Beckett must fight her corner for the Foreign Office

I have a high personal regard for Margaret Beckett and considerable respect for her competence. All of which makes her current performances as Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary inexplicable, unless, that is, the long term trend for key foreign policy to be determined and controlled by Downing Street has been ratcheted up another notch. To listen to Ms Beckett flailing around, trying to defend the indefensible in the Middle East, whilst other Cabinet ministers - notably Jack Straw - criticise Israel's actions in Lebanon, is distinctly unedifying.

Increasingly Britain is being sucked into a presidential system without any of the constitutional checks and balances that such a structure requires in order to underpin a healthy democracy. In the United States it is well understood that, over Iraq, as Secretary of State, Colin Powell and today, over the Middle East war, Condaleezza Rice are the voice of the White House and not of Congress. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives maintain a level of scrutiny of presidential decisions that is impossible in our parliamentary system, in which, for instance, there is a "payroll vote" of some eighty members of the House of Commons.

Modern communications permit prime ministers to be permanently in contact with every member of their cabinets and it is, perhaps, no surprise that at times of immense international tension they cannot resist using the technology in order to impose the Downing Street "line" on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The dangers in such action are clear enough in that it largely circumvents the vast amount of global experience and expertise that the FCO has at its disposal daily. To an extent the continuing, and escalating, problems in Iraq and Afghanistan are a consequence of the diminution of the influence of the FCO, which knew only too well the historical, tribal and religious nuances of both countries.

It was said that Margaret Thatcher became increasingly frustrated with what she regarded as the time-warped rigid thinking of many ambassadors and senior advisors. It does, however, take an excess of arrogance to over-ride the specialist knowledge of those who spend their waking hours in volatile regions in order to be able to influence government policy from a sound basis of experience. Tony Blair has continued and extended this trend, and Craig Murray, sacked as Ambassador to Uzbekistan for his determination to report facts unpalatable to British and American administrations, has been the most vocal of recent diplomatic casualties.

The evidence is that all prime ministers involved themselves closely in foreign policy. Gladstone's campaign on the Bulgarian Atrocities of 1875 is a case in point, but I suspect that it took root with Eden's appointment of the then barely known Selwyn Lloyd to the Foreign Office, which was widely seen as a means of Eden being his own Foreign Secretary, in which post he had served throughout the war. The Suez Canal debacle was certainly not the best advertisement for such prime ministerial dominance.

In the years following Suez, Britain's imperial presence in the world was chipped away piece by piece - by colonies gaining their independence as much as by the development of world superpowers - and successive governments had reluctantly to accept a continuing diminution in their global influence. It was a huge contrast to the situation in 1945 immediately after the war when even junior ministers were responsible for large swathes of the globe. This in itself inhibited prime ministers from imposing their direct will at all but crisis moments, but the idea that Clement Attlee would have intervened over the head of his redoubtable Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, is hard to encompass.

Christopher Mayhew, who was one of Bevin's Under-Secretaries, told me that Bevin had been appointed Foreign Secretary on a Friday and that his Permanent Secretary, Sir Alexander Cadogan, placed a formidable stack of briefing documents on Bevin's desk that afternoon with a handwritten note that "the Foreign Secretary may care to read these brefings before our meeting on Monday". On Monday morning the pile of documents was still in precisely the same place. Added to the note was Bevin's comment: "a kind thought, but no"!

Of course, the general public only sees the high profile and cataclysmic issues, such as the Middle East today, but day by day there are British interventions in many areas of the world where British opinion or British pressure is important. I recollect being in Cambodia at the time of the elections there in 1998. The late Derek Fatchett, at the time the Minister of State at the FCO, came out to Phnom Penh and spoke to a large meeting of Ambassadors, Cambodian government officials and other VIPs. In the question time that followed he was put under a great deal of pressure, but he responded firmly and convincingly on UK policy in South-East Asia. His mastery of his brief was acknowledged and appreciated, but few people outside those present would be aware of the value of the impression thus created.

Below ministerial level career civil servants play a key role when allowed to do so. The quality of judgement of Ambassadors and their diplomatic skills in ensuring that agreements are adhered to and that important international projects succeed are a tremendous asset to their countries. In Malawi in 1994, for instance, where I was in charge of the UN led transition to multi-party democracy, we often had meetings of key ambassadors called at a few hours notice in order to determine what interventions were needed with Malawian ministers in order to keep the process on course.

Even within a presidential system, and under an apparently unsympathetic administration, career diplomats have a significant effect if allowed to use their judgement and experience. Ronald Reagan inherited Chester Crocker, a highly respected Under-Secretary for African Affairs, and wisely kept him in office. It was Crocker who in December 1988, after much shuttle diplomacy, persuaded the South Africans to permit free elections in Namibia, thus providing a vital catalyst to the democratic process elsewhere in Africa.

The crucial lesson is that prime ministers who dictate foreign policy do so at great peril. The professionalism of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office is highly respected around the world and Tony Blair takes a great risk in appearing to set aside its expertise and judgement. It is no surprise that a succession of former ambassadors have been prepared publicly to criticise government policy.

Margaret Beckett must fight her corner with confidence in the reliability of the advice she is getting from her FCO officials. It does Britain's reputation no favours internationally to watch her discomfort with the contortions of the Downing Street imposed line. What is even more important to the immediate sufferings of Lebanon and Gaza is that she and her FCO colleagues are undoubtedly correct and that the Prime Minister is wrong.

31 July 2006