finances are stretched the advisory function is in the nature of things more likely to suffer than the executive.


In a speech on January 28 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Prime Minister described the inheritance of the Coalition Government on taking office: "an economy built on the worst deficit, the most leveraged banks, the most indebted households, the biggest housing boom and unsustainable levels of public spending and immigration". The Coalition Government's response has been Herculean. The series of statements made in October on National Security; The Strategic Defence and Security Review and The Comprehensive Spending Review, and the ensuing FCO Business Plan are an awe-inspiring and highly encouraging road-map for extricating ourselves from a parlous situation.

Analytically, these texts represent, in a wider and more advanced form, a significant characteristic of Mr Straw's 2003 White Paper: namely thinking joined-up both "horizontally"—as between different aspects of policy—and "vertically"—in the sense of grounding the individual aspects of policy in a general assessment of national interest, disposition and cohesion. In spite of the painful choices they inevitably contain, the panoply of measures announced inspire great confidence.


Three conclusions emerge from this historical survey of the rise of the advisory role of the Diplomatic Service:

(1)  the changes in the conduct, direction, priorities and resourcing of Diplomatic Service business necessary to respond to the transformation in world conditions have been so extensive and so profound that they cannot as yet be said to be fully reflected in current practice. Nor is this likely to be achieved in any near future. It is a matter of patient evolution, and the cultivation of a mindset very different from that which is traditionally associated with the word "diplomacy";

(2)  it is beyond doubt that the Diplomatic Service is currently under-resourced. It is not to be expected, however, that this deficiency can be remedied while government expenditure is under the present severe restraints; and

(3)  as soon as conditions permit, however, the situation described in (1) and (2) should be addressed by a further comprehensive review on the lines followed by the Plowden Committee. 2014, the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Plowden Report, might be a suitable date for the commencement of such a review.

I am conscious that in submitting this historical survey, even though it does not err on the side of brevity, it has been necessary to compress the relevant material to the point where there is a danger of over simplification. I am therefore attaching as background a memorandum of greater length which amplifies the analysis and contains appropriate references to the relevant sources. It was prepared primarily in response to the recommendation by the previous Foreign Affairs Committee, in their Report on the FCO Annual Report 2008-09, that "the new Government should carry out a comprehensive foreign policy-led review of the structures, functions and priorities of the FCO, MOD and DFID". I have already made this memorandum available to your highly competent and dedicated Committee staff.

Finally, as someone who is proud to have served in the Diplomatic Service for thirty-four years, I would observe that the story of the growth of the advisory role of the Diplomatic Service is not one of grudging response to outside criticism. Most of the impulse for reform has come from within. At the same time there is no claim to a monopoly of wisdom in the matter. Insights from outside are welcome. The motivation is not aggrandisement of the Service, but a concern to provide the nation in rapidly changing conditions with the best possible service in its extensive international involvement. The objective, as aptly described by the 1978 White Paper, is to "establish a pattern capable of adapting to the future on the basis of a realistic yet confident assessment of Britain's role in the world". The Committee's present inquiry will assuredly make a significant contribution in this regard.

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