Letter: Unesco: an unhealthy precedent

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Sir: Your otherwise valuable special feature on the UN (1 November) was marred by the suggestion that the British and US departure from Unesco in the mid-Eighties could be a healthy precedent for today. On the contrary, Britain's attitude towards Unesco over the years has been like that of a negligent and footloose parent of the type which the government is, rightly, so ready to condemn.

Unesco was conceived in the idealism of wartime Britain as a body to create international intellectual understanding and co-operation. We provided its first, and arguably its best, director-general, Sir Julian Huxley. We then neglected it for many years only to wake up in the 1980s to reproach it for fecklessness and threaten dire consequences unless it behaved better.

Britain's success in securing changes in 1984-85 was very considerable and, almost unanimously, EC and Commonwealth partners to the government's own advisory committee on Unesco, and MPs in the House of Commons, appealed to the government to continue to lead the process of reform from within rather than to withdraw. The government's decision to leave had very little to do with an assessment of whether we could realistically have achieved more in the time available, or of whether greater progress was more likely to come if we stayed or left.

Officials responsible for policy privately acknowledged that the decision was imposed by Downing Street. It was taken in accordance with an agenda based on a scorn for multilateralism and for the process of consensus-building and working in good faith for change inside the UN system. It reflected close ideological links between the 'new right' in Washington and London, reinforced by heavy lobbying by the then ascendant US Heritage Foundation.

Such bully-boy tactics are quite inappropriate for today, and if applied again would further weaken Britain's case for remaining a Permanent Member of the Security Council.

Yours sincerely,


London, N6

1 November

The writer was the last UK Permanent Delegate to Unesco (1984-85).