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The real job William Hague needs to do at the Foreign Office

2010 June 4
by Paul Vallely

On his first day in his new job William Hague stood outside the main entrance to the Foreign Office and set out his priorities. But he missed off his list one of the most serious problems he faces. At the top he had Britain’s special relationship with the United States, with particular regard to Afghanistan; next came good relations with the countries of Europe; and then a new emphasis on building relationships with countries in south Asia, north Africa and Latin America where the economic action will be in the decades to come. All fine and apt. But there is something far nearer home that should concern him.

For centuries the word diplomacy has been synonymous with subtlety, finesse, tact, sinuous guile and crafty negotiation. British diplomats were long regarded as masters of the delicate art. Until, that is, an official Foreign Office team three months ago produced a document of proposals for the visit of the Pope to the UK in September – which suggested he should open an abortion ward, launch his own brand of papal condoms, bless a “gay wedding” – and, in pursuit of the climate change agenda, persuade God to make trees fall on illegal loggers.

This seemed the total obverse of diplomatic discretion. Indeed it was branded by serving and retired ambassadors as – among other things – crass, scabrous, sneering, puerile, shameful and staggeringly stupid. It produced an unprecendentedly grovelling apology from the Foreign Secretary to the Vatican. But above all it opened a little window into the soul of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. How could Britain’s diplomats have become so undiplomatic?

At first many, inside and outside the FCO head office in King Charles St, assumed it was a joke, the latest manifestation of the irreverent wit that has characterised the Foreign Office over the years. But it was not a premature if misguided April Fool’s joke. It turned out to be a serious brainstorming document written by the Foreign Office’s official Papal Visit Team and sent out to 35 officials in other government departments.

“It was not a wind-up,” one senior official in the Foreign Office told me. “It was supposed to be the basis for discussion on the ideal things the government would like from the visit. Had it been a joke the FCO would have used it as an excuse when we sent the British Ambassador to the Vatican into the Pope’s people to apologise. But everybody knew it wasn’t.”

A few years ago I was seconded from The Independent to work for six months for Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa. In that I time I had dealings with many senior diplomats and civil servants in the Foreign Office, Treasury, Department for International Development and in 10 Downing Street. What was striking about them was their high intellectual calibre, their dedication and their moral seriousness. But a number of clues emerged about the kind of changes which have brought about the present debacle, which goes well beyond the handling of the papal visit. It is that to which William Hague must now turn his attention.

The culture of the Foreign Office began to change as part of the modernisation project that began a decade not long after the electoral landslide that brought Tony Blair to power. New Labour saw the civil service as lumbering, hide-bound and innately pro-Conservative after 18 years of Tory government. It determined to drag Whitehall into the modern age. “There was a greater focus on outcomes,” said one Foreign Office insider, responsible for a department of 70 officials. “There was greater attention to diversity. It was decided to push people through their career faster to retire older diplomats, which also saved money.” Staff were given responsibility at a much younger age. Ambition was encouraged.

“In embassies,” one recently retired ambassador says, “we stopped wearing ties round the office and insist on the staff calling us by our first names – which some local staff still aren’t comfortable with.” In the department’s headquarters in King Charles St a Dress-Down Friday was introduced where young men in jeans and open-necked shirts would arrive in reception to greet smartly-dressed diplomats from smaller countries who must have wondered what had happened to this once-august institution

The Cabinet Secretary, at the behest of Tony Blair, brought in huge numbers of management consultants, all across Whitehall. In came business jargon – blue-skies thinking, organograms, flow-charts, spidergraphs, syngery and silos – and a great emphasis on presentational style.

But when the old-fashioned ponderous style went so did some of the better instinctive qualities. “Esprit de corps has attenuated and been replaced by individuals pushing their careers forward,” says one former head of department. “The FCO’s naturally collaborative way of working has gone.” Decorum, manners, respectability are all less important, adds one senior diplomat: “There is much more license in behaviour at table and in the amounts of alcohol consumed. Senior people don’t like to talk about good manners, or attempt to teach them, for fear of being seen as elitist. The result has been that the culture has become more like that of an NGO than a diplomatic corps.”

“The culture of emails, texts and instant communication has done away with the carefully-honed, well-considered ambassadorial reflections sent back periodically to the Foreign Office,” says an ex-diplomat who served as private secretary to several ministers. “This gives the whole culture a different flavour, more informal, more flip, less precise in its language.” It has brought a coarsening of language and debate.

Even so, it has brought significant advantages, he believes. “Spicing up brainstorms gets people to think more imaginatively,” he says.  The aim is to tap into subconscious levels of thinking which is why brainstorm facilitators insist – despite the proposal that the Queen and the Pope might be persuaded to sing a duet together, or that the national anthem should be changed to God Save the World – there is no such thing as a stupid suggestion.

“If you were considering options on Iran, for example, you might put at the most extreme end of the spectrum: dropping a nuclear bomb on Tehran. It wouldn’t mean that you were recommending that. But you are setting the parameters for the discussion. At the other end of the scale would be doing nothing. You then explore how to move on the options in between to develop some serious policy,” the former private secretary explains. “But it’s important internally to be able to articulate everything. You have to be able to have conversations with ministers which it would be disastrous if they were made public. You have to be able to talk freely internally.”

But would you send such explosive or offensive ideas to 35 people across five different Whitehall departments, as the Papal Visit Team did? “That’s still internal,” he replied. “If people leak that’s a reflection of a decline of standards of a different kind.”

Many lament the change in culture. “When I joined the Foreign Office it was policy, policy, policy,” a senior ambassador told an internal conference recently. “Today it is all management, management, management.” For all the emphasis on presentation (one senior official told me he sat around a table with 26 Whitehall heads of press, of strategic press, of public affairs and public advocacy last month) the language employed internally is slapdash and imprecise. “It’s good enough to be shallow nowadays,” he said. “But there is an important distinction between hastily shouted-out ideas which are recorded up on a whiteboard, and those which make it to the next stage of a creative process.” Brainstorming can never take the place of good judgment.

Disquiet is emerging at the most senior levels. Last year the former Conservative Foreign Secretary Lord Hurd spoke about “a malaise becoming increasingly apparent” in his old department which he said had been “hollowed out” and needed to “repair and restore its tradition of excellence”.

One of the key changes in the modernisation programme was a welcome new emphasis upon diversity with the aim of making the Foreign Office more representative of the rest of society in terms of class, gender, race and ethnicity. “Race and diversity have become Holy Grails within in the civil service; they are the great shibboleths of political correctness,” one senior official said.

The FCO has fine-tuned its antennae to avoid displaying racial prejudice or giving offence to Jewish and Muslim groups but those are conceived within a racial rather than a religious framework. Early on during the Commission for Africa one civil servant told me that I would be unable to use the word ‘corruption’ in the Commission’s final report because it could look like anti-African racial stereotyping (the idea of not confronting the issue of corruption in Africa was advice I ignored). When several of the commissioners insisted that the report must begin by rooting itself in African culture there were nods of approval, until it was suggested that this would include religion in Africa. Several officials became distinctly uncomfortable at that – even though religion shapes many cultural attitudes which are impediments to economic and social development in Africa and religious institutions are key partners in delivering development on the ground.

There is a secularist mindset here which resists the idea that religion exerts serious influence in the public sphere. This artificial race/religion divide explains why the Foreign Office happily lays on Muslim awareness courses for its staff but the equality and diversity training stop short when it comes to Britain’s biggest minority, the Catholics who make up around 9 per cent of the UK population. Minorities are axiomatically to be respected until it comes to Christians whose culture it is deemed acceptable to disregard or disdain. “The Catholic church is regarded as a particular target,” says one serving official, “because its views on abortion, contraception and the use of condoms to combat Aids in Africa are seen as absurd in secular society”.

When the department advertised internally for staff to form the Papal Visit Team it insisted that “high levels of tact and diplomacy will be required, and a good understanding of how government works” but it added that “prior knowledge of the Catholic church is not necessary”.

That is why some senior figures inside the diplomatic corps are unsurprised at the debacle that followed. The Papal Visit Team were not just ignorant of much of the basics about the Catholic Church, they seemed to regard that as a badge of pride. “I know nothing about Catholicism so start at the beginning,” one member of the team said, introducing himself to a senior figure in the English church. “Where shall we start? Is there a book we can read?” another civil servant asked a leading Catholic journalist. That is why they seemed unaware that many of their brainstorming ideas for the Pope’s visit involved suggestions of things the Catholic Church was already doing.

But the ignorance of this group extended even to the processes of their own government. The brainstorming session occurred a month after a delegation from the Vatican had arrived in London and fixed the Pope’s final UK itinerary with Dame Helen Ghosh, the senior Catholic civil servant who is chairing the lead Whitehall committee on the papal visit. The blue-sky thinkers did not include on the distribution list for their email Dame Helen, nor the British Ambassador to the Vatican, Francis Campbell, who had driven all the major initiatives on international disarmament, development, debt relief and climate change between No 10 and the Vatican.

“They may have got an A* for their process, with their brainstorms, their prioritising and their grids,” said one senior Foreign Office insider tartly. “But they get a total fail on knowledge, political judgement and common sense.” The fact that in their grid, they judged the overall impact of the minister responsible for organising the papal visit, the then Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy, to be negative and non-influential is “spectacularly inept, particularly in the run-up to a general election,” the official continued, “even by the standards of the Foreign Office which has never been good at reading domestic British politics”.

But concerns go deeper than the incompetence of one particular team. Questions are being raised about the supervisory structure and the wider culture within which these individuals operated. “It never occurred to any of them that what they had done was wrong,” another distinguished diplomat told me. “They thought this document was a worthy basis for further discussion. That tells you a lot about the changed culture within the Foreign Office.”

So too does initial reaction when senior staff found out about the memo. “They were disciplined as if the offence was minor,” an insider disclosed, “The most senior person was merely ‘moved to other duties’ and the others were given a mild ticking-off. When the storm broke the senior people said: ‘We can’t revisit our disciplinary procedures just because there’s been a hoo-haa’. But in the end that is exactly what they had to do when it became clear that the Vatican were privately outraged that the beliefs of the Pope and millions of Catholics in Britain and across the world had been mocked.”

The head of the team has now been suspended and sent home pending a disciplinary hearing that could lead to his dismissal or demotion. The rest of those involved have been removed from the team which has been reformed to include a number of practising Catholics. It will be led by George Edgar, who has been ambassador to both Macedonia and Cambodia.

Some in the church have detected the revival of anti-Catholic sentiment within the Foreign Office with resurrected rhetoric about the Pope as an enemy of political freedom which dates back to Elizabethan England. But that is a misreading. What is embedded in the King Charles St is a secularist worldview which displays a shallow understanding of religion and assumes a moral superiority of atheism over belief.

“It is part of a wider antipathy in the metropolitan elite to religion,” says one former department head. “With Islam and Judaism they are not allowed to articulate it because of the pre-eminence of the equality, diversity and race agenda. But with Christianity it is regarded as an acceptable antagonism, which is partly fed by the increasingly militant Dawkinsite new atheism, and also by the general outrage over the paedophile priest scandal.”

A significant number of diplomats are worried about this. “It is disturbing that religion is one of the most glaring areas of ignorance in the FCO,” says one serving ambassador with experience in the Middle East. “The fact is that, throughout the world, religion is clearly increasingly important to how people see their own identity. My colleagues understand that about Islam post 9/11 but not about anything else. Rather there is a myopia which says that just because something isn’t important for me or British society it is not important at all. That’s not what you expect from a diplomat whose job it is to understand people who are different from him.” The Dharmic faiths – Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs – in the UK feel that government in general pays insufficient attention to them because they are focussed only on Islam and the Middle East.

The election has saved the department from another embarrassment. Baroness Kinnock, who was under Labour the Foreign Office minister of state responsible for relations with the Vatican is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and has for weeks been appearing under a banner proclaiming “Protest the Pope – Say No to an official state visit to the UK!”. She is also a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association which has called on Benedict XVI to resign as pope alleging he was personally involved in sex abuse cover-ups.

“The real victim of all this is the Foreign Office, its reputation in the world and its standing among other Whitehall departments,” said one former ambassador. “They have lost a lot of credibility.”

Others draw systemic conclusions from this bizarre episode. “There’s a canker at the heart of Foreign Office culture which needs rooting out,” says one former head of department. “The people at the top of the diplomatic service, or the people just one level beneath them, need to ask what it is about the changes they have introduced that have allowed this kind of thing to flourish at the heart of the FCO. If we don’t recover the seriousness and attention to detail that made the British diplomatic service probably genuinely the best in the world we’re in big trouble.”

To do that will require an internal inquiry into the cultural straitjacket from which all this grew. It will require a more radical level of self-scrutiny than the current shibboleths of diversity and equality seem to provide. It may be that Britain’s senior diplomats are unable to do it themselves. William Hague should now do it for them.

a version of this article appeared in the Church Times

One Response
  1. MEG permalink
    July 1, 2010

    Hear hear. Let’s move away from the confuddlement of political “correctness” and introduce some political decency, for a change. Even a so-called secular society can and should nurture understanding and respect for all its citizens, regarding, as supposed to regardless of, religious persuasion where this applies. (It would seem that the “blue sky” thinkers would benefit from some time out to contemplate the open spaces of the real world beyond Whitehall..) Please, Mr Hague, Reform!

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