Blair must abandon government by secretariat in foreign policy.by David Owen / December 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
On Monday 5th April 1982, the foreign secretary, Peter Carrington, resigned, following the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands. As he wrote in his memoirs, “The anger of the British people and parliament at the Argentine invasion of the Falklands was a righteous anger, and it was my duty and fate to do something to assuage it.” This resignation had far-reaching consequences. It marked a significant weakening in the power of the foreign secretary and a build up in the role of No 10 in the conduct of foreign and security policy. This trend has been reinforced by two periods in which cabinet government was devalued – 1985-90 and 1997-2003. During these periods cabinet meetings still took place, but decisions were taken by the respective prime ministers, sometimes with a few cabinet ministers too. Cabinet government is bound to differ under different prime ministers. It is marked by their personality, the extent of their dominance in their party and other factors. Jim Callaghan believed that the prime minister, the chancellor, the foreign and the home secretaries should never go to cabinet differing on an issue without trying first to resolve any disagreement among themselves. To take a specific example, in 1977 I wanted a Commonwealth peacekeeping force, rather than a UN force, to implement the Anglo-American plan for Rhodesia. Callaghan, aware that Denis Healey was going to argue for the UN, warned me and gave me the opportunity to change my recommendation in the cabinet paper, saying he would not push a Commonwealth force through if Denis had significant support. I chose to go ahead and was defeated, but had no cause to complain. Nor is cabinet just about consulting colleagues. It is about involving government departments at every appropriate level. In a functioning cabinet, ministers come briefed to a decision-making meeting having spoken to a number of experts within the department and some from outside. Cabinet government has many forms – sometimes there is a formalisation of an inner cabinet of a few senior ministers – but the prime minister is primus inter pares, not a president. Cabinet government, as developed during the 20th century in Britain, represents the best way yet found of handling a fusion of the executive and the legislature. (Although called a cabinet in the US, it does not govern collectively but rather serves the president, who is the executive.) Margaret Thatcher initially practiced cabinet government. But by 1982, decisions began to be taken in No 10 on the basis of minutes circulated among senior ministers. Over the Falklands, with her own personal position on the line, it was understandable that she concentrated decision-making in No 10, but she also began a process of bypassing the cabinet, especially over foreign policy. She acquired her first foreign policy adviser in No 10 at the start of 1983 when Anthony Parsons came to work for her. The autonomy of No 10 deepened when Charles Powell developed the post in a way that was far removed from the role of his unobtrusive diplomatic predecessors. From 1992-95, as the EU negotiator in the Balkans, I saw many matters referred to No 10 which in my day I would have settled within the foreign office. This was partly a consequence of prime ministers getting sucked into decisions over the EU’s common foreign and security policy through quarterly heads of government meetings. Also, more heads of government travel to London and more issues cross over into more departments. Nato’s involvement in Kosovo in 1999 and the events of 11th September in the US would have drawn any prime minister into more direct decision-making on foreign policy. But these trends should have made Blair readier to draw on a wider range of experience, to make cabinet government more, not less important. Unfortunately, he chose to follow Thatcher and centralise decision-making in No 10. In Tony Blair’s first term, cabinet government was set to one side and power was sucked into No 10, but by and large he was working with the same institutional structures as before. But after the 2001 election he executed the most sweeping changes ever made in the conduct of British foreign and security policy. He effectively brought the European unit from the cabinet office into No 10 as a new European secretariat and created a new overseas and defence secretariat, again in No 10. The secretariats were headed by two senior civil servants – Stephen Wall and David Manning. Both were ideally qualified for the job, both at the peak of their careers and backed by well qualified staff. Yet the structure within which they work cannot avoid creating a personal decision-making point around the prime minister. Tony Blair needs to dominate foreign and security policy because he clearly does not dominate economic and fiscal policy. The criticism of “President” Blair falls at the first fence, for he has allowed Gordon Brown a decision-making power which goes far beyond that conceded by all other postwar prime ministers to their chancellor. As a result, we have today two large areas of policy outside the normal cabinet machinery: one domestic, controlled by the chancellor from the treasury, and one overseas, controlled by the prime minister from No 10. For a short while, in 2001 and 2002, it looked like the new centralisation of foreign and defence policy in No 10 was succeeding. Blair and Bush were in constant direct communication and if Geoff Hoon and Jack Straw featured even less than Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell over Iraq, few cared as long as it worked. But Blair’s honeymoon period from 1997-2003, like Thatcher’s from 1982-88, has not lasted. Hubris was followed by nemesis for Thatcher. The same will be true for Blair unless there are changes of organisation as well as attitude in No 10. We have now experienced two tests of Blair’s new No 10 secretariats and his style of personal diplomacy: the EU constitutional treaty negotiations and the Iraq war. On both issues the prime minister has, to date, not been able to command the broad consent of the British public. The absence of consent does not in itself make the policies wrong, but it is troubling for any democrat and should lead to questions over the way the government operates. On the Iraq war I supported and still support Tony Blair. Yet I do not need to await Lord Hutton’s verdict to judge that the joint intelligence committee (JIC) machinery was corrupted in the run up to that war. It is impossible to believe that Anthony Duff, Percy Cradock or Pauline Neville-Jones, to name three heads of the JIC with whom I have worked, would ever have conducted themselves as John Scarlett did with Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell over amending the statement on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The so-called “dodgy” dossier, for which Campbell has apologised, rendered our intelligence services a laughing stock. Among the reasons for these failures is the “matey,” corner-cutting, somewhat shambolic, structure of No 10’s defence and security decision-making which was revealed in the Hutton hearings. I do not personally feel misled by Blair over what he has said about WMD and I have been surprised that no actual weapons have yet been found. Nevertheless, millions of British citizens do feel deceived and it is quite proper to continue asking relevant questions. The cabinet discussed Iraq fairly frequently but the foreign office, ministry of defence and ministry of overseas development were not deeply enough involved and in part this seems to be why Britain was not able to plan for the war’s aftermath more effectively. We cannot just blame the Bush administration. While Basra has, it appears, been somewhat better handled than Baghdad, there have still been major deficiencies in our own postwar area of responsibility. In the first Gulf war, our co-operation with the US military was based on component commanders and a joint force commander who had considerable influence. We knew we were going to fight for months ahead and we planned accordingly in good time. In the 2003 Iraq war we only had contingent commanders and a national contingent commander. Did this mean we were so fully integrated that we lost all independence? Why was an airman our senior officer in the US commander’s HQ when it was obvious no Iraqi planes would fly? Moreover, we knew from Afghanistan that the US commander’s strong point was not nation-building and that therefore the postwar period would need a person with experience in Bosnia or Kosovo. Planning for the aftermath of the war was too Pentagon-dominated in the US and was hampered in Britain by the politicians keeping their fingers crossed that there would not be a war. Neither the US nor Britain appear to have anticipated that Saddam Hussein might stage a guerrilla war after defeat in a conventional battle and were too confident that former Iraqi military units would come across to the coalition. While John Sawers, an emergency appointment as Britain’s special envoy to Iraq, did a fine job after the war, why was there no one earmarked for this role months before? Why did we not put a very senior political or diplomatic figure, albeit temporarily, into Washington once Christopher Meyer felt he had to go? This was no time to be represented by a deputy, even an able one, particularly given the differences between Colin Powell’s state department and Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon about postwar reconstruction. Also, why for all the prime minister’s meetings with Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schr?der, did he fail to anticipate French opportunism and German readiness to go along with it? Were there any warnings from the foreign office? The strategy of going for a second vote in the security council was urged on Bush by Blair. But authority to invade was already granted by past UN resolutions so failure to secure that second vote caused an unnecessary loss of moral authority before the war. One has to go back to Suez for a parallel. The problems in Iraq are resolvable. The Iraqi police and army are being rebuilt and they should start to improve the security situation with the US and British military acting against Saddam’s guerrilla tactics. Iraqi oil production will pick up, with less disruption, provided an international oil consortium is created – and not just a US one. Britain has, however, sustained a very serious rebuff. There are deep political questions as to why our diplomacy failed so miserably, and truly worrying questions as to why our intelligence appears to have been so deficient. We need an authoritative independent review on both sides of the Atlantic about the appropriateness of present intelligence techniques. Over the Iraq war we also need, but will not get, an inquiry like Oliver Franks conducted after the Falklands war. One question such an inquiry should consider is how many mistakes relate back to the way the war was run by the defence and overseas secretariats out of No 10. On the present evidence, no one can credibly argue that the new secretariats have delivered. Their very existence feeds the illusion that all these complex European and Iraq related issues can be handled by the prime minister flying around for much publicised talks with heads of government. The brighter the people involved in the secretariat, the longer the illusion will be maintained that this kind of decision-making can succeed. At the very least, New Labour needs a functioning inner cabinet. This means not just Tony Blair, but Gordon Brown transferring power back to cabinet ministers and allowing other Whitehall departments to play a full part in contributing to decision-making. The prime minister may fear that this would lead to the return of old Labour attitudes and even policies and that his modernisation project would wither on the vine. If this fear is true, it can only mean that Blair does not trust his present cabinet, in which case it is all the more important that he uses his power to change ministers and fashion a structure that he can trust. It is not just a matter of Tony Blair foregoing spin or changing his style. Having recognised on public service reform that a top-down approach will not work, it is important that he recognises that it does not work for foreign and defence policy either. The substance of government policy needs reinforcing by drawing on a wider pool of talent within departments and learning from expert opinion. We do not yet have the much trumpeted joined-up government. We lack an energy policy and a coherent transport policy. The “Yes to Europe, no to the euro” campaign owes its success, in part, to the government’s incoherence. The euro is now a very distant prospect but the country would gain from the economic choices being more widely discussed between departments. For the government to achieve its European and international objectives and to deliver on its domestic modernisation project, one change is vital. The duopoly of personal power that dominates Whitehall must be changed. Hitherto, Tony Blair must have feared reducing Gordon Brown’s power in the treasury in case he walked out of the cabinet and in the process seriously damaged the government. But if Blair demonstrates to the cabinet that he is ready to wind down his new international secretariats in No 10 and share more power on international affairs, he will put himself in an impregnable position. He can demand that Brown must accept the same and bring to cabinet important aspects of financial and economic decision-making. The personal fiefdoms of these two able politicians may have helped the New Labour government establish itself, but now there are other serious players in the cabinet. Today, these fiefdoms have become a looming threat to the government’s competence, coherence and credibility at home and abroad.