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Today marks 25 years since Margaret Thatcher stood down as one of Britain’s most controversial prime ministers. Among her considerable legacies, one is often overlooked; the systematic degradation of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office as a prime mover in British foreign policy.
Denigrated and alienated by Thatcher, professional diplomats went from Whitehall heroes to estranged quietists. Over the following decades, power began to concentrate in the prime minister’s Downing Street office, followed by dramatic funding cuts to the Foreign Office, and further centralisation.
A grand British institution – but more importantly a repository of local wisdom, linguists and sound-minded strategists – began its long slow death under Thatcher. The effects are still being felt today.
“The Foreign Office – what do they know about anything?” Thatcher remarked at a private meeting at Chequers. She thought the department was “a limp institution dedicated to giving away Britain’s vital interests” and instinctively rejected their advice.
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She particularly resented their soft stance on the Falklands and the Soviet Union, and by the mid-1980s, she had set up No 10, her Downing Street office, so it could take decisions with only a head-nod to the Foreign Office.
Crucial to this were the unique appointments of former diplomats Sir Percy Cradock and Anthony Parsons as internal foreign policy advisers to No 10, the first appointments of their kind.
After the Falklands conflict, which saw Thatcher get a taste for the rock and roll of international affairs, another Foreign Office man – Charles Powell, became her private secretary in 1983.
She also made the Joint Intelligence Committee report to her via the Cabinet Office, meaning the key intelligence services no longer filtered their reports through the sense-checking expertise of the Foreign Office – but took their briefings straight to the politicians.
Finally, Thatcher began travelling without her Foreign Office entourage on trips abroad – acting spontaneously and without their considered advice.
As in so many ways, Tony Blair continued with Thatcher’s strategy. It was telling that during this period, Britain’s most important ambassador, Christopher Meyer in Washington, bucked Foreign Office convention and began sending reports directly to Blair or his senior foreign policy aide.
Foreign policy is a tricky area in which accurate information and expertise matters, all the more important as premiers like Thatcher naturally enter office with little expertise of their own.
Blair developed a coterie of close advisers, and pre-packaged foreign policy decisions in private, informal meetings before presenting them to Cabinet for a perfunctory sign-off.
Whereas, 19th century reforms had required that a majority of the “Indian office” in Whitehall consist of people who had served in India for at least a decade, the Afghan section of the Foreign Office in London, as late as 2010, included no one who had actually served on a posting there.
The traditional practice of circulating detailed Foreign Office briefing notes to ministers was also ceased under Blair. The office’s language school was shut down and a House of Commons report last year – compiled by a former Foreign Office diplomat turned MP, Rory Stewart – noted that massive cuts in resources had led to fewer Arab speakers in the office and understaffed embassies – even in Iraq. Only three out of the 16 Middle Eastern ambassadors can reportedly speak Arabic.
This crisis of who has the final say over foreign policy has plateaued with David Cameron. As a young MP, Cameron was a moderate on foreign policy – he only mildly supported the Iraq war, was vocal in calling for an inquiry and was indifferent towards Israel.
These are positions he has since abandoned under pressure from pro-US, neo-conservative advisers such as Michael Gove and Liam Fox. Gove’s own views on the Middle East have been rubbished by more eminent observers as inexpert and amateurish.
A self-confessed novice on foreign policy before reaching office, when Cameron announced a terrorism investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood at the behest of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, he was highly criticised by Foreign Office officials the very next day, who spoke to the Financial Times saying his move had flown in the face of their current policies.
The decision to investigate appears to have been taken directly by No 10, with no consultation with the Foreign Office. The arrangement had been brokered directly between Riyadh and Downing Street, with the Foreign Office cut out completely.
On reaching office, Cameron dramatically restructured UK security policymaking – just as Thatcher had done with the Joint Intelligence Committee. The establishment of his Ministerial “National Security Council” was actually a positive step towards re-engaging the Foreign Office, but Cameron has simultaneously cut their budgets – completely cancelling out the benefit.
According to Sir Kim Darroch, the NSC “do not … have the resources to do the policy lead. That is what the Foreign Office is for.” While the Foreign Office has been able to submit their advice more often, Cameron has cut Foreign Office budgets by a quarter, making it one of the most financially persecuted departments in Whitehall.
Even worse – Cameron refocused the department on increasing trade, not on gathering intelligence. When the Arab Spring broke in 2011, the Foreign Office had to be staffed temporarily by Arabist volunteers, and following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, it had to rapidly rehire Russian speakers. It is effectively flying blind in an era of mass uncertainty.
Foreign policy is a tricky area in which accurate information and expertise matters, all the more important as premiers such as Thatcher naturally enter office with little expertise of their own.
Was Cameron’s tilt towards neo-conservative interventionism influenced by sound advice from the Foreign Office? No. It came from ideological advisers, who had never lived in the Middle East.
This would have been unthinkable, had Thatcher not decided to take foreign policy advice “in-house”.
Thatcher’s initial knocks to the Foreign Office demonstrated how fragile even the most grand of Whitehall’s institutions can be – giving future premiers licence to continue with denigration and devastating cuts. The UK is arguably less safe as a result.
Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist. He focuses on injustice and human rights in the UK and international affairs, including human rights, the arms trade, censorship, political unrest and dictatorships.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.