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
(5) Mr Jack Straw's 2003 White Paper UK International
(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
I THE "INVERTED
1905-06 FOREIGN OFFICE
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 1943 PROPOSALS
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
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
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
IV THE 1978
ON UK OVERSEAS
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
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
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
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 BritainGermanyhas 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
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.
V MR STRAW'S
OF 2003: THE
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.
(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.
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.
VI THE STANCE
A MOST ENCOURAGING
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 policyand "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.