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Charles Crawford: How Labour dumbed down the Foreign Office

This is the first instalment of a two-part series. Tomorrow we will publish Charles' advice to the new Foreign Secretary.

Picture 6 Charles Crawford served in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for 28 years, latterly as British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw. He left the FCO in 2007 and was on the Conservative Party candidates' list prior to this year's general election. He blogs here.

One conspicuous example of institutional ruin caused by New/Old Labour is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. A combination of bad policy decisions, weak Ministerial leadership, enervating political correctness, wretched information management and an appalling Treasury-inflicted target culture has dumbed down one of the world’s best diplomatic services.

What went wrong?

Foreign policy can be looked at from three angles:

  • Policy Aims – are they sensible?
  • Policy Resources – do we have the tools for the job?
  • Policy Structure – is the system set up in a good, strong way?

Labour crashed under all three headings. In reverse order:

Policy Structure: Death by Process

Let’s be fair. Targets and Objectives for government processes were created in the Thatcher era, to make government more ‘businesslike’.

Under Gordon Brown as Chancellor this common sense idea mutated into a monstrous control-freaking octopus to help the Treasury micro-manage anything and everything across Whitehall.

The Foreign Office attracts thousands of top graduates every year for a handful of places. Its senior people are clever. They loyally applied all that cleverness to ingenious ways to ‘measure’ foreign policy inputs and outputs.

Robin Cook at least had a steely common sense and prioritised issues with iron logic: those where he might get good media were emphasised, everything else wasn’t. But after him it declined fast. The FCO lost its way. Objectives and Priorities trickled up, then trickled down. Roadmaps came and went.

The FCO absurdly went from seven to eight to nine to (phew) ten Strategic Priorities. It then gave up on Strategic Priorities in favour of Milibandish four new Key Policy Goals. All in a mere 260 weeks.

Latterly a new disease emanated from the Cabinet Office: ‘risk-management’ matrices. As HM Ambassador in Warsaw I pointed out that the main risk to UK foreign policy was Ministers changing their minds abruptly because of some other priority, or the Treasury cutting the budget for facile reasons. Might those risks be factored in? Answer came there none.

Labour reorganised neurotically. It changed the FCO structure which had done well for generations. Geographical and historical expertise was dumped in favour of policy ‘themes’. Plus (astonishingly) it stripped out key competences from the internal appraisal system: Judgement and Analysis were no longer assessed. The key reason why the FCO bungled the planning for the Pope’s visit lie here: since the visit was not a Key Policy Goal, it was natural that people with no clue about Catholicism be told to plan it.

Frantic new process emerged to suppress non-existent bullying. Exotic forms of political correctness crept into policy. Meetings with homophobic brown-skinned Muslims in the Middle East were feted as ‘outreach’, while homophobic white-skinned Christians in eastern Europe were eschewed.

Maybe the very worst mistake made by Labour was allowing the IT base of the FCO to develop without a proper accessible database. Paper files are long gone, For most practical purposes desk officers now can’t access much internal history of their policy areas to see how policy has evolved before they came to the job. Systemic dumbing-down of consistency, analysis and insight at all levels. Disgraceful.

Policy Resources: Death by DFID

New Labour lunged for ‘progressive internationalism’ and separated out Development from Foreign Policy by creating DFID. This at a stroke cut off most resources from foreign policy. I heard Robin Cook mutter once that “that was the worst decision we ever took”. He was right.

Billions of extra pounds were poured into DFID and then on to EU/UN and all manner of NGO processes, including (disgracefully) the TUC and even various pro-Labour lobbying organisations in the UK itself. To help lift the poorest from povertyn a sprawling new industry of plump European consultancy and civil society parasites was subsidised.

Markets worked. Hundreds of millions of poor people started to get rich in Asia with scarcely any DFID support at all; bafflingly much of Africa languished, despite armies of DFID fact-finding missions. Even some people living nicely on DFID consultancies were embarrassed by the wastefulness.

Meanwhile back at the impoverished FCO basic standards and lobbying capacity wilted. Climate Change was fetishised. Jobs devoted to sharp-end political and lobbying work were cut or downgraded, especially in western Europe. Labour let down the UK by ceding even more powers to the EU via its Lisbon Treaty betrayal, then cutting our diplomatic capacity to lobby in EU capitals against damaging EU initiatives.

Policy Aims: Death by Banality

Having dumbed down the FCO, Tony Blair increasingly ignored it. At least that made it clear where the blame lay when things went wrong, as in Iraq.

Tony Blair also failed the supreme negotiating test of the New Labour period, the UK’s 2005 EU Presidency. He blew an historic chance to force the EU to change its ways when it was wheezing flat on its back after the French/Dutch referenda No votes on the Constitutional Treaty. Instead he made unforced concessions on the UK’s budget rebate, and schemed for the new Lisbon Treaty to be bundled through Parliament.

Gordon Brown tried (in some respects wisely) to retarget British influence at the G20 level, by-passing the EU. But this too went wrong, because of poor negotiating technique. The Copenhagen Summit fiasco showed the UK entangled in EU process and, ultimately, marginalised.

This inability to establish a firm thematic balance between British and EU and US positions was exemplified in 2009. The UK as represented by the FCO website had no view at all on the important Chavez/Leftist attempted power-grab in Honduras.

Finally, the key vote on Israel at the grisly UN Human Rights council in October. The UK and France (both Security Council members) were so paralysed by process that they not only failed to vote Yes or No - they failed even to abstain. Like Copenhagen, a stunning, culminating metaphor for New Labour’s foreign policy incompetence. There at myriad meetings – except the ones which mattered.


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