Philip Hammond interview: we must maintain our international standing on a reduced budget

Britain has to maintain its international standing on a reduced budget, says Philip Hammond
February 18, 2016
Listen to Prospect's full interview with Hammond here

Is Britain going to let Russia win in Syria? If not, what can it do about it? That is the quandary which faces British foreign policy: how to have the influence it wants while its appetite­—and resources—for military conflict are limited. But Philip Hammond, speaking as Russian airstrikes left the Syrian town of Aleppo all but cut off, holds that there will be no change to the position that President Bashar al-Assad must eventually go.

“Somebody who has murdered hundreds of thousands of their own citizens and deliberately targeted civilians with barrel bombs and displaced two-thirds of the population from their homes cannot be part of the future of the country,” the Foreign Secretary said, speaking to Prospect and an audience of 250 in the imperial splendour of the Locarno Suite of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). He added pragmatically, in an argument shared by many attempting to revive the fledgling peace talks that: “So long as Assad is there, the Sunni oppositionists are not going to lay down their arms. There isn’t going to be an effective end to the civil war.”

That insistence on Assad’s exit has been the cornerstone of the position held by Britain and the United States. But after Russia moved quickly in September to strengthen its forces in Syria, and its support for Assad, it is a position that is conspicuously hard to enforce.

“What the Russians are doing is not what they said they’d do,” Hammond said. “Seventy per cent of Russian airstrikes, even now, are targeted against moderate opposition,” he added. “These are the people we believe have to be an integral part of the new Syria. Destroying them, bombing them, bombing civilian areas—schools, hospitals, mosques—while engaged in a political process in parallel I’m afraid is not a sustainable position.”

In remarks that proved unfortunately prescient, he added: “I don’t think it’s sustainable to continue a political process co-sponsored by a protagonist who is bombing civilians on the ground.” Several days later, the third round of peace talks in Vienna collapsed because of the disarray of the opposition rebels and Russia’s continued bombing in support of the Assad regime.

But can Assad be persuaded to go—and if so, would Russia shelter him? “If the Russians were prepared to remove Assad from the equation, while protecting him personally, my personal view is that while that would be distasteful, it would be preferable to seeing another 100,000 Syrians killed.”

Russia’s sudden move in September came as a surprise to the US and Britain, following months of contact at the foreign minister level when the west thought it had the basis of a deal in place. Was that a failure of intelligence? Hammond acknowledged that “we were surprised by the speed of the Russian deployment [in Syria]. The signals we had from Russia were that while it might want to have some greater involvement it would be a limited involvement.”

That new Russian force has created a serious obstacle for western plans. “Candidly, I have a question mark in my mind whether Russia is really committed to a political solution. Or whether what we are actually seeing is a military campaign designed to shore up the Assad regime and to create an Alawite mini-state [Assad is part of the Alawite sect of Islam] under cover of a political process.” If that is the case, then Britain and the US have to decide how far they will go to stop it; at present, they appear to have few tools.

British relations with Russia, rarely even warm in the past decade, are decidedly cool after the report by Judge Robert Owen into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko by polonium poisoning in London in 2006. Despite comments by Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, that the “show” around the highly critical report would “complicate” relations with Britain, Hammond maintains that “while this is a very serious crime and we want to send a very clear signal about our view of this crime,” Britain responded vigorously to the murder at the time “on the assumption that there was Russian state complicity if not Russian state direction of the crime.”

This, though, is the predicament of modern British foreign policy: to maintain an engagement with conflict zones greater than many other countries do, but without the military power or presence or the public support for military action which might support an intervention that would make a big difference. Asked about whether the Taliban was now about to regain Helmand province, where most of the 456 British personnel who died in Afghanistan lost their lives, the Foreign Secretary maintained that “it’s possible to defend [Helmand].” He acknowledged, though, that “The Taliban have made inroads, particularly in northern Helmand, which has always been the most difficult part of the province.”

The US has already scrapped its plan to withdraw troops by 2017, and is sending more to Helmand. “The Afghan 215 Corps that garrisons Helmand is currently significantly under-strength,” Hammond said. “And I think we have got to keep making the case to the Afghan government to prioritise Helmand. They are facing many pressures in other areas.”
"I do not want to support a proposition on the EU that is then going to fail when it is put to the British people"
On migration, asked whether Germany’s Chancellor had made a mistake in inviting asylum seekers in, Hammond said that “I would note that Angela Merkel herself is making much less generous noises about future migration policy in Germany now than she was a few months ago. I think perhaps the scale of the challenge was not foreseen by politicians and some of the early statements were perhaps made with a rather more modest potential influx in mind.”

That is an understatement, but it still amounts to reproof of a sort. There is no such censure of Poland and the moves its new nationalist government has made to gain more control of the constitutional court and media. We need to recognise “that all countries in the European Union are different,” Hammond said. “That’s part of the strength of Europe: that we’ve all got different cultures, different histories, different approaches, while we have some common values that we regard as very important.” Asked whether it was an acceptable level of difference if countries offended European values, he said with particular reference to Poland: “I would be pretty alarmed by the idea that we hold democratic elections in our respective countries, a party wins with a pretty substantial majority, and then somebody in Brussels pops up and says ‘we don’t like your policies, you can’t do that.’ That is treading into some very, very dangerous territory which would deeply alarm the British electorate and I imagine the electorates across a much larger swathe of the European Union.”

Hammond has in the past offered a famously tortuous explanation of his position on the EU referendum: “I can’t envisage us negotiating a deal which the Prime Minister thinks is good enough to recommend to the British people that I feel I want to campaign against.”

He added to Prospect: “I do not want to support a proposition that is then going to fail when it’s put to the British people. And my judgement is that unless there is within this package measures that will have the effect of reducing net migration into the UK from the EU… we have no chance of persuading the British people to support the package in a referendum.”

Asked by Richard Dawkins, the scientist, who was in the audience, “on something as complicated and important as Europe, why on earth hand it over to the British people?” the Foreign Secretary remarked sardonically: “There speaks a true democrat—too important for the people to decide.” Dawkins retorted in turn that “we have a representative democracy”—we elect politicians to make judgements on our behalf. Hammond replied that people decided at the last democratic election that they wanted to be governed by a party that included in its manifesto a commitment to allow the EU decision to be made through a referendum.

“On one hand you are asked to give up some of your sovereignty to the European Union,” he said. “And on the other, you gain some economic benefit being in a market of 500m people. What’s gone wrong is very simple. The economic benefits haven’t been materialising for Britain so many people feel that the dynamism and entrepreneurialism of our economy has been held back by the dead hand of Brussels bureaucracy.” If we “rebalance that equation I think ordinary British people will be perfectly capable of recognising [that].”

He is proud of his success in winning from George Osborne, the Chancellor, a commitment to maintain the FCO budget, now around £2bn a year, in real terms in the last Spending Review, after several years of sharp cuts. William Hague, Hammond’s predecessor, told parliament in 2010 that the budget was less than that of Kent County Council.

“I think it is worth noting that we have a diplomatic service roughly the same size as that of France, but we deliver that with a budget about 75 per cent that of France,” said Hammond. “Our benchmark is to outperform the French while under-spending the French. We probably serve slightly less good wine.” The reception that followed the discussion was kindly supported by BAE Systems