By Paul Goodman
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Parts of William Hague's speech today about the future of the Foreign Office were trailed in Peter Oborne's columm this morning. So I won't reproduce either's strictures about Labour's axeing of the Foreign Office language school, the destruction of the Department's library, the removal of its protection against exchange rate movements, the closure of embassies abroad, the briefing against other Ministers at home, the neglect of retired ambassadors, and so forth.
Instead, I will quote three preliminary points, and go on to the Foreign Secretary's description of his aims, some of which Hague referred to during his recent ConservativeHome interview.
- "The Foreign Office is said to be the busiest it has been since the Second World War. Seven million emails passed through the Foreign Office computer system in the first two weeks of February at the height of the Arab Spring, at times up to ten times the normal volume. Between January and April we helped evacuate 6,000 British nationals from instability and violence in the Middle East, and more than 570 extra staff volunteered to join large consular and political crisis teams that worked day and night in the FCO".
- "We have people on the ground in 158 countries and we are able to send our staff wherever they are needed, whether it is to extricate trapped British Nationals from Egypt, assist those affected by Japan’s nuclear disaster, or to establish contact with new political forces as we did in Benghazi while conflict raged."
- "Our diplomats often face risk in the service of our country, such as the men and women in our Embassy in Yemen who faced successive terrorist attacks last year, our brave staff in Afghanistan, or our staff in Côte d’Ivoire who spent days under fire in a cellar."
"…we are setting out to strengthen systematically the capacity and reach of the Foreign Office in three principal ways.
"First, we have clarified and simplified the FCO’s purpose and priorities, refining the FCO’s objectives to three core tasks: security, prosperity, and consular support to British nationals, within an overall foreign policy that seeks to strengthen the rules-based international system in support of our values.
Second, we have restored financial stability to the Foreign Office, which had been tottering on a financial precipice. We have negotiated with the Treasury the creation of a new Currency Mechanism which has restored the FCO’s protection against exchange rate movements. Fortified by this and by the certainty that comes from a four year Spending Review outcome, the FCO is once again able to plan properly for the future – identifying £100 million in running costs that we will save each year. In Europe, while retaining our commercial representation and our consular work, we are consolidating our other staff in national capitals. This enables us to strengthen and in some places expand Britain’s diplomatic network beyond Europe.
We are significantly increasing our diplomatic presence in India and China, the world’s two emerging superpowers by increasing the number of frontline staff in each country by 30 and 50 positions respectively, and focussing on their fastest growing cities and regions in each country, some of which have GDPs larger than whole European countries.
We are substantially expanding our diplomatic strength in Brazil, Turkey, Mexico and Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, South Korea, North Korea, Mongolia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Angola, Botswana, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Pakistan, Vietnam, the Philippines and our presence in Taiwan, maintaining the strength of our delegations to the United Nations in New York and Geneva, NATO and the European Union and keeping our network of Consulates General across the United States.
We have made a firm pledge that this Government will not close any of the existing 140 UK Sovereign Posts overseas – which means Embassies or High Commissions – during the lifetime of this Parliament; and we will open six new Embassies and up to seven new Consulates General in the emerging economies, including one in Recife in Brazil…
…This effort is aimed at preventing what I call the strategic shrinkage of Britain’s influence in the world.
In the countries where Embassies had closed that we are now re-opening, we are sending a signal that Britain is back in the business of serious diplomacy with them. Where we are increasing the numbers of FCO staff and consulates, we are able to build deeper diplomatic relationships and do more for British business and British citizens. And when we co-locate with other departments overseas we show the whole of government acting as one, not as a collection of departments.
But on top of this, and this is the third crucial element of the changes I am introducing, we have launched the biggest drive to enhance the cutting edge abilities and diplomatic skills of the Foreign Office that the Department has ever seen; skills in negotiation, analysis, difficult languages, economics and policy making.
This new Diplomatic Excellence Initiative covers every aspect of the work of the FCO. After years in which the level of ambition of Ministers has been that government departments are simply fit for purpose, in the Foreign Office we have set ourselves the goal of excellence in every crucial area of our work.
Together we are turning around the decline in language teaching in the Foreign Office so that we build a cadre of language expertise to support British foreign policy over the long term. We are already spending up to £1 million more each year teaching languages to our staff – an 30% increase over the year before the general election, we are increasing the number of jobs overseas for which language skills will be an absolute requirement which will enable us to make more of an impact on the ground, and I can announce that we will reopen a language centre here in the Foreign Office.
We are equipping our diplomats with sharper economic skills, so that they not only understand the economic forces shaping the world around us but have the specialist knowledge to spot commercial opportunities, lobby to drive down barriers to trade and build the political relationships that support greater trade and investment in the UK. We have strengthened and upgraded our Economics Unit at the heart of the FCO, alongside our reinvigorated Policy Unit, the successor to the highly regarded Policy Planning Staff. And we have launched a new team and new training in commercial diplomacy, with more private sector secondments for senior officials.
We are putting greater emphasis on cultivating and retaining knowledge throughout the institution; bringing the work of FCO Historians back into the consideration and formulation of policy along with the academic rigour that our Research Analysts bring, including regular seminars to learn from history.
This includes a new approach to the alumni of the Foreign Office. I have decided to set up a new ‘Locarno Group’ of some former Ambassadors and other members of the FCO who will be an additional source of advice to Ministers on foreign policy.
We are also setting up smaller networks of alumni expertise in specific subjects such as the European Union as well as involving outside experts more in our work. Last year I set up a Human Rights Advisory Committee whose members have already made an important contribution to our human rights policy...
…So against all the odds and for the first time in decades, British diplomacy is advancing not retreating.
We are showing that it is possible to increase Britain’s reach overseas even at a time of constrained national resources and while making our contribution to bringing down the national debt.
My ambition is a Foreign Office that is the best diplomatic service in the world, and I know that it is what British diplomats want too. I want to see an even more confident and more capable Foreign Office, one in which ideas thrive and the status quo can be challenged fearlessly, that provides the creative and innovative ideas which help Britain to stay ahead and that has all the attributes of a thriving democratic institution that people want to belong to and are proud to work for, that looks after its staff, invests in the next generation of young diplomats and that is a centre for excellence in every way.
It is work that I hope will have the support of all political parties, and of course of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and various Lords Committees that tirelessly scrutinise the work of the FCO.
For I believe that the steps we are taking to strengthen the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as an institution and to enhance Britain’s foreign policy will help create the strongest possible foundation for the security and prosperity of our nation over the long term. Building political and trade links with the emerging powers, ensuring that we have diplomats in the right places in the world with the right skills and knowledge and strengthening our diplomatic network are long term projects which this Government will not neglect for a single day, while charting a course for Britain through testing times.
The conduct of our relations with 196 different countries and many international organisations is too important to be allowed to decay. It is time for a renaissance in our capacity to influence the world around us and I am determined to bring it about."
Finally, a footnote from earlier in the speech:
"It is ironic that the only object to survive the gutting of the library is a one hundred year old twenty-foot stuffed anaconda known as Albert, who remains suspended over the empty bookshelves, while the books from the period when such an unusual foreign gift found its way into the Foreign Office have been dismantled around it, and can never be reassembled."