Former Diplomatic Editor for The Times Michael Binyon reports that FCO budget cuts and low pay are endangering the UK’s diplomatic imprint and influence
More than a dozen former British ambassadors, international negotiators and heads of policy institutes have expressed alarm at proposed further cuts to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s budget, warning that Britain will find it impossible to exert influence overseas or remain engaged in the world if it cuts back the FCO any further.
Instead, they argue, the government should reverse previous reductions and commit itself to spending at least 0.2 per cent of GDP on its diplomatic service. They say that with the approach of a new Strategic Defence and Security Review, Britain faces a far more unstable world than when the review was last published in 2010. They admit there are “serious pressures” on resources, but say Britain’s long-term interests do not change amid temporary economic difficulties.
“As one of the most globalised countries in the world, tied by its economy, its people, its institutions and its allies to developments beyond its shores, the UK must remain internationally engaged and committed to multilateralism.”
The signatories include many of the big names in foreign policy as well as leading former ambassadors at the heart of Britain’s foreign policy over the past decade. They include Sir David Manning, the former ambassador to the United States, Dame Mariot Leslie, the former permanent representative to Nato, Sir John Grant, the former permanent representative to the EU and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, former government spokesman on foreign affairs in the House of Lords.
Their vigorous rearguard action to protect the diplomatic budget comes as morale has sunk to a worrying low among Britain’s diplomats. Many fear that after years of budget cuts, savings and reductions, the Foreign Office is now so hollowed out that it can no longer draw on the necessary resources, expertise and diplomatic skills to remain credible. Pay is far below the level of the home civil service, embassy staffs have been cut to the bone, allowances have been reduced and diplomats feel they no longer have the status or respect they once enjoyed. Some 60 per cent of those employed by the Foreign Office now earn less money than a senior tube driver on the London Underground. Not surprisingly, the FCO now has difficulty retaining its best staff.
The campaign to strengthen Britain’s voice in the world is being jointly run by Chatham House, the main foreign policy institute in London, and the Royal United Services Institute, the leading military affairs think-tank. Representatives of each institution – Professor Malcom Chalmers from Rusi and Dr Robin Niblett from Chatham House – are among the 19 signatories.
They also argue that the present restrictive visa policy must be changed if Britain is to continue to attract students from overseas as well as skilled professionals. They say that the present system of outsourcing visas to regional hubs means that “decisions on UK visas are often taken in a regional centre by staff with limited knowledge of the country concerned.”
This is part of an effort they say Britain should make to “think internationally” at home. That involves encouraging the teaching of foreign languages in schools, including Chinese and Arabic; promoting student exchanges; doing more to examine the place of Islam in the modern world while putting more emphasis on the education and training of imams in Britain; and continuing the funding “at reasonable levels” of the British Council and the BBC World Service. Both institutions are widely recognised as key instruments of Britain’s “soft power,” but have had their government grants cut right back in recent years.
The paper also argues that Britain should seek more long-term defence collaboration with its European Union partners. Its authors insist that “Britain’s determination to block much European defence cooperation does not serve its own interests and no longer finds favour in Washington.” At the same time, they say there should be a return to more significant participation in United Nations peacekeeping. Britain should be willing to send UK forces to help train and strengthen civil and military cooperation especially in fragile states in Africa.
The bulk of the paper, however, deals with the urgent need to “close the diplomatic deficit” – in other words, stopping proposed budget cuts before they do further serious damage to Britain’s influence overseas. The paper argues that there is a growing imbalance between the defence, overseas development and intelligence budgets on the one hand and the money available for diplomacy. That must be rectified, the signatories say – otherwise Britain will have no diplomatic capabilities to coordinate the spending in Whitehall on defence, development and intelligence.
The paper is very much a cri de coeur from the Foreign Office itself, which is deeply unhappy at the way it is always first in line for steep cuts in any new round of austerity. Serving diplomats are barred from speaking out publicly or criticising government policy. But the fact that so many former ambassadors and others who still have close connections with the Foreign Office have forcefully denounced the Conservative government’s plans makes it clear that this view is now widely shared within the FCO itself.
Published just before David Cameron laid out his main demands for reform of the EU, the paper notes that the twin anchors of British foreign policy over the past 40 years – a close relationship with the US and a commitment to a strong EU – are less secure.
It notes: “If the UK remains in the EU, it will need to work with others more actively than before to strengthen the EU’s collective external policies and capabilities. If it leaves, the UK will have to work far harder and dedicate more resources to supporting international security and prosperity.”
The paper says that, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Britain has a special responsibility to support the aims and principles of the UN. As one of the ten wealthiest countries in the world, it had a “moral obligation” to promote global economic development and social development.
All this is now becoming increasingly difficult, the authors argue, if there is no money available to pursue an active foreign policy. “There are widespread concerns that the UK is becoming a diminished force in international affairs, with reduced defence capabilities and diplomatic resources, an introspective parliament and public, and an overly mercantilist focus to its foreign policy.”
The government insists that there is no British retreat from the world. But the paper’s authors disagree. They say the US has adjusted some of its European relationships in response: focusing on Germany in addressing international economic policy questions, and developing deeper relations with France on security challenges in the Middle East and parts of Africa.
Britain’s defence budget stood at £38 billion, another £13 billion was spent on development and increasing amounts were spent on intelligence. But the core budget to run the diplomatic service was only £1.3 billion for 2015-16 – less than 0.2 per cent of government spending and about 0.08 per cent of GDP. Britain spent less per head on diplomacy than the US, Germany, France, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
How was it possible, on such a small budget, to run an international network of 268 posts in 168 countries, providing a platform for 26 other government departments and their staff overseas? Britain’s diplomats were also being asked to coordinate British participation in the UN, EU, Commonwealth and other multilateral organisations; promote exports and investment, and keep markets open; provide consular and other services to UK citizens abroad; lead government responses to major cross-cutting issues, from climate change to cyber security; and contribute to international problem-solving.
In comparison, they argue, Germany has been increasing its diplomatic investment and now spends almost 50 per cent more than the UK in this area. France has cut its diplomatic effort, but its operating budget is still over a quarter larger than the UK. Meanwhile, China and Russia have increased their diplomatic spending significantly in recent years, as have other emerging powers such as Turkey, Brazil and Indonesia.
The timing of this complaint is significant. Cameron’s determination to get a better deal from the EU that he can then put to a referendum in Britain next year will probably run into hostility within Europe. The Foreign Office will be called on to make the case to Britain’s partners that Britain remains a vital partner in the building of a stable and prosperous Europe. But, as the authors argue, how will this be possible if there are no diplomats and no money to do so?