From the TUC

Hague: World leadership replaced by management consultancy

09 Sep 2011, by in International

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Rt Hon William Hague, has made a curious speech today, which eschewed any concentration on what foreign policy is for, and concentrated solely on how the FCO is being managed.

He did mention the FCO’s narrowed down priorities – security, prosperity, and consular support to British nationals – but the rest of the speech was about how the organisation is being run. And I am worried that this is precisely the vision William Hague and the Government he belongs to have of foreign policy: it’s not about showing global leadership, it’s about keeping track of the paper clips.

As a bureaucrat myself, I know that the victory of ideas has to be organised, and some of the specific measures Hague’s speech outlines are indeed welcome. Reopening a central FCO language school is one example: the TUC opposed Labour’s abandonment of a central service. I’m with him in bemoaning the loss of the FCO library (mostly to UCL, as he admits), although in the days of the world wide web, such a complaint is a bit ostentatiously old fogey-ish, even for William Hague.

Hague’s negotiation of a deal with Treasury to protect the FCO budget from currency fluctuations is also a good thing (although he rather overdoes his description of the previous system). His speech contains many commitments to extra expenditure, and just one reference to cuts (sorry, efficiency savings). Hague’s speeches on foreign policy often emphasise what more he will do, without quantifying what his cuts will mean no longer get done – you get the impression that the FCO’s budget is actually expanding rather than, as is really the case, shrinking.

But the FCO ought to be doing far more than the three policy priorities he refers to (albeit that all organisations fake a reduction in priorities by lumping several together). These three priorities are a staggering reduction in ambition, consistent with Hague’s overall view of the minimal state and with the Government’s general retreat from attempts to lead in the EU, the G20 and so on.

Hague does mention the pursuit of human rights in his speech, and I genuinely believe that he is committed to doing what he can to spread human rights and liberty (he and his Ministers have spoken out in defence of unions under attack in countries like Fiji and Iraq). But he does not seem to see this as a priority for the FCO, just something that is done reactively, when the Government is confronted by egregious examples of repression. Similarly, climate change and global recovery are not on the agenda except where someone else forces the issue.

Every subsequent Foreign Secretary has of course been scarred by the experience of Robin Cook’s attempt at “ethical foreign policy”, but that doesn’t mean that the FCO need only react, or restrict itself to homeland defence and trade promotion. There is a fastidiousness about engaging in and leading multilateral action (except in NATO, as the example of Libya demonstrates) which suggests the reining in of foreign policy.