Foreign Office (Structure)

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

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Photo of Mr Jonathan Aitken Mr Jonathan Aitken , South Thanet 11:35 am, 22nd 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.