The Lebanon crisis has once again shown that foreign policy is made in Downing Street, not the foreign office. The recently retired head of the diplomatic service tries to explain why the FCO mattersby Charles Grant / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
Thirty years ago, the foreign and commonwealth office (FCO) acted as Britain’s gatekeeper to the world, defining its interests and cementing links with its allies. Today it is often overshadowed by 10 Downing Street on diplomacy, bypassed by domestic departments on European policy and global economic issues, and outspent by the department for international development (DfID). Like many foreign ministries around the world, the FCO is facing budget cuts, low morale and a crisis of purpose. The war in Lebanon has highlighted the FCO’s uncomfortable role within the government: on the key strategic issues, British foreign policy is driven by the prime minister rather than the FCO.
Faced with these challenges, the strategists of King Charles Street have been trying to reinvent the FCO as the department for globalisation. More parochially, they are placing a new focus on “delivery,” partly to forestall what Gordon Brown might demand when he becomes prime minister. Brown’s name certainly invokes some trepidation in the FCO. His comprehensive spending reviews in recent years have not been generous to the department, and when he travels around the world, he often stays in hotels rather than with ambassadors as other ministers do.
In a rare interview on the eve of his retirement at the end of July, Michael Jay, head of the diplomatic service, talked to us about the attempt to modernise the FCO. A taller and ganglier version of his more famous cousin, the journalist Peter Jay, he seems slightly awkward in the cavernous office that he redecorated five years ago to show off the best design and paintings of the Cool Britannia era.
Jay denies that his reforms were designed to make the FCO “Brown-proof,” and instead moves on to the big issue: “What we have tried to do in the last five years is answer a question: what are foreign offices for?” His answer has been to stake a claim on the international aspects of domestic issues: “It is wrong to look at the role of the FCO as just doing traditional foreign policy—it is also about globalisation, climate change, organised crime and drugs.”