Cook opens up a rival to Foreign Office

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The Independent Online
HE HAS already hosted an open day for state school pupils and appointed a civil servant to help recruit from the ethnic minorities. This week Foreign Secretary Robin Cook goes even further in his battle to modernise the grandest government department, by launching an independent institute to generate foreign policy ideas.

The Foreign Policy Centre, in Tufton Street near Westminster, is the most direct challenge to traditionalists in the Foreign Office. Its launch has sent shockwaves around Whitehall, where the control of policy advice is guarded jealously by civil servants.

The Foreign Secretary sees part of his job as changing the image of the British diplomat, and - ominously for the mandarins - has been heard to refer to Carlton-Browne of the FO. Rightly or wrongly, the public's perception of the diplomatic service may still, Mr Cook believes, be shaped by the 1960 British movie, in which Terry-Thomas plays a pukka British ambassador who is assigned to a tiny colony and gets caught up in a revolution.

A similar fate may yet befall the Foreign Office's finest. The new centre (patron, Tony Blair, president, Robin Cook) aims to open up the formation of foreign policy to a wider circle. Although the 1990s has seen the growth of several leftish think tanks, such as Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research, most work is concentrated on domestic policy. The Royal Institute on International Affairs is valued by the Government but seen as part of the establishment.

By contrast, the new centre will aim to open up foreign policy-making by encouraging papers from different sources, which will be used to inform official thinking. It will not be funded by the Government but from grants, and will sponsor research and conferences and build new relationships with academia, think tanks and non-governmental organisations.

Those outside the orthodoxy will be urged to contribute, although the centre's output will be fed into the civil service system. Mr Cook is also expected to set up a committee controlling the centre, which could become a source of alternative advice.

In Whitehall, Sir John Kerr, head of the diplomatic service, is said to be fully supportive of this and other Cook initiatives, but others are not so sure. One civil servant described it as a direct threat to the officials at the FCO, where New Labour has encountered problems in pressing its theme of "modernity".

But cynics believe that the culture of the Foreign Office will change slowly if at all. The mandarins are already claiming their people will be well represented at the centre. And even the cosmetic alterations are proving difficult to bring about.

When Mr Cook moved into his new office last year, he vowed to replace a giant oil painting of an Indian potentate, the Rajah of Napaul, which dominated the room. It was, he argued, sending out the wrong signals for a forward-looking government department. Ten months on, the picture is still there because, despite his best efforts, nothing else can be found that fits.