Britain needs to be a player in the world, and the world is a better place when Britain takes an active role. We have an armed forces other states can only dream of, and a foreign service whose skills have been refined over centuries
This is important because foreign and defence policies matter. You can’t just pretend the outside world doesn’t exist, or have some naively assumed, if you leave others alone you’ll be left alone. Poverty in Jamaica means more drugs on the streets of Birmingham. Ethnic tensions in the Balkans mean more refugees in Newcastle. Tariffs in Japan being car plants being closed in Essex. What happens in the world effects you, directly, every day. Britain can influence those events, or sit back and be in the receiving end of whatever others decide. We can be the hammer, or we can be the anvil.
Yet our hammer, our military and diplomatic clout, is woefully lacking. The MoD and Foreign Office are no longer fit for purpose. Decades of declining ambitions, watering down remits and military emasculation have made these once proud institutions look like children wearing their parent’s clothes.
The MoD now governs your military machine by employing 1 Civil Servant for every 2 people in uniform. To put that in context, civilian arm of the Israeli military employs just 400 people, compared to over 80,000 in the British Ministry of Defence. The MoD is vastly over resourced for the role it actually performs. For historical context, Britain raised, transported, fed, equipped, paid and housed 500,000 to fight Napoleon, all with a staff of less than 20 officers based in Horse Guards.
The only reason we even need a civilian branch of the military is to buy shiny things to better enable the serving men and women to better able kill people and break things. Forget lofty goals of spreading freedom, departmental mission statements and generally beige corporate-speak; the British military is there to kill people and break things in far places away places so we can still affordably drive our cars and buy cheap plastic toys from China in Argos.
Which brings us on to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. As those students of history will tell you, the FCO used to stand for the Foreign & Colonial Office. Way back when, Britain had to govern, in one form or another, a quarter of the globe. Viceroy’s, Governor Generals, local princes, warlords and even local ‘fixers’ were employed to keep Albion on top of the pile. As one would expect this required rather a lot of paperwork. In 1900 47,948 people were employed in London to govern an empire. In 2012 nearly 13,000 are employed to govern a handful of tiny islands too poor to look after themselves. Surely, somewhere, there is some overhead?
To make matters worse, even with this small army of staff, Britain’s international influence is decreasing. Brazil has more foreign missions in Africa than we do. What few new diplomats we have are being financed by mortgaging the £2 billion worth of assets we have in the FCO’s foreign property portfolio.
Though admirals and ambassadors will be loathed to admit it, they are merely different facets of the same objective; to defend, promote and encourage British interests overseas. Whether we do that through soft loans to a tyrant, or carpet bombing the presidential compound of that said same tyrant a month later (think of Lybia), the desired result is the same. Why don’t we, therefore, merge the MoD and FCO into a new Ministry of National Interest & Engagement?
MoNIE, as it would be known, makes a disturbing amount of sense. For a start, there’s the financial saving; IT, PR, Payroll, HR, Asset Management, Facilities Management, Fleet Management, could all be pooled.
Secondly, policy harmonisation could be far more readily achieved. No longer would you have defence chiefs announcing joint war games with another power while the foreign office is prepping plans to boot them out of the next round of trade talks for human rights abuses. Our allies and enemies would know where they stood, and know that they were dealing with the same people and same set of policies.
Thirdly, intelligence and expertise could be shared across the policy planning board without the inevitable petty interdepartmental rivalries. All institutions and organisations have an in-built tendency to hoard knowledge and keep secrets, even from their ‘own side’. The Germany Army didn’t tell the German Navy they were about to mobilize in 1914, and the FBI went as far as to burn their intelligence records on Latin America rather than hand them over to the CIA. And even with the best will in the world, some intelligence falls between the cracks, some skills and insights are lost simply because the holder works in the wrong building.
Remove the misty eyed history, institutionalized inertia, and a typically British stubborn refusal to reform, and ask yourself; what’s really stopping the merger?