Foreign Office (Structure)

Petition – in the House of Commons at 11:35 am on 22 December 1983.

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Photo of Mr Jonathan Aitken Mr Jonathan Aitken , South Thanet 11:35, 22 December 1983

I am grateful to have this opportunity of initiating a short debate, the purpose of which is to take a reflective and reformist look at some of the current institutional problems of British foreign policy.

The past two years have not been happy for the Foreign Office. That great Department of State has been passing through a traumatic period in which its alleged failings of judgment, communication and action have been harshly, and sometimes unfairly, criticised. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the criticisms, the Falklands crisis, the row over Grenada, the disputes over policy towards the EEC budget and the strains on our current relationship with the United States have all taken their toll of the Foreign Office in terms of internal morale and external competence.

My purpose is to look beyond individual episodes or policies and to consider whether the present institutional structure of the Foreign Office is right for the 1980s. I am, of course, aware that this issue was the subject of the Duncan commission report in the 1960s and the Central Policy Review Staff report in the 1970s. But the world has changed in the decades since those respective tomes were published. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Falklands crisis, many of the old certainties and complacencies of foreign policy-making have been shaken. I believe that the shake-up should go further. The Foreign Office's present monopoly position as the Government's sole source of advice and information on foreign affairs needs to be challenged.

While diplomacy can safely be left exclusively to diplomats, foreign policy would benefit greatly from an alternative source of official expertise, such as a scaled down British version of the National Security Council in the United States. I hope that in replying to the debate, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will take careful note of the qualifying phrase "scaled down British version", for I am enough of a realist to know that the notion of introducing a full-blooded NSC here would be fought to the last monocle by the mandarins of Whitehall. Perhaps they would be right in their opposition, for the experience of duality in United States foreign poliy is not entirely encouraging. A small country such as ours, in the conduct of its foreign policy, could not easily afford the creative tension—often a euphemism for blazing rows—between some recent United States Secretaries of State and their opposite numbers in the NSC. I therefore concede that the United States model of an NSC is not a good one for Britain to emulate.

Having said that, it must be recognised that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already taken one intriguing step towards an NSC-type adviser, because last year she appointed Sir Anthony Parsons to a new post at No. 10 Downing street as her special adviser on foreign affairs. That has been a most interesting and beneficial development in the machinery of British Government. By coincidence, on this very day Sir Anthony relinquishes his appointment, at his own long-standing request, and goes into well-deserved retirement. I am sure that the whole House will wish him well after his long and distinguished career. But his retirement makes it all the more timely to ask: what should follow Parsons? What sort of appointment is required and what effect should it have on the Foreign Office?

I start from the point that until recently the British Prime Minister was less well served in foreign policy matters than any comparable Head of State, because she was vulnerable to receiving only the advice that the Foreign Office put to her.

In the days of freedom on the Back Benches, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was well seized of that point, for I recall that, as recently as August 1981, he wrote an excellent article in The Times urging the setting up of a Prime Minister's Department, complete with foreign affairs staff. I trust that he will not have changed his mind by the time that he replies to the debate.

Whether it be a foreign policy section of the Prime Minister's Department or a British NSC, I firmly believe that the present Prime Minister — indeed, any Prime Minister— needs an advisory unit at No. 10 for four basic reasons: first, to ensure that she receives an alternative view of the options on foreign policy issues that is independent of the Whitehall consensus; secondly, to look, on her behalf, for incipient crises, so that she can be briefed on political minefields before they explode; thirdly, to improve communications between the Foreign Office and No. 10, which often tend to be too formal. and to interpret the Prime Minister's thinking and preoccupations to the Foreign Office; and, fourthly, to ensure that foreign policy decisions reflect the national interest as perceived by the Government of the day. Thal is not always the same as the Foreign Office's departmental view.

If it is to achieve those objectives, the unit advising the Prime Minister must have access to all raw intelligence and Foreign Office papers. It must be adequately staffed and genuinely independent of Whitehall.

My fear about the appointment of our eminent former ambassador to China, Sir Percy Cradock, to succeed Sir Anthony Parsons at No. 10 next week is that it fails to meet the last two criteria. With due respect to Sir Percy's renowned qualifications, one man and a secretary cannot be an adequate staff for a Head of Government's alternative source of foreign policy advice and reassurance. I do not suggest that we need to set up a large, alternative, competing bureaucracy, but if the job is worth doing, it is worth starting properly.

I am also worried about the specific terms of Sir Percy's appointment, because it has been announced that, in addition to his duties as special adviser at No. 10, he will be retained by the Foreign Office as a deputy undersecretary. It is difficult to imagine an announcement more designed to make a special adviser look less than independent or more like the fifth wheel on the Foreign Office coach.

In the long term, whatever the merits of Sir Percy's appointment—and I am sure that they are considerable —the No. 10 special advisers unit or a British NSC must, as an issue of principle, be visibly independent of the Foreign Office if it is to be able to stand back and offer alternative advice to the establishment's monolithic view of foreign policy.

I said earlier that the Foreign Office sometimes held a departmental view which was not always the same as the elected Government's perception of the national interest.. On Europe, for example, the Foreign Office has for many years tenaciously held a departmental view of the EEC which has often been far more favourable to that organisation and Britain's membership of it than have the views of elected Foreign Office Ministers. That departmental view needed to be questioned more vigorously. Although EEC subjects are now scrutinised on a broader basis as a result of Cabinet Office involvement, many other foreign policy subjects, particularly the Third world, where trouble seems more likely to erupt unpredictably, would benefit from a non-departmental view, as well as the received Foreign Office wisdom.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Aitken Mr Jonathan Aitken , South Thanet

I am glad that that view is shared by Labour Members, and it was promoted recently in an interesting report by the Adam Smith institute.

The need for the two views also applies to studying the intentions of our friends and allies, which are sometimes not sufficiently critically analysed by our diplomats who are happily devoted en poste to the promotion of trade and good relations and do not always see clearly where Britain's strategic interests lie.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) may develop that point later in the debate, as he has written of the need to restore the pre-war division between the Foreign Office and the Diplomatic Service. I agree with his central theme, that diplomacy and foreign policy are not always the same thing. Yet the present Foreign Office institutionalises the amalgamation of those two separate roles.

Some thoughtful members of the Foreign Office admit that their departments tend to get bogged down in routine diplomatic work and might benefit from having internal task forces studying specific problems, such as, say, security in the Gulf or our policy towards Central America. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will consider at least that small structural innovation.

I also hope that consideration will be given to the appointment of more non-career ambassadors. Some capitals, especially Washington, cry out for an ambassador with political clout back home. On the diplomatic scene in London there are many foreign ambassadors who are personal, political or commercial appointees, and I wonder why we do not reciprocate that formula in more of our embassies.

I hope that my comments, which I trust will provoke further discussion about structural changes in the Foreign Office, will not be regarded in simplistic terms merely as an attack on the status quo. I have travelled enough and, I hope, thought enough to have built up a tremendous admiration for those in the Foreign Office who serve our country. However, the Foreign Office must move with the mood of the times. It must recognise that its former reputation for omnipotence and omniscience has become fragile in the post-Falklands era—a fragility which, in my judgment, will get worse before it gets better, as we head for a year of bitter recriminations over our policy on the EEC, and an era in which a robust defence of British interests will be more in the national mood than will the internationalist consensus seeking which has characterised so much Foreign Office thinking.

The Foreign Office has to choose whether to hunker down in its comfortable bunkers—which I note, as a sign of the times, are under attack, which I do not agree with, from the Public Accounts Committee—and hope that the storm of criticism will pass or to open its doors to changes along the lines of my proposals, which are really an extension of some of the innovations already tentatively introduced by the Prime Minister.

Foreign policy-making is too broad and important a subject to leave entirely to the exclusive hands and sometimes rather sheltered minds of the Foreign Office. We need the lateral thinking and the breath of intellectual fresh air that a British NSC could bring. I hope that the debate will stimulate further interest in this subject.

Photo of Mr Julian Amery Mr Julian Amery , Brighton, Pavilion 11:47, 22 December 1983

The proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) that we should create something like the NSC deserves close and favourable consideration. We had something like the NSC a generation ago, when there were four Service Ministers and Secretaries of State for India, the Commonwealth and the Colonies, in addition to the Foreign Secretary. Together, they constituted, in the Government's defence and overseas committee, something approaching a national security council.

With the disappearance of most of those Ministries, we now have only two important overseas Departments—the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Therefore, the Prime Minister is not getting the variety of advice or information that she would have received a generation ago.

For two years I served on the appointments board of the Foreign Office which recommends the promotion of officials to various posts. I was greatly struck by the fact that the whole service, which included my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who is to reply, was almost permanently in orbit. No one was posted anywhere for more than three years at a time and nearly all were retired at 60.

The results were depressing. When I was a Minister in the Foreign Office, my principal advisers, men of great ability, were constantly disappearing. New advisers of equal ability took their place, but they did not know the other mandarins in Whitehall and they hardly knew their own colleagues in the office. As soon as they had settled down to formulating policy, they were shifted to an embassy abroad.

All that was in marked contrast to the situation that prevailed up to the end of the second world war. The Foreign Office was theoretically amalgamated with the diplomatic service in 1919, but in practice they were not amalgamated. The Foreign Office consisted of home-based officials who spent their whole careers in London, apart, perhaps, from one five-year posting overseas. They constituted what amounted to a small think tank dedicated to analysing where British interests lay and how they could best be promoted or protected. Tyrrell, Vansittart, Cadogan and Orme Sargeant—the names that we read of in many memoirs nowadays—hardly spent any time abroad in careers lasting nearly 40 years. Indeed, Orme Sargeant avoided social contact with foreigners on principle in case friendship should interfere with objectivity. Then there was the diplomatic service, which was thought to be socially more prestigious although it was much less powerful. Ambassadors in the diplomatic service spent several years in the same capital. Lord Killearn, one of the more outstanding and controversial, spent 11 years in Cairo. As a result, his advice could not go unheeded in Whitehall and his authority in Cairo was inevitably considerable. All of that has gone.

Ambassadors now stay barely three years. Just occasionally, in recent times, we have had people such as Sir Nicholas Henderson and Sir Oliver Wright whose service has been extended for about a year after they had reached retirement age. However, three or even four years is an extremely short time in which to get to know a country well, to establish ambassadorial authority on the spot and, what is even more important, to get recommendations taken as seriously as they should be back in Whitehall.

Photo of Mr Julian Amery Mr Julian Amery , Brighton, Pavilion

He is an example of an ambassador taking what I consider to be the wrong view and the office in London taking the opposite one. There was a vigorous clash of opinion between the Foreign Office and the embassy in Berlin, which unfortunately resulted in Ministers taking the wrong view. The advice given to the Foreign Secretary of the day was that which should have been given to him. Alas, that think tank of home-based officials, who are concerned not with diplomacy but with foreign policy, is lacking today.

Our practice is strangely at variance with that of many other countries. One has only to consider the record of French ambassadorial representation in Britain. M. Massiqi was seven years an ambassador, M. Chauvel five, M. de Courcel more than 10. All got to know a wide circle of people inside and outside politics in Britain and exercised influence which few British ambassadors have had time to exercise in posts abroad. The Soviets also keep their ambassadors in posts for 10 years or more. Mr. Dobrynin has been in Washington since God knows when. In the United States, many appointments are political, but the present distinguished United States Minister at the embassy in London has been nearly a decade in his post. That has given him much greater influence in London than any comparable British official overseas that I can think of.

Most other countries do not retire their ambassadors as young as we do. It seems an appalling waste of public money to spend £250,000 or so training an official to ambassadorial status and then to get only three years' service out of him. Given modern medicine, many of the ambassadors who retired when I was at the Foreign Office 10 years ago could have served with great advantage to the country for another five or 10 years beyond what they were allowed to do.

My final point concerns horses for courses. We do not consider closely enough the importance of matching the ambassador to the head of the Government of the country to which he is posted. In Third world countries, that is often an extremely important way in which to influence events. The importance, however, is not restricted to Third world countries. Lord Harlech's appointment to Washington is an outstanding example of how the right person, who is not necessarily drawn from the Foreign service—although Lord Harlech had experience of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a Minister—can play a decisive role. I beg my hon. Friend the Minister to give some weight and thought to the proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet. South with regard to a national security council and the reflections I have just ventured to make.

Photo of Sir Ray Whitney Sir Ray Whitney , Wycombe 11:54, 22 December 1983

It is properly the convention for Ministers to thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I take special pleasure in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Atkin) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery). There can be no two Members of Parliament who have greater or more diverse experience of this topic. We are all in their debt for raising this subject.

The few minutes of debate that we have had today are merely the hors d'oeuvre of what I hope will be an appetising and stimulating meal. My right hon. and hon. Friends would have been surprised if I had accepted lock, stock and barrel every proposition—or perhaps any--that has been advanced. I should like to establish that no one in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes a panglossian view of it, just as we would not take the view that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds with regard to any other part of Government or any other human organisation. The structure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should be examined and could well be improved by steady evolution. The ideas that my right hon. and hon. Friends have advanced today are those that we should be and are examining.

It is true that the past few years have been difficult for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but they have been difficult for the United Kingdom. We live in a difficult world. We face the problems of our past, of the management of East-West relations and, to use the jargon, of the management of West-West relations. We should be careful about attributing the creation of those problems to an organisation, be it the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or any other part of the British Government machine. I do not claim a 100 per cent. success rate--who would dare but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has set the issues before Ministers rather more effectively than, if I may so with respect, my right hon. and hon. Friends have allowed for.

It has emerged from the debate and the Adam Smith institute omega report that it is false to assume that there is the unanimity of voice which is assumed to come out of this well-oiled Government machine. My right hon. and hon. Friends and the Adam Smith institute have paid tribute to that machine. The institute recognises that it is a highly efficient piece of Whitehall machinery and that the diplomatic service is of high quality.

Perhaps the efficiency of that machine conceals to some extent the genuine debates that rightly go on within it. We often look to the United States. Although I recognise the caveats that my hon. Friend the member for Thanet, South entered about the proposal for a National Security Council, we are getting extremely close to a Washington-type National Security Council. Washington, being the place it is and having the constitutional structure and history that it has, is the place where, to use current jargon, it all hangs out. All the debates are conducted in megaphone diplomacy in a different sense of that phrase.

That does not happen to be the London way, and I doubt whether my right hon. and hon. Friends would welcome it. I assure them that in the panoply of Whitehall machinery —the the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, the Cabinet Office structure and its mechanisms and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—there is a great deal of consultation, bouncing of ideas and dissemination of information to Ministers.

There is a suggestion—for example, in the report of the Adam Smith institute — that quite a lot of information is withheld from Ministers. That is not so. The problem is to avoid burdening Ministers with a welter of information so that they have too little time to digest it. That is a perennial problem. No one has a closed mind in this or any other area. I offer the assurance that the dialectic process is alive and healthy and produces decisions which, at the end of the day, may or may not meet with the approval of hon. Members.

My right hon. and hon. Friends referred to specialisation. Should we have diplomats spending seven or 10 years in one place, or should we put them into orbit, as it were, which was the phrase used by my right hon. Friend the Member for Pavilion? The debate will continue for ever on that score.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Pavilion takes the view, which he has sustained forcefully and regularly, that the system should be slowed down and that we should talk of posts lasting for about 10 years. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) observed that there was a rather dangerous precedent in Berlin in the 1930s involving Sir Neville Henderson.

The Adam Smith institute, whose report otherwise has the approval of my right hon. and hon. Friends, suggested that there is a serious criticism that long involvement by personnel with particular areas inculcates an identification with those areas, their problems and their points of view, which leads in turn to a passive foreign policy. That is a valid viewpoint, and it poses another danger. Where is the answer?

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office recognises the problem and is working towards appointing ambassadors who will hold their posts for four years, for example, rather than three. However, there are structural problems.

I have already addressed myself to the National Security Council idea and the tensions that are created in Washington. I am not sure that it would be particularly beneficial to our own system. I noted what my right hon. Friend the Member for Pavilion wrote in his interesting article about his time at the Colonial Office which appeared in The Telegraph on 15 December. He said that that time taught him to value the creative if sometimes acrimonious dialogue between Whitehall and 'the field'. I was to miss it at the Foreign Office a decade later.

I am not sure whether we want to build any more acrimony within the system. We certainly want to ensure that we have a system that enables us to examine all the problems.

As I foretold, I cannot say that I accept en bloc the proposals of my right hon. and hon. Friends, but I am grateful to them for making them. I am grateful, too, for what they have said about the quality of the diplomatic service and its members. They have raised valid issues which must and will be considered. I can tell my right hon. and hon. Friends that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, with her five years' experience in Government, has considered these matters carefully. I am pleased to join the tribute that has been paid so appropriately on this day to Sir Anthony Parsons on his final retirement and the role that he has played as special adviser to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has appointed Sir Percy Cradock, and considered carefully the terms of his appointment and the range of his duties. She is clearly satisfied that, from her point of view, they will achieve the optimum arrangement to ensure that she receives the advice that she properly needs in making decisions. I believe that we must accept her experience and judgment on that score. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will accept that, under the leadership of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, we shall continue within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to consider positively and energetically, and with an intellectual openness, possible improvements in the structure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Photo of Mr Ernest Armstrong Mr Ernest Armstrong , North West Durham

I thank the Minister and those hon. Members who have participated in the debate for being so brief and bringing us back to the agreed time scale.