The Foreign Secretary seeks to reinvigorate British diplomacy but you won’t achieve that with gimmicksby Peter Ricketts / November 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
Jeremy Hunt got his headline by announcing in his first major speech as Foreign Secretary on 31st October that he was opening up some ambassador jobs to business figures. The pity was that he didn’t need this gimmick to draw attention to what was a thoughtful survey of Britain’s future options, backed up by a sure-footed first appearance in front of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
To pump up the publicity in advance, Hunt mused on the Today programme about bringing in one or two Chief Executives of FTSE companies. In his speech he was a bit more restrained, referring to “experienced, multi-lingual people.” But the chance of multi-lingual CEOs of FTSE companies submitting themselves to civil service selection procedures, and accepting a public service salary must be about the same as senior diplomats being appointed to top CEO jobs. The idea has been tried before, and has never worked. Successful businessmen who come in to the public sector tend to find the constraints irksome: they can’t fire everyone and bring in their own people; they have to toe the government line on everything, and to declare every 50p of their expenses. The reality is that the cultures and skills are very different, and don’t transplant well.
Certainly the Foreign Office needs to become more diverse. The way to do that is by redoubling existing efforts to attract a wider range at the recruitment stage, and by bringing in talent at mid-career so that by the time people reach the top they have all the tools for the job.
Britain needs a strong, effective and well-funded Foreign Office whatever the outcome of Brexit, given far-reaching changes and multiplying threats in the world. It is good news that after years of cuts under Labour and Tory governments, Hunt was able to announce that he now has the funds to recruit another 1,000 staff, open some new embassies and increase language training. And he has hoisted in the need to put the Foreign Office back in charge of “orchestrating” Britain’s international engagement, currently atomised over too many Whitehall departments.
It is also welcome that the speech began to ask the right questions about how Britain should respond to the changing balance of power in the world, and the erosion of the rules-based international order which has brought us…