The Foreign Office must go back to basics

In the 21st century, Britain’s alliances and trade links remain vitally important. The Foreign Office is the key institution when it comes to the promotion and protection of British interests abroad. Yet the diplomatic service has been subjected to a shameful period of neglect.

Tony Blair set up his own foreign policy apparatus, transforming the Foreign Office into a mere source of political patronage. The advice of learned and experienced diplomats was ignored in favour of ‘special advisers’ whose main source of information was often CNN. Political cronies were elevated to the once distinguished position of Ambassador. Resources were transferred from diplomacy to the more abstract notion of ‘international development’. The Blairs even viewed the diplomatic service as their personal travel agent – officials in Toulouse were once ordered to find them a suitable villa to rent.

The Blair years also saw an attack on the ethos and values of the Foreign Office. The closure of the language school symbolised a dangerous disregard for the understanding of cultures and nationalities. By 2009, the 300-strong British embassy in Kabul contained only two officials who spoke Dari, an important local language. Similarly, until recently only two of the UK-based staff in Istanbul spoke ‘operational’ Turkish. One can almost hear T.E. Lawrence groaning.

The target-focused and bureaucratic style of regime which tarnished the NHS and other departments has also wrought havoc at the Foreign Office. As Rory Stewart MP pointed out, although diplomatic staff working in Kabul are well versed in ‘management-speak’, accounting, and human resources – their knowledge about Afghanistan itself is often staggeringly limited. According to Mr Stewart, most diplomats are now ‘tied to their desks’, answering emails, and worrying about the latest health and safety edict. There are now great swathes of the globe where Britain lacks knowledgeable officials – Mali being a case in point.

A further sacrilege occurred with the closure of the Foreign Office library. This institution contained 500 years of records of Britain’s overseas entanglements and original copies of all our treaties. The contents have now been sent off to various collections (some even ending up on Ebay!). With this great resource lost, it is perhaps no surprise that the Labour government had forgotten the lessons of history and embarked on ill-advised wars.


However, since his appointment as Foreign Secretary, William Hague has sought to reverse this worrying trend. Mr Hague has a great deal of influence in government. This allows him to fight the cause of the Foreign Office more effectively than his predecessors. A prime example was his ability to regain the special exchange-rate protection that had previously shielded embassies and consulates from damaging and sudden budget cuts. William Hague has also ensured that more money is invested in language training.

There is now less emphasis on management and administrative ‘box-ticking’ (although there is certainly scope to reduce this further). Good management is important, but it is actually less crucial in the diplomatic service than one might think. Since diplomatic and consulate teams have relatively small budgets, the potential for wastage is more limited when compared to other departments such as health or education. The crucial point is that the Foreign Office must remain focused on foreign policy analysis and execution. That is, after all, what it is for.

After more than a decade in decline, the Foreign Office is a great department of state once more. However, more reform is needed. There is still a shameful lack of cultural, historical and linguistic expertise in many of our embassies and consulates. Too much time is spent implementing ‘management structures’ and other bureaucratic follies. Although it is fashionable to talk of modernisation and breaking with the past, in the case of the diplomatic service we must tread with caution. British diplomacy was, for many decades, the most effective in the world. Granted, it was run by Oxbridge-educated, upper-class men in their fifties – but it worked.

The best prescription for the Foreign Office is to revisit the lessons of history and not to scorn tried and tested methods.


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