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

Memorandum from Sir Peter Marshall KCMG CVO



The concluding recommendation of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, in their Report on the FCO Annual Report 2008-09, published on March 21, 2010, was 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".1 At the conclusion of five years of intense and fruitful involvement in both the substance and the process of British foreign policy, the members of the Committee were exceptionally well placed to make such a recommendation.

It remains to be seen how HMG react to the recommendation. The foreground is in any case dominated by the necessity of sharp cuts in government expenditure, from which the national diplomatic apparatus cannot expect wholly to escape. What is clear is that the considerations and the issues underlying the recommendation will not go away. They will need to be addressed in some manner. They extend to areas and questions which might seem remote to those unfamiliar with recent trends in the management of international relations. They will certainly engage the attention of the new House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. Analytically speaking, the crux of the matter is that, although there have been profound changes in the executive role of the Diplomatic Service, the changes have been of even greater importance 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 hundred years has in consequence turned to a great extent on the evolution of its advisory function.

The present memorandum begins by summarising the principal changes in diplomatic conditions since the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, and especially since the adoption of the United Nations Charter at the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945. It then surveys the developments in British diplomatic priorities and practice which have occurred over the years in response to them, and to changes in the national situation and disposition which prompted those developments. The memorandum turns next to the problems judged to be currently confronting the Diplomatic Service, especially in the form in which they were outlined in the Report of the out-going House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. Finally it comments briefly on the initial stance of the Coalition Government on coming into power in May, 2010, to whom it will fall to address the Foreign Affairs Committee recommendation.


Six inter-related factors or vectors—forces having both magnitude and direction - can be regarded as the chief agents of the transformation of "classical" diplomacy, which largely prevailed between the peace of Westphalia at the end of the Thirty Years War in 1618 until the outbreak of the Great War, into the diplomatic conditions of the 21st century:

(i)  an enormous increase world wide in the volume, complexity and intensity of diplomatic business, a reflection of the all-embracing qualitative change in cross-border activity from the market-based interdependence indicated by the use of the phrase "the world economy" to the omni-disciplinary realities of the "global village";

(ii)  a presumption of a general community of interest between states rather than a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability of potential, if not actual, clash of interest between them;

(iii)  the prominence of "values", as well as interests, as conventionally and astringently understood in the use of such terms as Realpolitik and raison d'etat. This is the concomitant of the shift of emphasis in priorities in diplomatic business from national security against external threat on the one hand, to preoccupation with the security and welfare of the individual world wide on the other. Values apply not only between countries but also at every level within them;

(iv)  a great rise in the number of diplomatic "actors", non-governmental as well as governmental, and the accompanying wide dispersal from national central authority of relevant decision-making. This dispersal has been both upward and downward, intranational and international, and de facto as well as de jure. It is notably expressed in the concept of governance, as distinct from government, and in the imperfectly understood concept of supranationality, as distinct from state sovereignty and prerogative;

(v)  intense public, and interactive, involvement in diplomatic business, to an extent made possible—and ultimately inevitable—by the revolutions in information processing and dissemination, and by the associated vast increase in the speed of worldwide communications; and

(vi)  the vanishing distinction between internal and external affairs, and of the hitherto clear accepted difference between the two, above all in sovereignty and jurisdictional terms. This distinction was the bedrock of the nation-state system which "classical" diplomacy was designed to serve.

Each of the vectors clearly merits intensive study on its own. Each is both a causal factor and a derivative of its fellows. The whole is not so much the sum, as the product, of its wide-ranging parts. The total impact on the conduct of diplomatic business could not but be profound.2


The proposition "foreign policy is about what to do; diplomacy is about how to do it" has long been familiar. It is growing increasingly misleading. It is of course a valuable reminder that, while it is one thing to devise foreign policy, it is likely to be quite another to implement it. However the proposition can easily be taken to mean that diplomacy is in effect an executive business only. A hundred years ago this could perhaps have been regarded as an essentially accurate depiction of the British way of doing things. Diplomats of Sir Ernest Satow's generation served abroad only. While they could, and did, make recommendations at what should be done, their emphasis was naturally on how they should do it.

This explains the structure and character of Satow's magisterial Guide to Diplomatic Practice.3 The underlying assumption was that any necessary advice to the Secretary of State would be tendered from other sources. But the need for such advice was not regarded as self-evident. Foreign Office clerks, a separate breed from the diplomats, did not consider themselves obliged to offer advice on the papers which they shuffled on behalf of the Secretary of State

Nonetheless there was at least an implicit advisory element in the reports and recommendations from diplomats serving overseas. In a world of slow-moving feudal agricultural societies, this could perhaps have been regarded as broadly sufficient. The Industrial Revolution, the advent of democracy, ever more rapid communications, the emergence of a world economy, and surging intra-European rivalries and tensions, all combined to make any laid-back approach untenable.

(a)  The "Inverted Sieve"

In the first decade of the 20th century a new system was introduced in the Foreign Office, whereby papers were filtered upwards through the hierarchy, rather than passed downward from the top. The process was aptly described as "the inverted sieve". It was inherent 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 in the policy-making process. "The days of the Foreign Office as a Department of scribes was past".4

The principal moving spirit in this metamorphosis was Eyre Crowe, famous for his authorship in 1906 of the Memorandum on the Present State of British Relations with France and Germany.5 Originally labelled 'secret', it was published the following year. It has stood ever since as a classical expose of the fundamentals of British foreign policy, against which the particularities of individual aspects of policy needed to be measured and judged. The practical worth of the reforms then being initiated could not have been more graphically or more effectively illustrated.

(b)  "Diplomacy in Fetters" (1944)

The multiple convulsions of the Great War infused the reform process with an urgency, which it might otherwise have lacked, across the British machinery of government as a whole. As described in The Foreign Office,6 the first official history, written by a former Chief Clerk and the Librarian, the post-war Foreign Office emerges as an advice-oriented structure along lines familiar to those of a later generation.

But events were moving faster still. There had been a great expansion of the responsibilities of government in the field of economic management and social conditions; a vast increase in the volume and speed of communications; a strident growth in the public content of foreign affairs and the extent to which public opinion had to be wooed and shaped. Above all, and beneath all, the surge of interdependence, called increasingly in question both the realism of the classical concept of national sovereignty and the continued relevance of national boundaries.

Perhaps the most profound British analysis of the diplomatic implications of all these developments is that contained in Diplomacy in Fetters, by Sir Victor Wellesley, Deputy Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office from 1925 to 1936, published in 1944.7 Wellesley's thesis in essence was that democratic diplomacy and foreign policy—"for all practical purposes they are one and inseparable"—in general no longer functioned effectively because their background had changed while the machinery of diplomacy had remained static. Foreign policy could no longer be dealt with in a vacuum, and on a hand-to-mouth basis.

Wellesley contended that, so long as diplomatic practitioners thought in traditional terms, rather than taking into account the full range of relevant factors—economic, industrial, technical, social, financial—as well as the power of ideology and propaganda in shaping policy, diplomacy was in fetters. His book dealt in detail with the way in which all these considerations needed to be reflected, not only in the experience, training and organisation of diplomats, but also in the machinery of government as a whole and in the conduct of parliamentary business.


The detail of Wellesley's prescriptions cannot but seem somewhat over-elaborate. This, combined with his rather discursive style, may explain why his pioneering work was not better known, even among the professionals of his day, let alone subsequently. But much of his thesis, at least as far as diplomatic organisation was concerned, was contained in Proposals for the Reform of the Foreign Service, a White Paper submitted to Parliament by the wartime Coalition Government in January, 1943.8 The mainspring of the proposals 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.

"Among the criticisms which have been brought against the Diplomatic Service", the White Paper states at the outset, "the view has been expressed that it is recruited from too small a circle, that it tends to represent the interests of certain sections of the nation rather than those of the country as a whole, that its members lead too sheltered a life, that they have insufficient understanding of economic and social questions, that the extent of their experience is too small to enable them properly to understand many of the problems with which they ought to deal, and that the range of their contacts is too limited to allow them to acquire more than a relatively narrow acquaintance with the foreign peoples amongst whom they live".9

That the message in this wide-ranging critique was received and understood in substance within the Foreign Office is reflected in the proposals outlined later in the White Paper. In brief, these aim at 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 appropriate opportunities to individual members of the Service. The proposed reforms involved both a considerable increase in numbers and a significant rise in expenditure.

The White Paper naturally does not accept the critique wholly without demur. It claims that it arises in part from a misunderstanding of the role of the Diplomatic Service. "The diplomat must be able to keep HMG informed of developments which may affect their foreign policy, submitting his observations and advice, which may or may not be accepted. While a diplomat may therefore be able to influence foreign policy by his reports, he does not finally determine it. That is the task of the Cabinet".10 The inwardness of this proposition at the time was that the Foreign Office was widely, and to a great extent unjustly, held to be the principal source of the policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany, which was popular enough at the outset, but was denounced violently as its failure became apparent. Neither for the first time, nor for the last time, the Foreign Office was taking the blame for a distasteful government policy which it was doing its best loyally to discharge.

The Foreign Office (1955): locus classicus

While the 1943 White Paper observes the constitutional niceties in setting out the distribution of labour in the shaping of foreign policy between the Cabinet and diplomats abroad, it does not deal with the input of the officials working in the Foreign Office, without which coverage of the diplomat's advisory role could scarcely be said to be complete.

As explained earlier, the act of submitting papers for the attention of the Secretary of State, even on a minimalist interpretation of the duties of the staff of the Foreign Office, contains an element of the advisory. Substantive comment on the papers submitted obviously enhances that element. It is no less clear that whether the recommendations of diplomats serving abroad are accepted or not may turn largely on the comment offered by officials in the Foreign Office. The latter naturally draw on a wider range of relevant considerations and factors than those to which a diplomat in a post abroad could normally be expected to have access. Foreign Office comment would also be based on a closer awareness of the situation, both domestic and international, in which the Secretary of State finds himself. It is obviously counterproductive to urge upon him lines of action which, however advantageous in terms of foreign policy objectives, are politically impossible for him to pursue.

Indeed the advisory boot is on the other foot, in the sense that policy recommendations may come more readily and acceptably from those responsible for offering comment in the Foreign Office than from those abroad, because of the greater familiarity of the former with the picture as a whole. Especially is this the case if the policy recommended is autonomous or "active", rather than reactive to developments elsewhere.

All this emerged with crystal clarity in The Foreign Office (1955) by Lord Strang and "other members of the Foreign Service", a volume in the New Whitehall Series, prepared under the auspices of the Royal Institute of Public Administration, as the successor to the earlier Whitehall Series which included The Foreign Office (1933). Written both from the inside and from the top, this invaluable work is not only a mine of information and insight; it is also an object lesson in the how to explain clearly, cogently and with a vein of restrained humour, altogether typical of Strang himself, matters which are both arcane and complex. To add to its great service, it reproduces in full the text of the 1943 White Paper. It is prudently dedicated "to Sir Anthony Eden who launched the reforms of 1943 and to the late Ernest Bevin who put them to effect".11

Strang, assuredly one of the most scholarly occupants of the Permanent Under-Secretary's chair, emphasises at the outset that "it is much easier to describe what the Foreign Office is than to state what it does". He was at pains to explain why the Foreign Service had grown so greatly in recent years. It is highly instructive to compare the respective organograms in 1933 and 1955. In the case of the former, there were 14 Departments, and the Secretary of State was assisted by one Ministerial colleague. In 1955 there were 40 Departments, and the Secretary of State had four Ministerial colleagues. An Appendix on the Departmental Allocation of Work in the 1955 volume briefly describes the functions of each of the forty Departments. In 28 cases the description begins with the words "advise the Secretary of State on …" As Strang put it in a later work, "essentially [members of the Foreign Service] help their Foreign Secretary to reach his decisions and then help him to carry them out".12


The "Proposals for the Reform of the Foreign Service" contained in the 1943 White Paper were both radical and imaginative. They were also of necessity outlined only briefly in the White Paper itself. They carried with them the specific warning that the cost of their implementation would be substantial. It was natural therefore that putting them into effect would encounter a number of problems. The latter fell into two broad categories. In the first was improvement of the conditions of service of the members of the Foreign Service, including recruitment, training, career management and development and the provision for early retirement, where this was deemed to be in the public interest. Dispositions in this regard had not proved to be wholly commensurate with the objective of creating a service drawn from a wider background and fully open to those without private financial resources.

In the second category was the nature of the task which members of the Foreign Service were expected to fulfil. It proved in the event to be greatly different from that envisaged in 1943, both as regards the prevailing international circumstances and by virtue of our chronic post-war relative economic weakness. Beyond these two categories there loomed the vexed questions of interdepartmental division of labour in Whitehall and the machinery of government for the management of international affairs. There was a growing question mark over the realism of the 1943 assumption that the Foreign Service should be trained and equipped so as to be able to implement government policies generally, even where these might be largely in the bailiwick of other Departments.

A particular point of criticism, not least in the Commonwealth, was the existence of an increasingly anomalous separate Commonwealth Relations Office, the uneasy post-war amalgam of the former Dominions Office and India Office.

The Foreign Office case for a review was eventually accepted, but with 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 terms of reference were "to review the purpose, structure and operation of the services responsible for representing the interests of the UK government overseas, both in Commonwealth and foreign countries, and to make recommendations, having regard to changes in political social and economic circumstances in this country and overseas". The Treasury insisted on the appointment of one of their officials as a joint Secretary of the Committee.

The Committee's Report was presented to Parliament in February, 1964.13 It is a superb analytical and prescriptive achievement. Its simultaneous mastery of the big picture and of operational and administrative detail gives it an authority that attaches to no other document on the subject. It at once endorsed the case for review: "the world in which the overseas Services now have to operate is no longer the world of 1943 or even a world which could be foreseen in 1943….We therefore begin our report with an attempt to assess the consequences for our overseas services of the changes in the national and international scene which have occurred in the last 20 years or so and those further changes which can reasonably be expected".

The Committee drew three main conclusions from this survey. First, while there had been a clear decline in Britain's relative military and economic strength, "it was in our interest and in the general interest that Britain's voice should continue to be heard". For this to be achieved "we shall require to make the best possible use of 'diplomacy' and 'persuasion'. What we can no longer ensure by power alone, we must secure by other means". Secondly, in this task "our 'diplomatic' Services have an indispensable part to play. The strength and quality of their performance must be fully maintained". The present scale of their activities, however, "ought not, in the aggregate, to be greatly exceeded". Thirdly, "while economic and political motives intertwine throughout our foreign policy and have always done so, economic and commercial work has now assumed a position of fundamental importance. It must be regarded as a first charge on the resources of the overseas services".14

The Committee described the main tasks on which the overseas Services were engaged as:

(a)  advising HMG on every aspect of foreign policy;

(b)  negotiation;

(c)  cultivation of friendly relations;

(d)  trade promotion;

(e)  information—explaining and getting acceptance of British policies;

(f)  protection of British persons and interests, and

(g)  aid and technical assistance.

This list broke new ground as regards the public explanation of the work of the overseas services. It was a convincing demonstration of the way in which conditions had changed since 1943. It underlined Strang's observation that it is easier to describe what we are than to state what we do. Most significant of all, perhaps, it put "advising HMG" at the top of the list of functions. That is a far cry indeed from nineteenth century diplomacy.

In pursuit of this profound analysis of the tasks, the Committee made a large number of detailed recommendations for improvement both in the conditions of service of members of the overseas services and in their management. In the general administrative field, the Committee's principal proposal was that a unified Service should be created out of the hitherto separate Foreign Service, Commonwealth Service and Trade Commission Service, to be known as "HM Diplomatic Service". The Committee stopped short of recommending the immediate amalgamation of the Foreign Office and Commonwealth Relations Office, but suggested instead that the two Departments should be administered jointly by a Diplomatic Service Administration Office.

Apogee or Counsel of Perfection?

The Plowden Report represents the apogee of review of the "purpose, structure and operation" of British diplomacy. Forty years on, does it retain its practical validity, or should it be thought of as a counsel of perfection? The diplomatic answer to the question is "both". On the one hand, the Committee were undoubtedly right in basing their Report on the assumption that we wish as a people to continue to be actively involved internationally. A substantial diplomatic apparatus is essential to such involvement. The Report does a job second to none in elaborating that requirement. On the other hand, the fundamental change in international conditions described in the first section of this memorandum would seem to demand a greater flexibility in assessing both what we should be seeking to do and the means by which we should aim to get things done - including by non-official or non-governmental means.15

In the nature of politics, this is not a matter likely to be settled solely on its objective merits. Events are apt to take control. The Plowden Report appeared in the closing days of a long period of Conservative Government. Its aftermath coincided with a growing awareness of the unpleasant realities of continuing British economic weakness, as well as de Gaulle's imperious veto of our first, already belated, bid to join the European Economic Community. The issue thus was not so much the failure of the Diplomatic Service to adapt to meet its tasks, about which Wellesley had agonised twenty years previously, and which had prompted the 1943 Reforms. Rather there was an uneasy feeling that the apparatus was altogether too big and ambitious for a country whose political and economic influence had declined. The reaction to the Plowden Report was not long in coming.


In a speech at West Point on December 5, 1962, Dean Acheson, a former US Secretary of State, delivered what is probably the best-known verdict on British foreign policy since the end of the Second World War: "Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role".16 This waspish observation was ill-received at the time, not least because it was uncomfortably near the truth. There seemed to be no let up in our post-war adversities. The in-coming Labour Government in 1964 was beset with problems from the outset. A further devaluation of sterling seemed inevitable, and eventually occurred in November, 1967. The UK launched its second bid to join the EEC in the autumn of that year. It was similarly rebuffed by de Gaulle. In January, 1968, the Government announced its military withdrawal from East of Suez.

The Duncan Committee

Such was the background to the appointment in August, 1968, by the Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, "with the agreement of the Prime Minister (Harold Wilson), and other Ministers concerned", of a further committee of enquiry under the chairmanship of Sir Val Duncan, a leading industrialist. It was entitled "The Review Committee on Overseas Representation", the difference in terminology, as compared to the Plowden Committee, betokening an emphasis on the situation at home as well as abroad.

The terms of reference were at once more elaborate and more urgent than those of the Plowden Committee. The avowed purpose was to save money. It is also relevant that a few months earlier the Report of the Fulton Committee on the Home Civil Service had been published.17 This contained some very sharp criticisms, particularly in relation to alleged failure to adapt sufficiently to the requirements of the twentieth century and to excessive allegiance to the "philosophy of the amateur (or 'generalist' or 'all rounder')". While not directed at the Diplomatic Service, which was outside the Committee's terms of reference, these strictures were nonetheless held to apply in some measure to it.

Wide though they were, the Duncan Committee interpreted their terms of reference even more widely, to include all activities financed out of public funds which were concerned with the conduct of British external relations, including the British Council and the External Services of the BBC. The Duncan Committee classified the main types of work "involved in overseas representation" as:

(a)  the handling of intergovernmental relations;

(b)  advice on foreign policy;

(c)  advising and helping British subjects, overseas or in an overseas context;

(d)  reporting;

(e)  influencing overseas opinion;

(f)  processing potential travellers to Britain, and

(g)  self-administration.

The Report of the Committee was published in July, 1969.18 Its focus was the relative decline in Britain's position. While much of it covers detailed ground already well trodden by the Plowden Committee, what the Report had to say on the big picture was nothing if not novel. We were now "a major power of the second rank".

It accordingly suggested 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. The Soviet Union, China, Japan, India and all the major developing countries, to speak nothing of the world's neuralgic trouble spots, were thus relegated to relative darkness. 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 CPRS Review

On receipt of the Duncan Report, the Labour Government indicated that it expected to be guided by the main body of its recommendations. In the event the aftermath of the Report was dominated by sustained, intense and ultimately successful British diplomatic efforts to join the European Economic Community. The momentum of these efforts was increased with the return of a Conservative Government in 1970. Enlargement of the EEC formally took effect on January 1, 1973. The European dimension, combined with the Labour's return to power in 1974, and renewed economic difficulties (the UK borrowed heavily from the IMF in 1976), prompted a further inquiry into overseas representation.

In January, 1976, James Callaghan, then Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary asked Sir Kenneth Berrill, the Head of the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS), to undertake a review with the following terms of reference:

"to review the nature and extent of our overseas interests and requirements and in the light of that review to make recommendations on the most suitable, effective and economic means of representing and promoting those interests both at home and overseas. The review will embrace all aspects of the work of overseas representation, including political, economic, commercial, consular and immigration work, defence matters, overseas aid and cultural and information activities, whether these tasks are performed by members of HM Diplomatic Service, by members of the Home Civil Service, by members of the Armed Forces or by other agencies supported financially by HMG".

The mandate of the "Think Tank" was thus wider even than that of the Duncan Committee. The CPRS pursued it with exemplary thoroughness, as is illustrated by their massive Report, published in August, 1977.19 Although the pressure to save money was primarily short term, their perspective was long term. They were acutely conscious of the way in which British economic performance had fallen behind that of broadly comparable European countries. They considered how far the experience of those countries could be taken as a guide. They took note of the scope for improvement in our fortunes once North Sea oil started to come on stream.

The CPRS identified four main objectives for the UK overseas: to ensure its external security; to promote economic and social wellbeing; to honour certain commitments and obligations (eg to the dependent territories or to individual citizens of its own or other countries); and to work for a peaceful and just world. Against this background, they identified and analysed in turn 14 "separate functions which together make up overseas representation":

  • economic, social and environmental work;
  • export services;
  • foreign policy work (UK involvement in international political concerns and activities)
  • defence work;
  • consular services;
  • control of entry into the UK;
  • administration of overseas aid;
  • educational and cultural work;
  • external broadcasting;
  • information work;
  • political work (ie bilateral political relations and analysis);
  • communications;
  • entertainment, and
  • accommodation and other administration overseas.

All these functions were, in the view of the CPRS, valid objects of public expenditure. Yet in most of them the CPRS thought that less work should be done, or that it should be done more selectively. The reasons for this judgment were various: the effectiveness of the function was overestimated; insufficient account was taken of the changed position of the UK in the world; or the functions could be left to others, eg the private sector. In many cases work was "being done to an unjustifiably high standard". In others it could be done by staff at home rather than resident overseas.

The CPRS reserved their most radical recommendations for matters of organisation and staffing. There should be a general downgrading of jobs in the Diplomatic Service, "which in our view tends to err on the side of perfectionism". They noted that a total of 30 posts had been closed since the publication of the Duncan Report. They thought that a further 20 diplomatic posts and at least 35 subordinate posts should follow. They put forward as options (i) there should much more interchange between the Home Civil Service and the Diplomatic Service; (ii) a specialist export promotion service and a specialist aid administration should be created within the former; (iii) there should be a merger of the Home Civil Service and the Diplomatic Service and the creation within the combined service of a Foreign Service Group to handle the bulk of the fourteen functions identified.

The CPRS went on to canvass the abolition of the British Council, with a redistribution of its business between the Ministry of Overseas Development and the Department of Education and Science. As regards the BBC, the main objective of external broadcasting was "to provide an unbiased service of world news and information. Conveying information about Britain and its culture should have a lower priority as an objective". Hence the time had come for a radical look at present broadcasting patterns. The provision of a universal service, covering areas well supplied with their own unbiased sources of news and information, was unnecessary.


Rereading these three Reports inspires a number of reactions: admiration and gratitude for the hard work and the expertise, not only of those conducting the inquiries, but also of the numerous and wide-ranging authorities whom the Plowden and Duncan Committees and the CPRS consulted during the course of their respective labours; consciousness of the extent of the common ground between the three Reports; a healthy respect for the conciseness of the texts and for the consequent difficulty of summarising them, rather than quoting them in extenso; and a certain sympathy for the Duncan Committee and the CPRS for the pressures on them caused by their "loaded" term of reference, namely to save money, rather than to look primarily at the merits of the case.

The differences between the three reports are perhaps less those of analysis than of stance. At the end of the day the scale of national diplomatic effort is a matter not of what you can afford to do so much as of what you cannot afford not to do. The overwhelming impression is that events, shaped by the vectors described at the outset of this memorandum, have robbed the distinction between the advisory and the executive functions in diplomacy of any real practical, as opposed to analytical, significance. The two are inextricably interwoven, as are substance and process, in the business of a diplomatic service in an interdependent world.20

The dangers of concentrating on "how to do it" rather than "what to do"

The growth in complexity and volume of that business is likewise depriving of any practical value the proposition that foreign affairs is about what to do and diplomacy is how to do it. Adherence to the proposition could constitute a growing threat to diplomatic competence. It can encourage the fatal assumption that the nature of the duties of the Diplomatic Service obviates the need to acquire mastery of the substance of the business to be discharged, as distinct from a grasp of the executive techniques involved in the conduct of business.21


Had they not launched great salvoes at the British Council and the BBC, the Think Tank might have achieved greater success in securing the adoption not only of their specific recommendations, but also of the general tenor of their Report. But the sum total of their prescriptions went beyond what the market would bear. In August, 1978, in the closing months of his administration, James Callaghan, by now Prime Minister, and the Foreign Secretary, Dr David (now Lord) Owen, presented to Parliament a White Paper The United Kingdom's Overseas Representation.22

While it was primarily a riposte to the more radical Think Tank recommendations, the White Paper also addressed a number of reports from various House of Commons Committees. Many of the less controversial CPRS proposals were accepted or noted as already representing current practice. The general survey at the outset showed how much common ground existed on assessment of the United Kingdom's international position and interests, and on the role of the Diplomatic Service. The White Paper concluded (in paragraph 68) with the oft-quoted statement that "responsibility for the overall conduct of overseas relations in the broadest sense of the term will continue to be vested in a single Cabinet Minister, namely the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs".

Analytical Aspects of the 1978 White Paper

At the time the White Paper was regarded as game, set and match to the FCO, a fair observation in the political or interdepartmental circumstances then prevailing. But the victory was also perceived as pyrrhic. There was considerable feeling among younger members of the Diplomatic Service that there had been insufficient dispassionate examination of the thornier issues raised by the Think Tank.

On an analytical plane, the White Paper contained weaknesses which proved to be the source of considerable subsequent difficulties. These may be seen specifically to originate in two phrases: first, the reiteration in paragraph 8 of the White Paper of the familiar and misleading proposition that "foreign policy is about what has to be done; diplomacy is about how to do it"; and secondly, the virtually unknown concluding words of the formulation, already referred to, on responsibility for the conduct of foreign relations resting with the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, namely "so that the right level of political co-operation and input is maintained"(my italics).23

As regards the first phrase, it is a matter of surprise, after all the detailed discussion of the functions of the Diplomatic Service in the three Reports described above, to find in the Government's response a reiteration of a proposition so obviously out of line with current realities. Even when full allowance is made for observing the constitutional proprieties of the division of responsibilities between Ministers and officials, it makes little sense to suggest that foreign policy is one thing and diplomacy another. The two are inextricably mixed, as are the advisory and executive functions, a point which Strang emphasised in his description of the work of the Diplomatic Service quoted above.

Diplomacy is about what to do, as well as how to do it

Diplomacy is about what to do, and about the reasons for doing it, as well as about how to do it. If it were the latter only, if it were an executive and not an advisory business, what would be the rationale for insisting that "responsibility for the conduct of overseas relations in the broadest sense" must rest with a single Minister? Would that responsibility not have to be defined as something separate from diplomacy? Only if what to do, as well as how to do it, is an integral part of the equation, does the White Paper's contention hold good.

"Maintaining the right Level of political Co-operation and Input"

The contention is in any case directly contradicted by the second phrase, as found in paragraph 68 of the White Paper. It is noteworthy that the phrase ends with the word "input", rather than "output". This implies participation in the conduct of foreign policy at an earlier stage than implementation. It is an advisory rather than an executive concept. This anomaly apart, it is the phrase as a whole which needs deconstruction.

The concept of maintaining "the right level of political co-operation and input" is a ripe source of confusion: (i) can the "right" level of any component of our international involvement be determined by a single minister? Is it not at the end of the day a collective matter, in which the Prime Minister must have a decisive say? (ii) using the adjective "political" in this context encourages the outdated assumption that the external business of other departments is somehow "non-political", over which "political" considerations, of which the FCO is custodian, should have priority. The complexities of worldwide interdependence require a more sophisticated approach to interdepartmental co-ordination: (iii) what does the term "co-operation" mean in this context? Does it apply internally, ie within the national administration, to interdepartmental relations and co-ordination, or externally, ie to our relations with other countries bilaterally or multilaterally, not least as regards our contractual obligations to them? Or to both?

The "Foreignness" and "Affairishness" of Foreign Affairs

If the FCO is to have the sort of role envisaged in the 1978 White Paper, it cannot be by virtue of the application of a simple international "political" corrective to the "non-political" desiderata of other departments. It must be grounded in greater analytical rigour.

Foreign affairs by definition have two characteristics: on the one hand they are affairs, matters of substance and often highly complex, and will as such often lie within the sphere of responsibility of government entities other than the FCO; on the other, they are foreign, and thus have a dimension which differentiates them from internal affairs, and links them with other international concerns. In consequence they require different handling. Those who are responsible for content or "affairishness" may not be familiar with the foreign milieu in which the issues need to be pursued. Responsibility for their "foreignness" can best lie where there is greater familiar with the milieu, ie with the Diplomatic Service.

The two characteristics, between which, in the nature of things, there can be no clear-cut dividing line, need to be studied in relation to one another and kept synoptically in view from the earliest stage in the policy-making process and continuously thereafter. In today's conditions, where almost anything can affect almost everything, it is clear that the task of harmonisation is one of considerable complexity. It is not so much a matter of interdepartmental co-ordination as of interdepartmental dialogue, or even of interdepartmental dialectic.

What the 1978 White Paper demands of the Diplomatic Service

The role envisaged for the FCO in the 1978 White Paper is a further illustration of Strang's observation that it is easier to describe what we are than to state what we do. It is clear that fulfilling the role adequately demands of the Diplomatic Service collectively the capacity both to accumulate a vast assembly of information, analysis and experience and reflection, and to be able to deploy that accumulation usefully and quickly when circumstances require. The deployment, moreover, has to be a la carte rather than table d' hote: There is no set of rules to be applied regardless of circumstances.

Relations with the Cabinet Office, the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office each have a particular complexity, be it for reasons of general co-ordination, development co-operation, national security and human rights—those both of UK nationals and of foreign nationals—respectively. No interdepartmental relations are more important than those with the Treasury, with their central and vital responsibility in matters of financial and economic policy. They are moreover the paymasters of the Diplomatic Service.

The demanding role envisaged for the Diplomatic Service also requires that the FCO itself is beyond reproach as regards both the comprehensiveness and the objectivity of its own perceptions. In general the record is regarded, with good reason, as satisfactory on this score. But there are three curious faults at differing points the scale of priority of national interest.

FCO Vulnerabilities:

(a)  The Commonwealth Lacuna

The first of these is chronic neglect of the Commonwealth as a factor in our international involvement as a whole. During its relatively short existence, the Commonwealth Relations Office was widely regarded as the cause of excessive preoccupation, amid all our other problems, with Commonwealth issues at the expense of the priorities of building our post-imperial future It was inevitable, therefore, that the absorption in 1968 of the Commonwealth Office (itself a 1966 amalgam of the CRO with the Colonial Office) within the Foreign Office would result in a lessening of official attention directed to Commonwealth matters.

Concern to dispel misgivings on this score underlay the publication on October 17, 1968, of The Merger of the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office, 1968.24 Describing itself as a "Background Paper", this relatively brief, but highly informative and thoughtful, note combines a rationale for the merger, on the basis of the history of the previously separate Departments, with details of how to ensure that "there should be no detraction from Britain's partnership with her fellow members of the Commonwealth and her capacity to contribute to that partnership".

It is difficult to reconcile the good intentions expressed in the Background Paper with the course of events in the ensuing 40 years. The Commonwealth has tended to slip below the FCO radar screen. Expertise in Commonwealth affairs has all but vanished. Interest in them has dwindled. The priority of securing membership of the EEC, pervasive UK economic difficulties, and sharp intra-Commonwealth disagreements over the situation in Southern Africa all played their part. So did Ministerial disenchantment. But such 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 generally and, in the UK case, a distinctive national asset, complementing, rather than competing with, other features of our international involvement. It is an under-performing asset. The present government have expressed their intention to "put the 'C' back into FCO".

(b)  "The Third World Coalition"

One of the most prominent characteristics of the post war world has been the enormous expansion of the international community, consequent upon the achievement of independence by a number of previously dependent countries Membership of the United Nations effectively quadrupled between 1945 and the end of the century. It was entirely natural that these new members should find common cause and joint organisation in their loyalty to the imperatives of decolonisation and development.

The first of a number of overlapping manifestations of this "Third World Coalition", as it has been aptly described,25 was the Non-aligned Movement, in which Jawaharlal Nehru played a leading part. As its name implied, its principal concern was to avoid involvement in the Cold War. UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) was primarily concerned with rectifying the perceived inequities in the conditions of participation in world trade.26 This was followed by the quest in the UN General Assembly for a New International Economic Order, in the wake of the oil and convertibility crises of the early 1970s, with a combined economic and political agenda.27

For reasons which still seem hard to fathom, the FCO appeared ill at ease with 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 regarded as "economic" or "social". This was reinforced by a feeling that responsibility for the substance of such "economic" or "social" issues, however political the context in which they were raised, lay with other departments, mainly the Treasury, the Board of Trade or the particular organ of government, whether independent or not, in charge of overseas development.

The crunch came in 1980 when the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons asked for the government's views on the recently published Brandt Commission Report.28 The Commission and its Report were an imaginative effort to find common ground in a dialogue between the developed and the developing countries which seemed to become increasingly unfruitful. It was a challenge to conventional thinking in the developed countries, and to the capacity harmoniously and beneficially to accommodate burgeoning interdependence. It was also a challenge which the FCO proved incapable of meeting satisfactorily. The FCO memorandum of July, 1980, published in reply to the Foreign Affairs Committee's request, was devastatingly criticised in all sections of the British press. The Sunday Times, not generally known for a bleeding heart, described the memorandum as "one if the shoddiest documents ever produced by a British Government".29

The episode could scarcely qualify as a validation of the FCO's claim to ensure that "the right level of political co-ordination and input is maintained". It had lasting effects on the interdepartmental handling of development matters. As the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recently noted, "among the 30 Member States of the OECD only one other—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".30 The ever-widening concept of "development" in twenty-first century interdependence, and a similar growth in the notion of "security", to the point where the two in practice tend to overlap, strengthen the case for a re-examination of the current interdepartmental distribution of responsibilities.

(c)  An EU Fixation?

At the top end of the UK scale of international priorities, the FCO has long manifested what could be regarded as an institutional bias in favour of involvement in the European Union. There can be no doubt as to the importance of securing entry into the EEC, notwithstanding the high price which was 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, we were seemingly still inhibited from fighting our corner as fully as the defence and promotion of our national interest required. The emphasis instead was on "being at the heart of Europe" and on "full membership of the club". There also seemed to be some failure to grasp and exploit both the great improvement in our relative economic situation, and the revival of national self-confidence, which began with Mrs Thatcher's tenure of the Prime Ministership from 1979.

It was the persistent general advice of the officials responsible for EU policy that Ministers should go along with what was proposed, rather than "adopting the posture of an ostrich, and hoping we will not have to make difficult choices", with the result that "we end up with having to make the said choices but in less favourable conditions".31 Hence the firm public advocacy by retired members of the Diplomatic Service, and others, successively of the Euro, the Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty.32

Although it obviously went against the national grain, an argument could be advanced for submitting the Constitutional Treaty for approval of the electorate by means of a referendum. There was however no such justification for pressing the Lisbon Treaty on the voters without a referendum, on the pretence that it was materially different from its rejected predecessor.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Nowhere does the writ of the Law of Unintended Consequences run more freely than in the field of foreign affairs. The Lisbon Treaty, by virtue both of its flawed content and of the unworthy means to which EU member governments resorted in order to secure its adoption, has proved exquisitely counterproductive. Disillusion has been widespread, not only with the outcome of the Treaty itself, but also with the process of EU treaty-making as a whole, and hence with the "community method" of doing business which is at its heart. As a result, the chosen pathway to political union, far from being kept open by the Treaty, has been effectively blocked. The tide of centralisation is receding. Never have the Union's institutions been more remote from the voters. A yawning democratic gap has opened up. Closing it is essential to the meaningful development of the European Union.

At the executive level, the Lisbon Treaty has similarly failed to yield the advantages claimed for it. The post of President of the European Council has been variously represented as that of an internal fixer and that of a high profile international figure able to stop the traffic in major world capitals, a "President of Europe", in fact, rather than a President of the European Council. To date the principal outcome has been wholly predictable rivalry with the responsibilities of the President of the Commission. The new combined post of High Representative for foreign affairs has likewise got off to a slow start, and is harassed by a similar variety of expectations.

The Commission, following on the understanding reached by the European Council with the Irish Government to enable the latter to secure a positive result in a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, is now to be composed indefinitely of one Commissioner per member state. It has thus become a mini-assembly instead of the compact executive which the authors of the original Treaty of Rome intended.33 The raison d'etre of the Commission, as a body vested with much greater powers than those of a standard secretariat of an intergovernmental organisation, has been called seriously in question. The element of turf war, actual and potential, between the Union's institutions has been increased by the enhanced powers conferred by the Treaty on the European Parliament.

The European Union is not a zero-sum game, either among the institutions themselves or as between the institutions and the governments and peoples of the member states. When the EU underperforms, we are all the losers. The remedy does not lie in further institution-mongering, but in reducing the delivery deficit by concentrating on the substantive tasks - on which there is a wide measure of agreement—and in reconnecting with the disillusioned electorates.


To pause for a moment in recapitulation, study of the evolution of diplomacy in the last hundred years has manifested a transition from the quasi-technical proposition that foreign policy is about what to do and diplomacy is about how to do it, to the realisation that diplomacy is irrevocably about what to do as well as about how to do it. The advisory and the executive functions coalesce. That coalescence reaches inevitably into the very wide-ranging question of the rationale of our international involvement as a whole, governmental and non-governmental, official and non-official. This in turn puts in a new and more complicated context the question of what is demanded of the British Diplomatic Service collectively and organisationally, and what is required in consequence as regards the acquisition of the necessary skills and experience of its members individually.

What faces the Diplomatic Service today is largely the product of the forces - or vectors - described in the first section of this memorandum: the enormous increase in the volume, complexity and intensity of diplomatic business; the perception of a common interest among nations rather than an assumption of inevitable rivalry, with the possibilities for co-operation opened up thereby; the advent centre-stage of values along side interests as the stuff of diplomatic business; a great rise in the number of diplomatic "actors", both state and non-state; sustained and interactive public involvement; and the vanishing distinction between external and internal affairs.

The End of the Cold War and Nine Eleven

Certain major international events have played their part. Chief among them has been the end of the Cold War, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Highly beneficial though this development has been, it has brought problems as well as opportunities world wide in its wake, and especially in the Balkans and on the periphery of the former Soviet empire. The Cold War, it was said, gave place to a Hot Peace.

The events of September 11, 2001, signalled the advent of a new phase of international interdependence, in which international terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction emerged as potentially the greatest threat to national security. Those events also underlined the urgency of a wide range of economic, social, environmental and human issues which were already on the international agenda, and had been brought authoritatively together in the Declarations issued by the world's leaders meeting as the United Nations General Assembly on the occasion of the UN's 50th birthday in 1995, and for the Millennium in 2000.34

A Deus ex Machina

The change of mindset required in the Diplomatic Service in order to manage this extraordinary transition is as great as that which inspired the seminal Foreign Office reforms 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,35 presented to Parliament in December, 2003, by the then Foreign Secretary, Mr Jack Straw.

"For the first time", Mr Straw explained, "the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is publishing a comprehensive Strategy describing the UK's international priorities over the next 10 years and the FCO's role in achieving them". In successive chapters the White Paper examines the role of the FCO; looks at the world in the next 10 years, analysing trends which will affect the UK; considers the UK's future role in the international system and our key relationships; draws on this analysis to see new UK strategic international policy priorities for the next decade; describes in more detail how the FCO will pursue these in the short term; and the countries and regions on which they will focus; and does the same for the FCO's service delivery priorities.

The White Paper sets out eight strategic international priorities over the next five to 10 years:

  • a world safer from global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction;
  • protection of the UK from illegal immigration, drug trafficking and other international crime;
  • an international system based on the rule of law, which is better able to resolve disputes and prevent conflicts;
  • an effective EU in a secure neighbourhood;
  • promotion of UK economic interests in an open and expanding global economy;
  • sustainable development, underpinned by democracy, good government and human rights;
  • security of UK and global energy supplies, and
  • security and good governance of the UK's Overseas Territories.

These formulations are an object lesson in clarity, succinctness and comprehensiveness. They immediately inspire confidence. They reflect both the changes which the twenty-first century has already witnessed, and a readiness to take account of further changes which may occur in the future. As the Permanent Under-Secretary at the time, Sir Michael Jay, put it at a gathering in the FCO to launch the White Paper, "we now have for the first time a coherent framework for adapting and modernising the Foreign Office to meet the challenges of the 21st century".36 It could be said to be the apotheosis of the advisory function.

Subsequent Developments

Mr Straw said he would welcome Parliamentary and public debate on the White Paper. The FCO would review it every two years, inviting external contributions. In the event there was no Parliamentary debate to speak of, and little academic or media comment. This was disappointing, but not perhaps surprising. The White Paper incorporated new ways of thinking not readily assimilable by those of a more conventional mindset.37

A second version was published in March, 2006,38 under the title Active Diplomacy for a Changing WorldThe UK's International Priorities. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons announced that it intended to ensure that this revised version was considered as part of its work as a whole.39

The 2006 White Paper contained a Foreword by the Prime Minister (Mr Tony Blair) thereby emphasising its interdepartmental character. Its approach and methodology, naturally, were broadly the same as those of its 2003 predecessor. The number of priorities rose from eight to nine, by virtue of the promotion of managing migration and combating illegal immigration to independent status. Mr Straw's successor, Mrs Margaret Beckett, raised the number to 10 by the similar elevation of climate change.

A new Strategic Framework, January, 2008

Her successor, Mr David Miliband, thought that 10 priorities was too many. He reported to the House of Commons on 23 January 2008, the creation of a new Strategic Framework, to replace the 10 priorities, concentrating on four policy goals: to counter terrorism, weapons proliferation and their causes; to present and resolve conflict; to promote a low carbon, high growth, global economy; and to deliver effective international institutions, above all the UN and the EU.

The Foreign Affairs Committee commented on the brevity of the Strategic Framework.40 There were grounds for concern in a number of respects. First, although 10 priorities may be too many to receive sustained personal at10tion from the Foreign Secretary himself or herself, it is certainly not too many for a compe10t FCO ministerial team, provided that they are allowed to remain in their respective jobs for the requisite amount of time. Secondly, the four policy goals, when compared with the priorities originally listed by Mr Straw, can be seen to leave out a number of issues of vital national concern, to which priority FCO at10tion is essential. Thirdly, the Framework seems to imply a relatively greater emphasis on the executive function of the Diplomatic Service, as compared with its advisory function, in marked contrast to the 2003 and 2006 White Papers, with the possible loss in consequence of FCO departmental clout.41

Apotheosis of the Advisory Function: is there a Downside?

In the perspective of the evolution of the advisory function of the Diplomatic Service, the 2003 White Paper, as already suggested, can surely be regarded as the apotheosis. Is this an undiluted benefit? Or do subsequent developments imply that there is a downside? The broad answer is that the greater precision with which one seeks to articulate the issues facing the country in its international dealings, and the more one attempts to define the priorities to be adopted, the greater the temptation to establish objectives and specific measures to achieve them. Up to a point this is no more than tax-payers are entitled to expect. But the process is quickly subject to the Law of Diminishing Returns. In a field as unpredictable as world affairs, foreign policy priorities are indicators or markers rather than targets. An essential element of the advisory function is stewardship of international realities and uncertainties of world as they impinge on the national concerns of whatever sort. This stewardship, like Talleyrand, cannot but counsel against the overzealous. Forethought is the handmaid of flexibility, not its gaoler.


Administration is said to be about keeping things going, while management is about making things go. The distinction between the two, less of10 drawn today than in the past, has some resonance among those who are conscious of the limits of the scope of management in a field as subject to the unexpected and the uncontrollable as the conduct of foreign policy. They see diplomacy as essentially an art rather than a science.

While it may have had a good deal of validity in the more static days of classical diplomacy, this approach is clearly inadequate in the dynamic international conditions described in the first section of this memorandum. The latter, combined with modern facilities in the field of data-processing, have made a more "positive" attitude both necessary and - within limits - feasible.

But what, more precisely, do we mean by "management" in the context of the work of the Diplomatic Service? The short answer is "a great deal", including all the ground covered in the Plowden, Duncan and CPRS Reports. The whole is magisterially summed up in the 2003 White Paper on UK International Priorities:

"To meet our strategic priorities, build our key relationships and provide high quality services, the FCO will need a flexible and targeted diplomatic network that gives the UK global influence. The Strategy explains how we in10d to achieve this at a time of growing demands and finite resources.

The Strategy also describes how we are adapting the organisation and working practices of the FCO to focus resources more clearly on high priority issues, to become more flexible and responsive, to make better use of diverse skills and experience, and to be better able to meet our customers' needs".42

The Picture as a Whole: the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee

There is no expectation that the FCO could or should be left to itself to pursue this comprehensive and absorbing programme on its own. In national managerial terms, the least that can be expected is scrutiny on the basis of strictly financial criteria by those responsible for authorising or monitoring public expenditure. Such scrutiny naturally leads to examination of the substance of the activities being financed, as well as to the allocation of resources to them, ie inputs.

In these days of near-ubiquitous "delivery deficit", there is a further natural progression from concern with inputs to the examination of the results achieved from the application of the resources allocated, ie outputs. It is a short step thereafter to holistic survey of the "structures, functions and priorities" of the Diplomatic Service.

It is the responsibility of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee "to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its associated agencies". The Committee discharges its responsibilities with admirable application, precision and breadth of perspective. Its work is a first class illustration of the merits of the Select Committee system.

Managerialism rather than Management?

Management consultancy is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its introduction into the sphere of public administration is prompted by, and has encouraged, the belief that managerial techniques developed in the private sector can be of more or less general applicability in the public sector as well. While there is clearly a measure of justification for this belief in the case of Departments and agencies concerned with the delivery of services at home, it is more open to doubt in the case of the FCO, where so much of what is at issue is non-specific and lies beyond UK national control.

Matters are made worse if there is a trend towards the introduction of public service-wide of practices, the relevance or usefulness of which differ from department to department. Yet this has been the recent experience. Mr Miliband's new Strategic Framework comprises three elements, from which emerge eight Departmental Strategic Objectives (DSOs) agreed with the Treasury. The FCO is now run by a Board, whose terms of reference are worded in managerial rather than substantive terms. It has spawned no less than six Sub-Committees, whose terms of reference are similarly cast. The whole would seem to smack of managerialism rather than of effective management. Managerialism is by definition excessive—or bad—management.

The Foreign Affairs Committee were forthright in their views on the matter. "We have consistently questioned whether it is appropriate to have a set of performance targets assessed in terms of detailed and sometimes quantified indicators." Their conclusion was that "at least as regards policy objectives, the current elaborate reporting system absorbs large amounts of FCO staff time that might be better spent on other matters, without necessarily generating significant new information".43


Thirty years later, the realities on the ground look rather different from the picture painted in the 1978 White Paper. In the book to accompany Getting Our Way, his recent television series on five hundred years of British Diplomacy, Sir Christopher Meyer, a former Ambassador to the United States, observes that the FCO, "according to numerous witnesses, has fallen again on hard times, surrendering swathes of responsibility for foreign policy to other players in the Whitehall community and continuing to live a crisis of confidence and identity". This was marked by the "activism abroad of the Prime Minister's office, and the autonomy and funding given to the DFID".44

In an article in the Financial Times on 14 January 2010. Lord Malloch Brown, who was a Minister of State at the FCO from 2007 to 2009, asserted that " the real crisis for the Foreign Office is whether it will be allowed to lead in its embassies and Whitehall, or will it be reduced to landlord and events organiser for other parts of government…… In Whitehall impatient Prime Ministers often elbow the Foreign Office aside to run foreign policy "whether from sofa or bunker".45

As part of the series by Michael Cockerell on the "Three Great Departments of State" (the other two being the Treasury and the Home Office), BBC television carried a programme on the FCO on February 18, 2010. In it Lord Hurd, a former member of the Diplomatic Service, as well as a former Foreign Secretary, echoing a speech which he made in the House of Lords on 26 February 2009,46 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 been known. In the same programme Professor Peter Hennessy reported the distress of his contacts in the SIS that they could no longer count on turning to the FCO Research Analysts to try out their ideas.

The Verdict of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee

These concerns were reflected in the wide-ranging report of the Foreign Affairs Committee Foreign and Commonwealth Annual Report 2008-2009, to which reference was made in the introduction to this Memorandum.47

The Committee's general diagnosis was that the FCO's traditional pre-eminence in foreign policy-making was seen as under challenge from three developments: new forms of global communication which make other departments and agencies less dependent on the FCO network; an increasing tendency, related to this development, for other parts of the Government to establish their own direct links with other states; and greater emphasis in the FCO on the provision of services to the public and the introduction, largely at the behest of the Treasury, of management practices which divert time and resources from traditional political reporting, analysis and policy-making.

The Committee concluded that:

(i)  with regard to funding arrangements and performance management, the Treasury has too often treated the FCO as "just another Department", when it is clear from international experience that foreign ministries are not like other departments;

(ii)  it is incongruous that the position of the only government department with a global reach is threatened with erosion at a time when globalisation is acknowledged as the key phenomenon of our times; and

(iii)  there continues to be a vital need for the FCO to have sufficient resources to enable it to carry out its traditional functions, of the interpretation of developments overseas and the formulation of policy.

The Committee's recommendation 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" follows naturally from these conclusions.48


It is too early to expect the adoption of any definitive position on all these issues by the Coalition Government, which came into power in May, 2010. But there are already a number of significant pointers to record. In speeches before the election, Mr William Hague, in his capacity as Conservative Shadow Foreign Secretary, made it clear that the FCO's leading position in the field of international affairs would be restored. Promise has become reality. We have seen the back of sofa or bunker diplomacy.

At the same time there is no suggestion that Mr Cameron will be less involved in international affairs than his predecessors. 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 the 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 similar formulation could be found to reflect the Prime Minister's position in the case of the FCO.

The Status of the FCO

The status of the FCO is not so much a matter of departmental prestige as of the personal relations between the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister and, perhaps one should add in present circumstances, the Deputy Prime Minister. Much also depends on the calibre of the Foreign Secretary's ministerial team. The Minister for Europe must be given adequate time in the job if he or she is to carry the necessary weight in EU deliberations, be it in Brussels or at home. Regrettably there was a revolving-door character about the post in the case of the previous administration.

One cannot imagine that the more pronounced features of managerialism we have witnessed in the previous administration will last long with the Coalition Government.

The Substance of British Foreign Policy

As regards the substance of British foreign policy, we can be guided in particular by the terms of the Coalition Agreement, amplified by a series, not yet complete, of speeches by Mr Hague "setting out how we will protect British security, prosperity and people, working with other countries to strengthen the rules-based system in support of our values".49

The objectives, as set out by the FCO are:

(i)  Safeguard Britain's national security by countering terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and working to reduce conflict.

(ii)  Build Britain's prosperity by increasing exports and investment, opening markets, ensuring access to resources, and promoting sustainable global growth.

(iii)  Support British citizens around the world through modern and efficient consular services.

As regards (i) and (ii), the promotion of the safety and the prosperity of the realm has long been a classic formulation of the essence of foreign policy. But it can mean very different things in differing world conditions. There is a chapeau to Mr Hague's formulation which places it firmly in the context of the twenty-first century: "our aim is to promote Britain's enlightened interest in a networked world. We will pursue an active and activist foreign policy, working with other countries and strengthening the rules-based international system in support of the following three objectives".

The wording of objective (iii) is of interest in the sense that it could be taken, for example to mean solicitude and assistance for those of our compatriots whose ebullience while on holiday abroad gets them into a pickle of some sort. A more weighty interpretation would reflect recognition of the contribution of British citizens living or travelling abroad to the achievement of objectives (i) and (ii). In an interdependent age, where there are so many non-governmental "actors" in the field of international affairs, and where internal and external concerns so extensively overlap, this contribution is substantial indeed.

Overall there is much in the stance of the Coalition Government which recalls the 2003 White Paper UK International Priorities. Diplomats are happiest when foreign policy is bipartisan or non-partisan. That implies acceptance across the domestic political spectrum of international realities. The ineluctable facts of the world in which we live impose limits on our freedom of manoeuvre. The difference between foreign secretaries, of whatever stripe, may well be more matters of style or presentation than of content, methodology or structures.

The enduring Requirement for a Cadre of Competent Diplomats

In the long run the interdepartmental distribution of labour will depend on the quality of the Diplomatic Service. Turf wars may be an ineradicable part of bureaucracies, each component of which has in any case a duty to fight its corner. But at the end of the day, doing the job properly matters more than who does it. The emphasis is on the word "service". As long as the members of the Diplomatic Service are masters of their business, they will not be left out in the cold. They are indispensable to the sound conduct of foreign policy.

Sir Leslie Fielding, a prominent former member of the Diplomatic Service, recalls the reception he was accorded on his first day in the Foreign Office. After conducting him through the necessary formalities for new entrants, the world-weary clerk responsible offered him the following reflection: "no matter how rigorous and searching and exigent we make the selection process for Branch A (the "administrative class") we still find that the percentage of idiots in the intake remains constant".50 One is tempted to apply, mutatis mutandis, this hard-bitten proposition to the role diplomats. No matter what arrangements the government may properly contrive, in response to changes in circumstances, to ensure the efficient conduct of foreign policy, there will always be a requirement for a cadre of diplomatic professionals to help deliver what the nation desires.


(1)  The recommendation that the "new Government should carry out a comprehensive policy-led review of the structures, functions and priorities of the FCO, MOD and DFID" comes from a body which, by virtue both of its constitutional responsibilities and of its outstanding work during the last Parliament, is better placed than any other external entity to reach such a conclusion.

(2)  Study of the evolution of the Diplomatic Service over the past one hundred years lends firm support to the recommendation. In particular, the report, published in 1964, of the Plowden Committee on Representational Services Overseas bears close re-examination.

(3)  In weighing the Foreign Affairs Committee recommendation, HMG will clearly have many factors to take into account, not least the acute financial and fiscal problems which the country now faces, and the imminent belt-tightening measures necessary to counter them.

(4)  The conjuncture in which such a review took place would be all-important. Coalition government has its advantages in this respect. The terms of any review should not be controversial. There would be little point in a review if it were established primarily to save money. We do not need a repetition of the Duncan and CPRS inquiries.

(5)  It is to be expected that the new Foreign Affairs Committee will direct their attention to these pressing issues. The recommendation of their predecessors may thus in effect be subsumed in a continuing dialogue between the Committee and HMG. But this would be unlikely of itself to ensure the securing of wide public understanding and support for the work of the Diplomatic Service which is an indispensable long term national requirement, and which could not but be an essential aim of any thorough-going review.

1 October 2010


1 HC 145, March, 2010

2 These issues have of course been extensively explored, both individually and in their numerous interrelationships, notably in a series of Symposia organised by the Diplomatic Academy of London, University of Westminster. See in particular Strategic Public Diplomacy—Shaping the Future of International Relations"- proceedings of the Symposium of 2008. (edited by Nabil Ayad and Daryl Copeland, University of Westminster, 2009) We have coined the term "Geodiplomatics" to denote the management of world wide interdependence.
A particularly lively account of the role of the modern diplomat is given in Daryl Copeland Guerilla Diplomacy (Lynne Rienner, 2009). On his reckoning, the diplomat is "part archivist, part analyst, part lobbyist and part street-smart policy entrepreneur".

3 Sir Ernest Satow (1843-1929) was a scholar and historian as well as one of the outstanding diplomats of his day. Thanks in large measure to his formidable linguistic powers, he became the foremost British expert on China, Japan and the Far East as a whole. His Guide to Diplomatic Practice first appeared in 1917. The fifth edition, edited by Sir Ivor Roberts, was published in 2009 (OUP). While the vast changes which have occurred since then are reflected in the various editions, the work inevitably, and justifiably, retains its original emphasis on the executive side of the business of diplomacy, as distinct from its advisory role.

4 See Zara Steiner: The Foreign Office and Foreign Policy, 1898-1914 (CUP,1969), p 82. An entertaining, as well as highly informative, account of these crucial formative years in Foreign Office history. The definitive account of the development of the Foreign Office during the nineteenth century is contained in Chapter VIII of Volume III of The Cambridge History of British Foreign Policy, 1783-1919 (CUP, 1923). The amalgamation of the Diplomatic Service with the Foreign Office is delightfully examined in Christine Larner's article of that title in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol 7, pp 107-126.

5 The Crowe memorandum was published in G P Gooch and Harold Temperley (eds) British Documents on the Origins of the War Vol 3, Appendix A, pp 397-420.

6 Tilley and Gaselee: The Foreign Office (Putnam, 1933). Sir John Tilley was chief Clerk from 1913 to 1918, and Stephen Gaselee was Librarian and Keeper of the Papers at the time of publication. It was Gaselee who invented the concept of the "inverted sieve". He regarded it as a "bad simile" but used it "because I could find no better" (p 265).

7 Sir Victor Wellesley: Diplomacy in Fetters (Hutchinson, 1944). Wellesley records that the book was practically complete when the Second World War broke out. This both delayed publication and necessitated a number of changes. At the same time it underlined the necessity of the reforms he was recommending.

8 Proposals for the Reform of the Foreign Service (Cmd 6420, January, 1943). The White Paper was the subject of lively discussion in both Houses of Parliament.

9 Cmd 6420, para 2

10 ibid, para 3

11 Lord Strang and other Members of the Foreign Service: The Foreign Office (Allen and Unwin, 1955).

12 Strang: The Diplomatic Career (Deutsch, 1962) p 14. In addition to his autobiography Home and Abroad (Deutsch, 1956), Strang wrote Britain in World Affairs" (Faber and Faber and Deutsch, 1961) a magisterial "Survey of the Fluctuations in British Power and Influence, Henry VIII to Elizabeth II".

13 Report of the Committee on Representational Services Overseas appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Plowden, Cmnd 2276, February, 1964.

14 Report of the Committee on Representational Services Overseas appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Plowden, para 10.

15 The Plowden Report affords detailed evidence, as early as the 1960s, both of the transformation of diplomatic circumstances under the growing pressure of the Vectors summarised in the first section of this memorandum, and of the responses required by an active diplomatic service.
Lord Beloff, at that time Gladstone Professor of Government and Administration at Oxford, described the Report as "an inside job". This does not deprive it of all validity. It is the wearer of the shoe who is best able to judge where it pinches. As the chief instigator of the Review, I stand ready to plead guilty as charged. After much preliminary discussion, the idea was first formally broached in a submission dated January 28, 1960, by the Permanent Under-Secretary to the Foreign Secretary.

16 Ray Seitz, the first career diplomat to be appointed US Ambassador to the Court of St James (1991-94) put the matter in elegant perspective: "in a statement equal in renown to Acheson's, Harold Macmillan observed that Britain would henceforth play Athens to America's Rome. Macmillan outdid Acheson in both condescension and insight".

17 The Civil Service Report of the Committee 1966-68, Chairman: Lord Fulton, Cmnd 3638, June 1968. A Times leader on June 27 summarised the message of the Report as "thumbs down for the amateur".

18 Report of the Review Committee on Overseas Representation, 1968-1969, Chairman: Sir Val Duncan, Cmnd 4107, July, 1969. In an article in International Affairs in April, 1970, "The Duncan Report and its Critics" (Vol 46, pp 247 et seq), Andrew Shonfield, Director of Studies at Chatham House and a prominent member of the Committee, admitted that the use of the term "Outer Area" was unfortunate. But he claimed that those who took exception to it on the grounds that they relegated India and other developing countries to reduced attention, tended to overlook the point that the Soviet Union and China were also in the category.
All in all, Shonfield thought that the Report had "disturbed a set of emotions". He commented ruefully that "if there is one thing worse than being a bringer of bad tidings, it is to be the drawer of unwelcome inferences from familiar propositions".

19 Review of Overseas Representation: Report by the Central Policy Review Staff. HMSO, 1977. The Report was not presented formally to Parliament, and has no Command number.

20 A number of analogies have been suggested for the policy-making process. For example it is likened to the four-stroke cycle of the internal combustion process: for "induction/compression/power/exhaust" substitute: "analysis/recommendation/implementation/assessment".

21 Underlying this assumption is what may be a characteristic of British thought structures in general: namely a tendency to believe that if, as it must be, the primary object of public administration is to get things done, then the acquisition of executive skills is something which can to a great extent be pursued independently of the subject matter. At all events the distinction between "what to do" and "how to do it" is clearly reluctant to leave the scene.

22 Cmnd 7308. The text, while admirably concise, deals somewhat blandly with the awesome difficulties, both economic and political, which we were then facing abroad and at home.

23 ibid, para 68

24 HMSO, 1980. Despite its origins, the paper was not presented formally to Parliament, and has no Command number.

25 See Robert A Mortimer: The Third World Coalition in International Politics (2nd edition, Westview, 1984)

26 The United Nation Conference on Trade and Development. Originally convened in 1964 as a one-off Conference, it became an organ of the General Assembly and begat substantial subordinate machinery.

27 The Declaration of a New International Economic Order was the outcome of the Sixth Special Session of the UN General Assembly in 1974, at the combined initiative of the non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77 developing countries. For a detailed discussion of these and related issues, see Marshall: The North-South Dialogue: Britain at Odds, in Jensen and Fisher(eds) The United Kingdom - The United Nations (Macmillan, 1990).

28 North—South: a Programme for Survival The Report of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues under the Chairmanship of Willy Brandt (Pan Books, 1980).

29 Sunday Times, July 20, 1980

30 HC 145, para 330

31 Personal letter from a former UK Representative to the EU.

32 The most striking case in point was a letter published on January 28, 2008, in the Financial Times, from all seven retired former UK Representatives in Brussels, commending the Lisbon Treaty as it started its way through Parliament. This totality renders it a document unique in British diplomatic annals. In the light of subsequent events, its line of argument cannot but seem even more misguided now than it did at the time of publication.

33 See Articles 155 -163 of the Treaty of Rome, 1957

34 These texts take the form of UN General Assembly Resolutions, numbered respectively A/Res//50/6 and A/Res/55/1. The similar Declaration issued on the occasion of the UN 60th anniversary is numbered A/Res/60/1.

35 Cm 6052, December, 2003

36 Remarks by the Permanent Under-Secretary, Sir Michael Jay, at the launching of the White Paper, on December 2, 2003, at the FCO.

37 When the Foreign Affairs Committee invited comments on the FCO Annual Departmental Report covering the year 2003-04, I inquired whether this invitation extended to Mr Straw's White Paper, and was told that it did. I therefore submitted a memorandum which the Committee were good enough both to publish and to notice favourably in a separate section of their Report (HC 745, paras 35-42, and Ev 70-76). Mine was the only substantive general comment on the White Paper which the Committee received from non-governmental sources.

38 Cm 6762, March, 2006

39 Press Notice no 28 of 2 May 2007, recorded the Committee's intention of ensuring that the White Paper was considered as part of the Committee's work as a whole.

40 HC 145, Ev 127

41 ibid, para 331, and Ev 127

42 See the concluding paragraphs of the Highlights summary accompanying the main text

43 HC 145, para 294

44 ibid, para 331

45 ibid, para 332

46 Before turning to politics, Lord Hurd was a member of the Diplomatic Service, and is thus well positioned to make this judgment.

47 HC 145

48 ibid, para 338

49 The first of the speeches was delivered at the FCO on July 1; the second in Tokyo on July 15; and the third at Lincoln's Inn on September 15. The fourth is due to be delivered in the autumn.

50 Sir Leslie Fielding, Kindly Call me God (Boermans Books, 2009) p 9

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