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


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?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General


£15000 - £16000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: To work as part of the Le...

KS1 Float Teacher needed in the Vale

£100 - £110 per day + Travel scheme plus free professional trainnig: Randstad ...

Science Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Are you a qualified secondary...

KS2 Float Teacher required in Caerphilly

£100 - £110 per day + Travel Scheme plus free professional training: Randstad ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: Gordon Brown’s finest hour, a letter from Quebec and the problem of anti-politics

John Rentoul

i Editor's Letter: The campaigning is over. So now we wait...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week