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Failures at the Foreign Office

Jonathan Steele’s article on Chilcot is the first I have seen which asks the FCO: what did you do in the war (LRB, 28 July)? A great deal has been heard about the failings of the intelligence services and the military. As a retired Foreign Office man I have been looking for an assessment of the role played by the foreign secretary and his officials, but almost everything I have seen has concentrated on the FCO’s legal advisers and the question of the legality of the war. Much comment has been directed at what are described as ‘intelligence failures’, but seem to me to be policy failures.

Speaking in the House of Lords in the debate on Chilcot, Michael Jay said:

the inquiry is critical of the government and, among others, of the Foreign Office, for the degree of preparation for the aftermath of conflict. As permanent secretary to the Foreign Office at the time, I accept that criticism. As I said when I gave evidence to the inquiry, we could and should have carried out a more thorough assessment ourselves of the possible consequences of the invasion than we did.

He did not attempt to explain further. Steele quotes John Holmes, then ambassador in Paris: ‘There was “a lot of unease” in the FCO about an invasion’ – I bet there was – ‘we didn’t listen to the experts.’ You didn’t have to be an expert. I am no expert on Iraq, but I wrote a letter to the Financial Times before the war, in August 2002 (it wasn’t printed), making the point that an attack would lead to the fragmentation of Iraq and would threaten all the countries in the region.

If cabinet government had been functioning as it did in the past, the FCO would have put up formal advice, normally in the form of a paper for circulation to cabinet, covering such questions as the likely response from Iraqis to an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and the likely effect on and response from other countries in the region. Clearly Tony Blair’s method of government excluded that. Clare Short told Chilcot that cabinet meetings ‘were very short. There were never papers. There were little chats about things, but it wasn’t a decision-making body in any serious way, and I don’t remember at all Iraq coming to the cabinet in any way whatsoever at that time.’

I would also have expected to see a political office, headed by or including a senior FCO official, attached to the military commander to provide him with advice on the local situation (for example the likely consequences of de-Baathification, tribal problems, sectarian complications) and a link to civilian government departments such as the Department for International Development (DfID). I worked with the political office of the commander-in-chief in Aden in the 1960s, and in the political office of the commander-in-chief in Cyprus in the 1970s. In 2003 I asked a colonel on leave from Iraq, who had told me that he’d set up a new police force in his area but had no idea how much to pay them, why he didn’t seek advice from DfID. ‘You don’t understand,’ he said. ‘We were not allowed to communicate with London.’ According to an Arabist from the diplomatic service who was consul general in Basra in 2006, the military’s political advisers were Ministry of Defence civilians working within the military chain of command (one was castigated at one point for telling the consul general too much).

Perhaps the Americans or Tony Blair turned down the idea of a political office; the evidence does not seem to be there in Chilcot. Steele quotes Edward Chaplin, the Middle East director at the FCO at the time, saying that information on Iraq was patchy because the UK had no embassy in Baghdad. That is a familiar problem, and there is a better-than-nothing solution: a shadow embassy in London, filling the gap as best it can with information from other sources – friendly diplomatic services, academia, the media, business etc. But to do this resources have to be available, which they probably weren’t. ‘I never felt I had sufficient resources to do anything I was doing in the Foreign Office,’ Michael Jay said.

During my time at the Foreign Office, which ended in 1996, the Diplomatic Service was cut by about 1 per cent a year, which was unpleasant but not unreasonable. Since then it has been cut much more savagely, and experiments have been undertaken, such as cutting language training (a decision now happily reversed). It will be expected to play a large part in handling Brexit, and on past form will have to get by for the most part by cutting other activities. How can the FCO maintain its old position as the source of expert advice on the whole range of foreign affairs, with the necessary deep knowledge to tackle the next foreign crisis God knows where, and the one after that?

Steele is a bit hard on my former colleagues when he quotes an anonymous retired ambassador as saying: ‘Civil servants are by their nature cautious … people wanting an easy life … so they just do what the minister wants.’ One of the things ministers wanted was volunteers to take up difficult and extremely dangerous posts to help run the ‘bloody mess’ which was not called occupied Iraq, and plenty of them came from the Diplomatic Service. As for speaking truth to power, Ivor Roberts, who made his name as ambassador in Belgrade during the war there, wrote a valedictory dispatch full of home truths to such effect that the then foreign secretary Margaret Beckett banned valedictory dispatches.

One small recent incident has me deeply worried. On 21 July, the FCO issued a statement retracting earlier ministerial statements made in answer to four written parliamentary questions by Philip Hammond and in two debates by David Lidington and Tobias Ellwood. Two of the questions were put nearly six months ago. The substance of the retraction was important.The ministers said that alleged breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition had been assessed and that there was no evidence of a breach. It turns out that these statements were untrue – no assessment had been made. As a retired bureaucrat I am interested in how these untruths got through the system. Like many civil servants I was often involved in drafting replies to Parliamentary Questions. The process was exceptionally thorough, and it is unthinkable that simple mistakes of this kind could have remained undetected. I have repeatedly been shocked by other failures of the system, for example to produce replies to important letters addressed to ministers (or, a different point, shocked by the illiteracy of some of the replies produced). But this is sheer bureaucratic collapse – for any civil servant, PQs are the Holy Grail.

Oliver Miles

Brexit Blues

John Lanchester writes that ‘most people in the UK receive more from the state, in direct cash transfers and in benefits such as health and education, than they contribute to it … 48 per cent net contributors, 52 per cent net recipients’ (LRB, 28 July). This obscures the way most of us move from receiving to contributing and back again as we go through life. John Hills, in Good Times, Bad Times (2015), points out that

the incomes people get from the market – mainly from earnings – vary greatly across their life cycles … The welfare state – back to Lloyd George’s old age pensions a century ago and even more strongly after the Second World War – has always had a major aim of smoothing out some of these variations. In fact, allowing for services such as healthcare and education as well as benefits such as pensions, the large majority of what the welfare state does is ‘life cycle smoothing’. This is because it is dominated by universal entitlements (such as pensions, education and healthcare), not by stigmatised ‘welfare benefits’ for the poor.

Hills shows that, over their lifetimes, only the richest 20 per cent contribute to the state significantly more than they get back from it.

Keith Bilton
London NW5

John Lanchester wonders who came up with the winning association of Brexit with ‘control’. It was Vote Leave’s campaign director, Dominic Cummings. It’s the reverse of a trick he pulled when he worked for Business for Sterling, set up in 1998 to prevent Britain joining the euro. ‘If we make the economic case against the euro effectively,’ he wrote in 2002, ‘and link losing control to living standards, then the polls will not move and Blair cannot win.’

Tom Pye
King’s College, Cambridge

Westminster MPs are insisting that in a democracy, the result of any referendum must be final. By this rhetorical manoeuvre they would dismiss the idea that the Brexit vote could be run again. It is perhaps worth remembering that the ancient Athenians had a different perspective, and also that, in the words of Diodotus as recounted by Thucydides, the two things most opposed to good counsel are haste and passion.

Following the revolt of Mytilene against Athens and the subsequent subjugation of the city, a decision was taken by the Assembly at Athens that all the male citizens of Mytilene should be put to death. The decision was made in the true democratic manner, and a galley was despatched with these orders. On the next day the Athenians resolved to reconsider. While those most in favour of the punishment weren’t happy with the reopening of the debate, after much discussion the conclusion was reversed, and a second galley was dispatched. With the help of plenteous provisions and encouragement for the oarsmen, the second crew managed to make up a day and a half, and arrived in time to prevent the massacre.

Peter Hands

The ‘economic arguments in favour of immigration … are pretty straightforward,’ John Lanchester writes. ‘Since the next generation of taxpayers aren’t being born, we’re going to have to import them.’ There is an important qualification to be made. Governments these days feel able to boast when the unemployment rate is kept down to 5 per cent, though for the twenty years after the war it was around 2 per cent. What’s more, only about three-quarters of the UK population between the ages of 16 and 64 are in paid employment. There are significant regional, gender and age-group differences in access to work. In the long run opportunities for participation in well-paid productive work are probably falling. It is not self-evident that migration will solve this problem. There are internationalist arguments for the free movement of labour, but nationalist models of economic growth that write off significant sections of the population while importing others to do the work exacerbate the problems highlighted by Lanchester in his analysis of the widening social divide.

Michael Hill
Haywards Heath, West Sussex

The German War

I write to correct some of the misrepresentations in Richard Evans’s review of my book, The German War: A Nation under Arms, 1939-45 (LRB, 14 July). On one thing we do agree: the book attempts to answer the question of how Germans understood their own cause in the Second World War. Its main purpose – though he does not mention this – is to explain the basis and shifting character of German patriotism. My book argues that the war became the principal focus of society’s hopes and fears: it was popular only in the brief periods when victory appeared imminent and yet its legitimacy was called into question far less than that of the Nazi regime.

Evans does not like the use of the collective term ‘Germans’, though he cannot avoid using it himself. I use it to pinpoint moments when there was a shared sense of the national cause in the face of an enemy. This was never easy for the Nazi regime to achieve. German society remained plural in its values and could be marshalled into supporting war in 1939 only by appealing to the broadest possible legitimation for war, namely ‘national defence’. The same appeal had worked in 1914 to bring Social Democrats into line. Evans is wide of the mark in claiming that I think the Nazis ‘had quickly and effectively overcome’ the deep divisions within civil society; even the Nazi regime itself did not believe it had achieved this.

By August 1943, many Germans were openly comparing the destruction of the Jews to the Allied strategic bombing offensive. This revealed a widespread sense of both culpability and vulnerability which deeply unsettled Nazi leaders – all the more so because such talk was accompanied by open calls for regime-change. Far from eliding 1943 and 1944, as Evans claims, my book draws more attention to the crisis that followed the fire-bombing of Hamburg in 1943 than any other history of this period; and it shows, for the first time, how German anxieties about their own war framed their need to talk in public about the murder of the Jews.

Evans claims that I ignore differences of social class. In fact I argue that rationing, bombing and evacuation exacerbated old social conflicts as well as engendering new ones. There was a faint echo of traditional collective action when miners’ wives in Ruhr towns demonstrated until the authorities issued ration cards to children who had returned home after being evacuated – the police even took their side. But most protests did not take this form, and they weren’t aimed at the Nazi regime. Rather, there was a culture of petitioning the authorities to take sides in local disputes about privileged access to special rations, cinema tickets and air raid bunkers. This was a society in which racial hierarchies had infused older ones based on professional standing, skill and gender. Class still coloured many things but was no longer a primary social division.

The real collective social endeavour remained the war. The importance of coercion in Nazi Germany should not be dismissed but terror alone is not a sufficient explanation. Forms of self-mobilisation clearly played a significant part throughout the war, but the motives and meanings people invested in their actions are hard to dissect. In his own work, Evans deals with this problem by cherry-picking quotations from private letters and diaries to illustrate existing interpretations. Even in his review, he falls back on generalisations about attitudes and psychology that he claims to reject, pointing to ‘a pervasive nationalism and the effects of the media propaganda orchestrated by Goebbels’. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but without a historical method for testing such assertions, they remain psychological projections.

In The German War I address this problem by charting the lives of individual Germans and showing how the war changed them. These people are not, as Evans suggests, all ‘bourgeois’: they include farmers, village schoolteachers, a carpenter, a market-gardener and railway workers. They belong to different generations and come from a wide range of places. Evans claims that I try to extrapolate a national mindset out of a handful of random cases. On the contrary, thanks to the reports the Nazi regime gathered each week and month on public opinion, we already know a great deal about how much attitudes fluctuated and how varied they were. That made it possible for me to situate individuals within a wide spectrum of social views. What makes the individual voices powerful is that they reveal the emotional choices and commitments people made, how they coped with being bombed out or bereaved, or how they dealt with the difficulties of maintaining relationships from afar. Such sources are suggestive, not exhaustive, but they tell us things we could not learn otherwise.

Nicholas Stargardt
Magdalen College, Oxford

The Servant Crisis

Rosemary Hill refers to ‘the mass exodus from [domestic] service between the wars’, but census figures show that by 1931 the number of women employed as domestic servants was almost exactly the same as it was in 1911 (LRB, 14 July). This was by far the largest female occupational sector; just over 20 per cent of the ‘occupied’ female population were ‘living-in’ servants. The seemingly limitless demand for domestic staff may have been a marker of social status for some employers, but it is also true that almost no housing in this period was designed around the practical needs of the (mainly) women who had to manage the functions of cooking, cleaning and heating. The perceived ‘servant crisis’ prompted the National Council of Women’s successful petition to the home secretary in 1937 to admit young women immigrants into Britain to take up domestic positions. The government’s sensitivity to this self-interested middle-class demand saved the lives of some twenty thousand female refugees from Nazism.

Anne Summers
Birkbeck, University of London

Why did they pick Trump?

If Eliot Weinberger still finds himself perplexed by the Republican Party’s selection of Donald Trump as its presidential candidate, he need look no further than the OED for an explanation (LRB, 28 July):

trumpery (n.)

1. Deceit, fraud, imposture, trickery. Obs.

2. ‘Something of less value than it seems’; hence, ‘something of no value; trifles’ (J.); worthless stuff, trash, rubbish.

b. Applied to abstract things, as beliefs, practices, discourse, writing etc: Nonsense, ‘rubbish’.

c. Applied contemptuously to religious practices, ceremonies, ornaments etc regarded as idle or superstitious.

d. Showy but unsubstantial apparel; worthless finery.

Michael Neill
London N5

What have we done?

‘So far it is only Beppe Grillo in Italy who has successfully made the crossover from professional comedian to political leader,’ Christopher Lord writes (Letters, 28 July). Not so. Jimmy Morales, currently president of Guatemala, is a former TV comedian.

Peter Archard
London N16