Jack Richardson works for a Conservative MP.
It has been a dynamic start for the new administration. The new Prime Minister has been zipping up and down the country, making phone calls and beginning to meet European leaders. He used his first statement to the Commons, where he will face his first major challenge and potentially a collapse of the Government, to proclaim a new ‘golden age’ for the United Kingdom.
The Cabinet is now stuffed full of supporters who have signed up to his vision and demonstrated that they are willing to be part of the team to deliver it. However, there is a danger that one of the means by which that vision can be delivered will be forgotten – namely, our diplomatic network.
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development have not been spared radical change. Dominic Raab, the only leadership candidate that won enough votes to be on the ballot paper who took a harder line on Brexit than Johnson, is the new Foreign Secretary.
His new team of ministers are all Leavers, including his new de facto deputy Chris Pincher, who came from the Whips office rather than having a foreign policy background. The appointment may partly be a ‘thank you’ to a Johnson supporter, but Pincher will also be employed to steady the ship as Raab flies around the world – a role similar to his one as a whip under Julian Smith, who spent more time in Downing Street.
Aparty from its new Secretary of State, Alok Sharma, DfID has no ministers of its own, sharing Ministers of State with the Foreign Office and an Under-Secretary (Zac Goldsmith) with Defra (perhaps a merger is afoot, since the Government appears to be aiming to slim down the Whitehall machine).
Whatever the new administration’s plans for foreign policy may be, it must recognise that it is crucial to invest properly into our diplomatic umbrella as we leave the EU. I am hoping for the ‘Global Britain’ that was promised: the Britain that will remain a partner and ally to our European neighbours while engaging properly with the Commonwealth and the rest of the world as an independent nation. But that will only be deliverable with adequate resources.
The Foreign Office has been running on fumes for decades now. The civil servants within it are incredibly talented and know their briefs well, which is why it’s one of the toughest departments to get into, but the institution has been short-changed since the 1970s. Since 1973, the Foreign Office has seen its funding fall from 0.5 per cent of GDP to 0.1 per cent today – and it will soon go under that. It spends in a year what the NHS spends every single day, and yet is responsible solely for Britain’s role in the world.
This is perhaps because Britain’s place changed, though not so drastically as other countries. Unlike France and Germany, it was not necessarily immediately clear that we had been relegated from great power status. After all, even though we were bankrupted by two world wars and a global recession, we had never surrendered; we were victorious over fascism, and at the top table at Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam – apparently equal to the two remaining superpowers as a new world order was written.
Ours was a slow decline, and some even argue that the British Empire only really came to an end in 1997 with the handover of Hong Kong. However, the 1957 Suez Crisis was really the point at which Britain’s status was downgraded, causing our strategy to be based permanently around the Special Relationship.
Meanwhile, under American auspices, the European Project truly took off fully in the early 1970s, further outsourcing British foreign policy gradually in the succeeding decades. It is no coincidence that, since the growth of a centralised Europe, and with the United States emerging as a unilateral power, as well as the decentralisation of foreign policy within Whitehall, the Foreign Office has seen its investment decline for nearly 50 years.
Investment and reform are required as the UK enters this unprecedented period. We won’t be part of the EU and American support has recently shown itself not always to be forthcoming. The UK will have to rely on itself as it strikes its own trade deals and seeks new partnerships, while also maintaining existing friendships such as NATO and Five Eyes.
The funding of our entire diplomatic umbrella (the Ministry of Defence, DfID, the Department for International Trade, our security services, and the Foreign Office) takes up roughly 2.75 per cent of GDP. A report from the British Foreign Policy Group in June made the excellent suggestion of raising this total to three per cent.
This “would raise an additional £4.9 billion, £1.5 billion of which could be spent on the Foreign Office.” It would remain one of cheapest departments, but would be able to make uncalculatable returns for the UK post-Brexit. This money could be spent, for example, on maintaining embassies, which ought not to be sold off without the permission of the Commons.
In terms of reform, much of the Foreign Office’s budget floats around waiting to be bid for. If it is continued to be left wanting by the new administration, this money should be at least freed up for investment into running embassies, which are vital for the bilateral relationships we will soon be more reliant upon.
And finally, though it is good that the Foreign Office employs locals for its embassies abroad, it should not depend upon them as it is increasingly doing. This prevents the development of home-grown civil servants, reducing their expertise in the long-run.
Investment abroad is just as important as investment at home for a country like the UK, which has a prominent place in the liberal international order that is becoming increasingly under threat. But our diplomatic reach, particularly in the Foreign Office, has had its potential cut short for decades as our governments have leaned on others. This will no longer be an option in a few months.