Leading article: The Foreign Office must shrug off the burdens of the past

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IF EVER proof were required of Britain's need to move from the burdens of the past to a more modest role in the world of the future, it must be in the procession of crises now hitting the Foreign Office. Yemen, Chechnya, Sierra Leone and Iraq: they are all serving to complicate the work of the Foreign Office with demands that it seems loath to understand. These crises are distinct in detail, of course. Chechnya has posed the problem of protection of nationals working abroad, and what we may reasonably ask of them in terms of information. Yemen asks us to choose between supporting our passport-holders and pursuing our foreign relations. Sierra Leone displays the deficiencies of intervention, while Iraq exposes the strains of our lonely loyalty to Washington.

But if there are common threads, then they are these. One - which we cannot easily get over - is the entanglements of past empire. London has become a home for all sorts of refugees and immigrants not just because of our tolerance but because we ruled so many places for so long. When we were fighting Communism in Aden or the Middle East, we encouraged fundamentalism abroad and allowed its leaders to take refuge here. Times change but we have to live with a colonial past, just as the French do with Algerian dissidents. And we have to accept, as the French must do too, that we can no longer control the fate of our former territories, in west Africa or anywhere else. That we lost no wars, and gave up our empire voluntarily, makes us in some ways more complacent, not better able to cope.

The second point is the protection of British citizens abroad. Like it or not - and the Foreign Office would clearly love the whole development to go away - more and more Britons are travelling abroad to faraway places for pleasure and business. They fall ill, and get taken hostage and shot at. In other words, they cause problems.

But they also, pace Sir David Gore-Booth and the other traditionalists in the Foreign Office, are the people who pay the salaries of the Foreign Office staff. For too long have the consular duties of British embassies been treated as the lesser area of our activities abroad.

If the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, had spent more time beefing up the consular service and less in worrying about his absurd ethical foreign policy and the social mix of his staff, we might be better able to cope with the Yemen situation. As it is, he is once again having to react to a crisis in which public concern has taken the initiative.

The worst foreign policy statement to come out of a government was Douglas Hurd's statement that we should aim to "punch above our weight in the world". We shouldn't. Our aim should be to develop a policy that suits our resources and supports our citizens as much as our interests abroad.