Has the Foreign Office lost its voice?

Once we invaded at the drop of a hat, now Hague poses for pictures with film stars as Iraq goes up in flames

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Not so long ago, it was just about possible to discern the contours of a Coalition foreign policy. The Blairite rush to intervention was past, at least where it entailed boots on the ground. A new pragmatism prevailed, according to which trade interests trumped ideological differences (even if we sometimes pretended they did not). We acknowledged the benefits of being inside an albeit imperfect European Union, and we congratulated ourselves on staying out of the euro, even as we did our self-interested best to ensure that the common currency survived. Royalty, young and old, showed the flag in the Commonwealth. As foreign policies go, it wasn’t wonderful, but it served its purpose.

Recent developments have left me thoroughly confused; I am wondering even whether we have a foreign policy at all. The Prime Minister has gone boating with Angela Merkel in Sweden. Actually, it was a foursome. But the purpose was to prevent the Luxembourger, Jean-Claude Juncker, from becoming the next head of the European Commission, although the mechanics of how the new head would be chosen were essentially settled (as they should have been) before the election. It seems not quite constitutional to be trying to change the rules now.

The Foreign Secretary, meanwhile, seems to have spent much of the past week in the company of the Hollywood star, Angelina Jolie, in London’s Docklands. This was the latest stage in their joint campaign, calling for an end to the use of rape as a weapon of war. I have to admit to very un-PC doubts about the usefulness of this exercise. I am not sure whether brutalised men can be persuaded to behave better, however many new laws of conflict are enacted. The intentions are certainly laudable, but  William Hague’s devotion to this cause has something of the idealist’s gap year about it. You almost wonder whether, at this stage in his life, he would really rather be at the more alternative Department for International Development than at staid old King Charles Street. 

It is almost as though we are watching some eye-catching displacement activity. Consider the past month or so. A new President has been elected in Egypt, who first came to power in uniform via a de facto military coup. The Foreign Secretary mumbled out some barely audible sweet-nothings. There has been an election, too, in Syria, that has left Bashar al-Assad in partial control of a country at war. This time, I don’t recall any comment from the Foreign Secretary, even though he and the Prime Minister spent much of last summer arguing for Western intervention.

Despite much huffing and puffing at the time, the Foreign Office now prefers silence, too, on Crimea and on Ukraine, where a passable election has produced a President, even as fighting continues. Time was, when you switched on the radio, within minutes there was Hague or another UK official berating Russia for its totally unacceptable, illegal, behaviour. Now – nothing.

And the same, pretty much, goes for the latest spectacular Western reversal in Iraq. As Islamist – or Sunni or Saddamist – forces cut a swathe through Mosul and Tikrit, leaving hundreds of thousands of refugees in their wake and threatening chaos across the region, the only message – from deep in the bowels of Whitehall – is some muttering about no British armed intervention.

We should be thankful, I suppose, for small mercies – especially, as it seems, recruitment to the army reserves is lagging far behind the cuts in our regular forces. The UK’s capacity to act, even if it wanted to, is curtailed. At last, perhaps, our aspirations will have to be aligned with economic reality.

Still, the choices that have been made seem a trifle strange. The only action the Government has taken in recent weeks – when the Ukraine crisis was at its height – was to send a plane to Nigeria (which broke down) and some Special Forces to help look for 200 abducted schoolgirls.

When you put all this together, you want to ask whether we have not gone from one extreme – all-out intervention at the drop of a tin hat – to another: a Foreign Secretary who poses for pictures with celebrities, even as the world erupts in flames to the east and the south. No, we don’t have to dispatch the troops, even if we had any, but the UK could surely say something sensible in response. 

There’s room for faith and cultural sensitivity in modern medicine

The reports published this week by the education watchdog, Ofsted, on 21 Birmingham schools left me in two minds, as did the “Trojan Horse” claims of infiltration that prompted them. If we have a system, as we do, that produces state schools where more than 90 per cent of pupils are Muslim and the Government allows, even encourages, a school to cultivate its own ethos, can we really be surprised some of them turn out to be more Islamic in character than non-Muslim Britain might like?

There is one area, though, where there is a good argument for making more allowances for cultural and religious sensitivity. The day the reports were released found me at an east London seminar, held as part of the Ethnic Health Initiative, where speakers considered mental health provision in areas with large Muslim populations.

This is some of what I learned. Psychiatry and psychology as practised in the Western world owe much to the thinking of Freud and Jung. Mental health provision provided under the NHS tends to reflect this, and presupposes a largely secular outlook, which may not suit people from an Eastern religious background, especially Muslims, and deter them from seeking treatment.

Muslim speakers argued at very least for a recognition of difference that would not reject religious and cultural specifics out of hand. They suggested ways in which Muslims might be encouraged to accept help for depression, say, without being made to feel their faith was somehow defective.

Such sensitivity towards religious background might usefully be observed, I suspect, not just in relation to Britain’s Muslims, but more broadly. Even in this secular age, belief is a part of many people’s psychological make-up. Is it too fanciful to hazard that our modern tendency to discount any religious context could be making some people’s mental health problems worse?

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