Foreign Office to bare its soul

In an unprecedented act of self- examination, the Foreign Office is holding a one-day conference in London to examine Britain's position and role in the world.

Both the Prime Minister, John Major, and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, together with Robin Cook, Labour spokesman on foreign affairs, are billed to speak at the conference, which is being organised by the Foreign Office and the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA). The conference is to be held on 29 March and is expected to bring together some 500 people from business, academia, the media, politics and the arts to discuss the successes and failures of British foreign policy at the end of the millennium.

Professor Laurence Martin, Director of the RIIA, the foreign-affairs forum, said that the aim of the conference was to "review what are British assets and liabilities in the post-Cold War period and what should its aims be".

He said the conference would look primarily at British foreign policy "without getting bogged down in transient issues" like the relationship with Europe, as well as looking at British institutions such as the Department of Trade and Industry, the BBC World Service, the British Council and other British institutions and compare them to equivalent institutions in other countries.

Professor Martin denied any suggestion that the conference was being held because the British foreign-policy establishment had lost its nerve and was desperately seeking new ideas.

"The foreign-policy establishment is prepared to come into court for a day and expose itself to criticism and comment," he said.

The conference is expected to seek contributions from all levels of British society working overseas and to obtain the views of foreigners as well as British people.

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