William Hague is the Foreign Secretary. Follow William on Twitter.
Last week the Foreign Affairs Select Committee published a report on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It praised the Department’s “impressive performance” representing the UK’s interests across the globe on a relatively small budget while arguing that the Foreign Office is underfunded.
I welcome the report and the implication that the Foreign Office would make good use of a larger budget. But this is simply not possible at a time when our country is facing huge economic pressures. The Foreign Office has to shoulder its share of the burden of reducing the deficit.
In any event it is not the size of the Foreign Office budget that matters, but what we do with it. Its budget will always be small compared to the expenditure needed to maintain our Armed Forces or the NHS. The real value of the Foreign Office lies in the power of the ideas it develops and the unique connections it forges overseas.
The Foreign Office I inherited in May 2010 was in a weakened position. Years of being sidelined by Labour Prime Ministers had taken their toll on its influence in Whitehall, as had endless ministerial changes. More than 30 British High Commissions, Embassies or posts had been shut in the space of ten years. The Foreign Office language school had been closed so that language skills declined. In an astonishing blunder, Labour Ministers stripped the Foreign Office of its protection against exchange rate movements – even though more than half its budget is spent in foreign currencies – leading to a raft of unplanned cuts to Embassies and to travel and training for diplomats.
These bad decisions – which we highlighted in Opposition – diminished the Foreign Office and weakened British influence in the world. We promised to reverse them and to inject the long-term strategic vision for British diplomacy that had been missing for a decade.
My personal objective as Foreign Secretary is to strengthen the Foreign Office and to improve our country’s capacity to pursue effective foreign policy in the decades to come. We must do this while at the same time making the right decisions on Afghanistan and Iran, and using the best of our diplomacy to help stem the appalling bloodshed in Syria.
Britain is an outward-looking nation, highly integrated into the world economy and with a leading role in global affairs. Our country’s economy – and our international influence – both depend in part upon a strong Foreign and Commonwealth Office and effective British diplomacy. Like building a strong economy, maintaining a strong foreign policy requires a vision for the future, not just dealing with immediate crises.
Looking twenty years ahead, we can see that our country needs good economic and political ties with the new and emerging powers of the 21st century alongside our traditional alliances. We will need to be just as effective in Beijing, Brasilia, Pretoria, Delhi and Jakarta and other flourishing centres of influence as we are in Brussels and Washington. Fast-forwarding to the future, we must plug Britain into the world’s vibrant networks such as the G20, Commonwealth and ASEAN, seeking new partners as well as new opportunities. Britain’s engagement with the world needs constantly to break new ground, not to shrink in reach or ambition.
A confident and capable Foreign Office with a global presence as well as highly skilled diplomats is critical to our national interest. This is our government’s vision and it is the path that the Foreign Office is now firmly on.
Today the Foreign Office is building the networks, alliances, and connections that our country needs to thrive long into the future. We have opened or are opening up to eight new Embassies and six Consulates and sending more diplomatic staff to over 20 countries, particularly in Asia. We are funding this by closing some small Consulates in Europe and making other savings.
We have begun the biggest drive ever seen to reinforce the traditional diplomatic skills and institutional strength of the Foreign Office. We are re-opening an FCO language school. We will soon have 40% more Chinese language speakers in our Posts in China than in 2010, and the same increase in Arabic speakers across our network.
The foundation stone for this was restoring financial stability to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This we did, securing a tough but fair flat-cash settlement in the current spending round and introducing a new protection against exchange rate movements so that the Foreign Office could once again plan sensibly for the future.
The results are there to see. We are reinvigorating neglected diplomatic ties from the Middle East to Latin America. Our increased emphasis on the Gulf meant that we were able to work with countries in the region when we intervened in Libya – a big change from the recent past. Our increased focus on using diplomacy to support jobs in our economy, led by the Prime Minister, is producing strong results. British exports of goods were up by £50bn last year, including significant increases to China, to Brazil, to Russia, to India and to South Africa.
So even with a constrained budget, today we are expanding British diplomacy in vital parts of the world while not moving Britain away from our indispensable alliance with the United States and deep partnership with the European Union.
Our aim is that in twenty years time Britain will work highly effectively with new partners alongside our traditional allies on the shared problems of our time from piracy to cyber security to climate change. We will have increased Britain’s trade relations, supporting future generations of Britons. We will have a global diplomatic network and the best diplomatic service in the world. And we will continue to play a central role in averting conflict, addressing crises and advancing our values of human rights and democracy. This is British diplomacy on the advance, and it is the right course for our country.