5th December 1935: The Locarno room in the Foreign Office in London. (Photo by H. Allen/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The Foreign Office should be rooted in the past

Who and what is it for, if not the British people, and our history and culture?

Never afraid to be called arrogant, the journalist Christopher Hitchens once claimed that hobnobbing with politicians at Oxford University cured him of any illusions about elite talent. While wining and dining with them, he described himself as “amazed once again at how ignorant and sometimes plain stupid were the people who claimed to run the country”.

These days you don’t need to study at a top university to have the same epiphany, the internet providing endless opportunities to spot shoddy thinking from the country’s managers. Only this month, several former officials displayed both banality and incoherence in their attitudes to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and its history.

The document has drawn less attention for stating the obvious than its scarcely-veiled disdain for British history

Led by Lord Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary under Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s premierships, The World in 2040: Renewing the UK’s Approach to International Affairs seeks a remedy to a widespread view among wonks “that our post-Brexit post-pandemic government machine has deteriorated and is not fit for purpose”.

This is because, the authors write, the world is “rapidly changing”. Challenges are “long term in nature” and, shockingly, British influence is not as great as in the 1950s. That much of it reads like the work of an undergrad padding an essay the night before a deadline is indicative of the lack of insight throughout much of the document. 

Indeed, The World in 2040 indulges that much-loved pastime of critics of Britain, shadow boxing with a notion of what the country was like in decades past. While its repeated claim that Britain must learn to behave like a middle power may be news to some, it’s the kind of insight the public already came to after foreign misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

But the document has drawn less attention for stating the obvious than its scarcely-veiled disdain for British history. Partly this is found in sly references to “increasingly vocal demands around the need for reparations from colonialism”.

It can also be seen in the bemusing claim that the “global majority” — meaning everyone who isn’t white — is determinedly non-aligned and not about to be forced into alliances. Nevermind that many countries throughout the world are being pushed around by China, whose people constitute a hefty slice of whatever “global majority” you might name.

And more eye-catching than that is the report’s call for or a rebrand of the FCDO, itself renamed as recently as 2020, seemingly on the grounds the “c” once stood for “colonial”. Alternative suggestions include the bland Department for International Affairs and the hideous Global Affairs UK — a suggestion more befitting of a management consultancy than the international department of the world’s sixth largest economy.

Such a rebrand would “help signal a forward-looking ambition” for the department, the The World in 2040 says. To me “Global Affairs UK” signals a hostility to the English language and what the plebs call taste. It is, to butcher a phrase from the kinds of people these ex-mandarins would like to impress, tres unchic.

The hostility to British culture goes beyond the lettering on departmental doors though. The World in 2040 also floats the idea that the FCDO abandon its main offices, vacating a building on King Charles Street that was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in Italianate style on the insistence of Lord Palmerston.

Visitors to Westminster will be familiar with the grandeur of the building, which features columns at the front to create what Scott’s family term “a royal entrance”. Having survived the Blitz, it narrowly escaped an earlier government enthusiasm for modernisation, plans to erect new offices on its site in the 1960s having to be abandoned because the government was skint.

If any building can justify grandeur it is one which regularly entertains diplomats, ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries

This is no doubt a disappointment to the authors of The World in 2040, who find the building “somewhat elitist and rooted in the past”, with colonial era pictures causing particular offence. In this they are in concert with Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP and former shadow foreign secretary who raised concerns about some of the departmental artwork during the fever of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

In the most controversial painting, Britannia Pacificatrix, what the artist Sigismund Goetze termed “a little Swahili boy” is pictured offering up fruit to the figure of Britannia, flanked by several men holding standards with the flags of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

This has been interpreted by the likes of American historian Alexander Mirkovic as showing a racial taxonomy, with Anglo-Saxons at the front. Perhaps so, though Britannia Pacificatrix celebrates British victory against the Germans, while Britannia Sponsa shows native Britons being conquered by Germanic or Norse “seafarers”, which rather complicates matters.

Either way, I doubt removing these pictures would make much difference to the FCDO’s critics given the splendour of the building itself. Indeed, it’s this projection of greatness that The World in 2040’s authors find anachronistic and troublesome. 

Of course imperial grandeur is a little out of keeping with Britain’s current world role, its stature in relative decline as poorer countries modernise and industrialise. But complaining about King Charles Street is over the top is much like noting that national anthems can be rather generous to the countries being sung about: this is one area where you can lay the self-flattery on thick.

Come to that, if any building can justify grandeur it is one which regularly entertains diplomats, ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries. The point of such buildings is to impress, and possibly even intimidate. Like a peacock’s feathers, the expensive show is the point.

Alas, that seems not to tally with the views of some ex-FCDO staff. They would much prefer that Britain embed itself into multilateral institutions. After that: “We should give space, be more of a ‘team-player’, showing humility and respect, ready to follow and support wherever appropriate.”

It all smacks a little of Gus O’Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary who told journalist David Goodhart at a dinner in September 2011 that he saw his role as being “to maximise global welfare, not national welfare”. Hitchens was wrong about this much: ignorance and stupidity are the least of the problems.

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