Commentary (The Times)

Foreign policy: "Has the Foreign Office had its day?" (Churchill College seminar)

Document type: Press
Source: The Times , 8 Feb 2006
Journalist: Bronwen Maddox
Editorial comments: The seminar was taped by the Institute of Contemporary British History and will appear on their website.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 822 words
Themes: Executive, Foreign policy - theory and process

Has the Foreign Office had its day?

Foreign Editor's Briefing by Bronwen Maddox

SOMETIMES, in well-sheltered pockets of this country, you find yourself inhaling the air of Britain as it used to be, 30 or 40 years ago, with a pungency that takes your breath away.

That was, I must say, my first feeling listening to a starry parade of Foreign Office grandees and former ministers at Churchill College, Cambridge, on Monday, studying Margaret Thatcher’s impact on foreign policy, and the Foreign Office.

“It is a curious sight to look out on so many Foreign Office faces,” said Lord Powell of Bayswater, Private Secretary to Thatcher and John Major. “It is rather as if Madame Tussauds had been let out for the afternoon.” Sir Marrack Goulding, Warden of St Anthony’s, Oxford, asked: “Where is the Round Table? Never have so many knights been gathered together.”

Indeed. Those who were not knights were lords. This was a reprise of the glory days of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: a hall of titled men, most with a good crop of white hair. “Geography is about maps, and history is about chaps,” said Sir Brian Fall (33 years in the Diplomatic Service, then Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford).

One speaker, in tribute to the diplomatic spouse, said that he hoped it would never come to the point where “chaps are just sent into the field and there is no sense of British family life”.

You would hardly have guessed that their subject was Britain’s first female Prime Minister. It was a reminder of her achievement in getting there.

All credit to Churchill College, however, for gathering together such a line-up of “expert witnesses”. The college’s highly respected Archives Centre, which holds the papers of Winston Churchill and Thatcher, is running seminars on the Thatcher era to mark the retirement of Sir John Boyd as the college’s Master.

(Boyd, who had a distinguished Foreign Office career, offered the following light-hearted tips: in a revolution, fill the bath with cold water; don’t be swept off your feet by a lunatic politician; and don’t get locked in your cipher room).

Professor David Reynolds, a Cambridge historian of the Cold War, noted that it would be 2021 before John Major’s papers are published. There is all the more reason, then, to ask those who made the decisions of the time why they did so.

The first question was whether the “witnesses” felt they had had many options in the “resolution of empire”: the 1979 Lancaster House agreement on the independence of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China; and (stretching a point) the Falklands War and Northern Ireland talks.

The common answer was no. Sir Robin McLaren, former Ambassador in Beijing, argued that Britain had had few options on Hong Kong. It could try to fill in the details, but China would not budge on the terms set down in historic agreements.

Lord Hurd of Westwell noted, loftily although incontrovertibly, that the end of empire was inevitable as, with the exception of the Falklands, Britain had lost the consent of the people it used to govern.

Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, former Governor of Hong Kong, argued that it was quite right that it was the policy not to consult with Hong Kong people. “It would have been a ping-pong ball if it had been referred for public comment.” Lord Patten of Barnes, the last Governor of Hong Kong, was a frequent target (in his absence). Lord Howe of Aberavon said that it was his “sadness” that the way in which Patten put forward proposals “minimised chances of success” .

Powell, from the perspective of Downing Street, complained that the debate had been “an orgy of Foreign Office self-congratulation”. He had a point.

Hong Kong and Lancaster House perhaps mark the greatest recent tests of the Foreign Office’s skills. Since then its role has shrunk and that of Downing Street has grown.

Some put that down to Thatcher herself. Lord Howe, who credited Thatcher with “a deep knowledge of foreign policy, by the end”, said that she had a “star quality, which made it hard for any Foreign Secretary”.

Her animosity to the Foreign Office was well known. Sir Malcolm Rifkind recalled her telling him: “It is not wet, it’s drenched”. But the stronger case came from those who argued that she only accelerated the shift in power.

Sir John Holmes, now Ambassador to France, pointed out that the issues now facing government, such as climate change, fall much less neatly into one department.

The best closing point was made by Lord Hurd, noting that Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and David Cameron, the Conservative leader, had both felt obliged to say that Parliament would have new powers over war “as a direct result of Iraq”. Some of the role that Downing Street has grabbed from the Foreign Office may now shift to the Commons.