Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke to the CBI on Thursday, and he devoted most of his speech to what the FCO, under his leadership, was doing for British business. He also spent some time justifying the current Government’s austerity policies. As he was playing so plainly to his audience, he did not repeat last week’s gaffe of telling businesses to stop complaining and work harder. But he did say something about human rights:
“Support for human rights is in our core national interest and deep in our DNA as a nation. But our ability to promote freedom and democracy is strengthened by a strong economy and a global role. Foreign policy is not something that exists in a vacuum. … It is not the plaything or pastime of Ministers, to be channelled into utopian schemes to remake the world.”
That was it. No mention of the Ruggie Principles, no mention of ethical sourcing, no mention of corporate social responsibility, compliance with the OECD guidelines on multinational enterprises, ILO core conventions on workers’ rights… It’s just business, as a mafia boss would say about butchering his brother.
Actually, I think the Foreign Secretary does believe deeply and genuinely in human rights. I think his historical writings suggest he absolutely gets the massive breakthrough in human rights that occurred at the end of the 18th century, although after the fashion of Edmund Burke rather than Thomas Paine. Under him, the FCO is still – as it was under his Labour predecessors – deeply committed on a day to day basis with the job of protecting people from oppression. He and his Ministers have responded positively and promptly when the TUC has sought assistance for trade unionists being abused in countries like Fiji or Iran.
His comment about playthings or pastimes is undoubtedly a rather snide reference to the late Robin Cook’s proud proclamation of an “ethical foreign policy” in 1997, but it does reflect the anguish which that pledge caused in the FCO when it had to confront the sometimes messy business of diplomacy and the requirement to deal with people democrats find repugnant. And it’s hardly surprising that a Conservative Foreign Secretary talking to a business audience didn’t launch a full-blown attack on corporate greed, malfeasance or misbehaviour.
But what I do think could have been expected was some challenge to business to do better, even if it came in the form of urging them to follow the best examples to be found in the corporate world. Or at the very least, some glimmer of expectation that they would need to live up to the requirements of the Ruggie Principles, international law and increasing corporate activism on human rights.
I would expect a Conservative to say that there was no contradiction between businesses doing well, and businesses doing good.
But William Hague blew it by just pandering to his audience, leaving them with a warm glow that could only have been enhanced by the fine wines and good food his CBI chums consumed. That’s not good government, even if – for one night at least – it felt like good politics.