The Conservative MP George Walden on the year peace broke out
When I hear talk, as I have done recently, of another review of the Diplomatic Service, nothing occurs to me. This paralysis is induced by a premonition of intolerable tedium. Such a review, I suspect, would be a replay of what happened a decade ago in the Think Tank review: an exercise in evasion designed to conceal more than to illuminate Britain’s real problems. These problems were and remain almost entirely domestic in origin. When you are not prepared to face up to the underlying questions, you invent bogus ones and appoint someone to examine them. That was the way of the last Labour government. It is not supposed to be this government’s style.
The examination and re-examination of Britain’s representation abroad is such a long-running and tiresomely predictable saga that you could make a television series about it. The FCO Revisited, perhaps? Popular success is guaranteed. The old props are still available from previous productions: Gilbert Scott’s Foreign Office, Lutyens’s architecture in the British Residence in Washington, or Pauline Bonaparte’s Residence in Paris, now the home of the British Ambassador, are more than adequate substitutes for Brideshead. Ex-ambassadors are in permanent supply to break decades of enforced public silence with steely letters to the Times in defence of the Service. Cartoonists are on permanent stand-by to re-sketch those gentlemen in pinstripes and bowlers whom nobody has ever met but whose image is deeply cherished by all. The abovestairs life in an overseas embassy could yet again be poignantly contrasted with real life in Liverpool. Envy, nostalgia, anti-élitism, a touch of class-battling – it could be just like old times.
There is a real review to be conducted of Britain’s diplomacy, but it would not be much fun. It has nothing to do with the staffing levels of embassies, the cost of entertainment allowances, or whether the Pushtu service of the BBC should be reduced or increased by half an hour a week. It would be a fundamental reappraisal of the function of defence and diplomacy in the post-Cold War era, for a middle-ranking power whose economic recovery is as recent as it is precarious, whose educational and cultural levels remain low, and whose main conurbations – which already include some of the most desolating cityscapes in Europe – are becoming environmentally asphyxiated. Such a review would have little attraction for government, and limited popular appeal. The ingredients of an old-time British social comedy are simply not there.
Over the decade since the last pseudo-review of the Foreign Office, British diplomacy has continued largely as before – if anything, rather more so. This diplomacy has been broadly successful for two reasons: one positive, one negative. The positive reason is that the Conservative Government’s boldness in tackling internal problems has earned us new international respect. Mrs Thatcher is the only prime minister I can recall whose overseas reputation has been based more on domestic achievement than international activism. The more negative reason for our relative success overseas is that events have fortuitously helped us to maintain a high diplomatic profile – with its ever-present risk of reinforcing old illusions about our real place in the world.
Lancaster House converted a long-standing and abject foreign policy failure into a dazzling success, so reviving our reputation for diplomatic genius. Argentina provided us with a small, controlled war we could not afford to lose and in fact won in style. During the same decade, the Cold War not only persisted but went through a phase of heightened tension. This was not sought by Britain, but was a boon to us nevertheless. It enabled us to display ourselves to our best advantage: by an admirable combination of toughness in defence and sobriety in diplomacy we maximised our influence in Europe and America.
Even our battle with the Community enhanced our standing: we were seen as a renascent power determined to secure its rights and objectives. Indeed we were persistently urged by pro-Europeans in this country to use our new prestige to seize the leadership of Europe. All this was dizzying stuff for the electorate. What could be better calculated to raise the national spirits than a government holding the flag high in the face of the evils of Communism, the murderous follies of buffoonish Argentinian generals, and the intrigues of the perfidious French?
And now it is gone, all gone. In a matter of a mere few years life itself has shot most of our international foxes. The most fundamental change has been in the East. The Communists have thrown in the sponge and left us bouncing about in the ring looking for an opponent. With the exception of the Middle East, where British power and commitments are fortunately highly circumscribed, Third World heat spots are cooling fast. As for Europe, the big problem has been resolved with spectacular finality. The notion of British leadership of the Community – always a fond figment – is now as hollow an illusion as that of a permanently divided Germany. There can be no debate about staying or leaving. All that remains is the long haul in Brussels.
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Vol. 12 No. 14 · 26 July 1990 » George Walden » The Conservative MP George Walden on the year peace broke out
pages 10-13 | 4002 words