Dear Malcolm, it's time to ditch all those tired Foreign Office notions

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The Independent Online
Dear Malcolm,

Congratulations on becoming Foreign Secretary! It would be nice to peal it out in trumpet-sounds - "Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs" - but journalists always get these ceremonial titles slightly, irritatingly wrong. "Foreign Secretary" will have to do.

You have saluted your predecessor, Douglas Hurd, as perhaps "the outstanding Foreign Secretary of the post-war period". Well, perhaps. He was the supreme Foreign Office's Foreign Secretary. He led and stimulated his department but was also in perfect tune with its melancholy and stoical ethos.

I will never forget the outburst of one British ambassador somewhere in central Europe: "For 40 years, we have been the rearguard. For 40 bloody years, we in the Foreign Office have covered Britain's slow, step-by- step retreat from power and influence. And we have never allowed that retreat to become a rout, or to lose the appearance of dignity and purpose. Does anyone appreciate what we have done for Britain? Nobody - and that is precisely the measure of our success!"

It is the spirit of the war memorial at Thermopylae - "Go, tell the Spartans, thou who passest by/ That here obedient to their laws we lie". It is the spirit which used to turn Mrs Thatcher carmine with fury. Go tell the Foreign Office to get off their bums, stop moaning and start making Britain great again! Your predecessor, definitely a Spartan, had a weakness for Philip Larkin elegies: "Our children will not know it is a different country./ All we can hope to leave them now is money". He tried to maintain a distance between foreign policy and domestic affairs, as if the purity of the former could only be preserved by quarantining it from the squalor of the latter.

But the Spartan times are ending. Foreign policy is no longer a distant covering of the retreat, the mutter of guns somewhere over the horizon. Foreign policy in the next few years will become a direct, even crucial, part of home policy. Not as a Thatcherite reassertion of "national greatness", but because of Europe. Until today - or until the last year or three - Britain's relations with the European Union were about our strength or weakness in the outside world. But now they are about what sort of country this is going to be. Europe is beginning to change the very structures and institutions of this state. Foreign affairs, in other words, are going to be the battlefield on which Britain's internal struggle over the constitutional future will be fought. The job of foreign secretary must change.

I think you are the right man for this new job. I'll confess that I've agreed with almost none of your political views in the past - and when I did agree, you usually changed them and left me fuming. But affection remains, and so does respect for your political instinct. When you were last at the FCO, in the 1980s, you went to Poland and became the first Western politician to insist on meeting the opposition as the condition for talking to the Communist regime. You won, and set a precedent adopted by all subsequent Western visitors.

You are the right man for the job because - although you may not thank me for saying so - you are sleekit. Translated for English readers, this Scottish word means cunning, adaptable, smart as a fox sniffing the night. It means the opposite of Spartan. Scottishness, Jewishness, intelligence and membership of the Faculty of Advocates are all qualities which bestow a certain detachment from the English Tory Establishment and its mutton- headed row of idols: Crown, Police, Sovereignty, Union Jack and the rest of them. You have chosen to be a Tory, so you have to incline before these idols. But you will always know, before the others, when one of these idols has outlived its function and needs to be junked.

Take the idol of Sovereignty, now threatened by European political integration. You have already tried to paper over the chasms - not cracks - in the party over this. You said on the radio that the word "Eurosceptic" was out of date, that what the British call "federalism" was irrelevant, that what Europe needed was a healthy diversity like that of the United Kingdom. (Malcolm, are you kidding? Would a Tory Britain feel healthy if it was governed exclusively by European socialists who had only 11 per cent of the British vote? Or did you assume that nobody north of the Border would be listening?) What I hope you realise is that the Eurosceptics are basically correct. They think that further advance towards political union will endanger Britain's traditional way of doing things and subvert British institutions. Dead right! This is precisely why political union ("federalism") is such a good idea.

We live in an archaic system, which ignored the constitutional ideas of the American and French revolutions and rests on the bizarre 17th- century notion of parliamentary absolutism. But we are drawing ever closer to a Union whose institutions - at the centre and in its component nations - are based on popular sovereignty, on individual rights anchored in constitutions, and on the idea that power rises from the base of the social pyramid rather than trickling down from its apex.

These two systems - the British and the "European' - are incompatible. Something has to give - and Britain is already giving way. The closer we fall into the gravitational field of this European planet, the more bits of venerable junk are sucked off and vanish into space. At the end of the process, what remains of Britain will be something like a normal, modern democracy - a condition for which you may secretly hanker. Your job as Foreign Secretary, a hard one, is to let this benign process happen slowly, discreetly, without the jerks and panics which would provoke your thicker colleagues into ramming a cork down the Channel tunnel.

In the shorter term, there are plenty of purely foreign-policy tasks which require a sleekit, not to say feigning, approach. I hope, for example, that you can learn to think like a German. When you need to, you should be able to step into the German political mind easily and cheerfully. There are two points to this. The first is that Germany is a window of opportunity which may not always stay open. The German political class thinks that united Germany is too big for a Europe of nations, and that Europe will only be safe if their country is integrated into a full Union. It is for you to persuade your colleagues that the Germans are sincere about this, and that if we do not take up their offer our grandchildren may not thank us.

The second point to grasp is the urgency of getting east and central Europe into Nato and the Union as fast as possible. Security first! It is true that "enlargement" of those bodies may bring about results unwelcome to British policy. Mrs Thatcher used to think that bringing in the post- Communist states - "widening" - would put a stop to further work on supranational Union institutions - "deepening". This was quite wrong. It is clear now that "widening" is the only stimulus which will push the Union into the next round of "deepening". Meanwhile, the whole of Europe is praying loudly that your party loses the next election. Throwing a new British tantrum over widening would be pointless.

There are many other wishes to scribble on your list. It's too late to prevent a "two-track" Europe, with Britain in the slow lane, but do stop pretending that our only possible gain from the EU is "prosperity". Persist with your interesting ideas about a new Atlantic alliance. Don't abandon Bosnia without even the means to defend herself. Outlaw Indonesia over East Timor. Disclaim American policies in south-east Asia. And next time the Home Office comes and tells the Foreign Office what to do about visitors and visas, throw them into the street.

Yours against Sparta

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