Mission improbable

Britain’s Quest for a Role: A Diplomatic Memoir from Europe to the UN, by David Hannay, IB Taurus, RRP£30, 320 pages

Ever the Diplomat: Confessions of a Foreign Office Mandarin, by Sherard Cowper-Coles, HarperPress, RRP£20, 336 pages

A couple of years before the US statesman Dean Acheson made his wounding remark about Britain losing an empire but failing to find a role, Harold Macmillan had set in train his own study as to how it could continue to make the international weather in a post-imperial age. The humiliation of the Suez debacle in 1956 and the success of the Franco-German effort to create a European common market provided an inauspicious backdrop. Postwar prosperity had seen the British prime minister claim that voters had never had it so good. Abroad, his country was shedding power.

The Future Policy Study of 1959-60, presided over by the cabinet secretary and pulling in the best and brightest in Whitehall and beyond, was charged with setting a national course for the next decade or so. So secret were its deliberations that the cabinet was left in the dark. Numbered copies of its conclusions were shown only to the ministerial colleagues whom Macmillan could trust.

Suez had been an exercise in post-imperial nostalgia – a last attempt by the weakest victor of the second world war to prove that it remained a great power. It cost Britain its pride and Anthony Eden, the then prime minister, his job. His successor Macmillan fell in with the prevailing establishment view that national security would henceforth depend on forging a special relationship with the US. Britain, it was hoped, could play Greece to America’s Rome.

By the start of the 1960s, it was also facing a challenge closer to home. France had drawn conclusions from Suez diametrically opposed to those of perfidious Albion. France would claim its place as the leading force in a Europe independent of the whims of Washington. Contrary to the usually condescending predictions of politicians and officials in London at the time of the Messina conference in 1955, the new European Economic Community looked like turning out a success. And Britain had locked itself out.

Macmillan’s aides concluded that the fog had to be cleared from the Channel. The alliance with the US should remain the principal pillar of security policy but, with the sun finally setting on its empire, the nation’s prosperity depended on access to the rich markets of Europe. The prime minister took them at their word, preparing Britain’s first application to join the organisation it had ostentatiously shunned a few years earlier.

Thus were drawn what would become, to a greater or lesser degree, the twin axes of British foreign policy for the next 50 years: closeness to the US and engagement in Europe. There have been plenty of bumps along the way – in both sets of relationships – but it is only quite recently that the strains have begun to look unsustainable. Europe is no longer the centre of attention of a US looking across the Pacific at a rising China. And plans for deep economic integration within the eurozone have fanned the flames of British euroscepticism.

. . .

While Macmillan’s officials were labouring to produce their plan, Sir David Hannay was taking up his first post as British diplomat. Dispatched to the embassy in Kabul, Hannay was given the quaintly anachronistic title of oriental secretary. One of his tasks was to provide interpretation when the British ambassador to Kabul and the Afghan king toasted Queen Elizabeth on her official birthday.

Hannay’s memoir, however, is preoccupied with events closer to home. Though a Farsi speaker, by the mid-1960s he found himself in Brussels as a member of the small British delegation to the European Economic Community. One way or another, the tortured relationship with what later became the European Union dominated the next 25 years of his diplomatic career. His title, Britain’s Quest for a Role, neatly embraces Britain’s struggle to come to terms with Europe and the wider effort to answer Acheson’s jibe.

The reader is offered a ringside seat at the many bust-ups and occasional reconciliations that defined Britain’s effort to come to terms with European integration: Margaret Thatcher’s determination to get our money back during the EU budget negotiations of the early 1980s; the creation, with enthusiastic British blessing, of the single market; the prime ministerial rupture with the European Commission’s Jacques Delors; and the falling out over the single currency that would contribute so much to the Lady’s own demise.

The author deals with many of the canards that have clouded the relationship during subsequent decades. No, the Foreign Office was not on the side of the “foreigners” during the EU budget negotiations. The arguments with No 10 were rather about tactics. The trouble with the prime minister, as Hannay puts it, was that “she didn’t know when to stop”.

Hannay was there at the creation of the single market in 1985. A great success, it has also turned out one of the great paradoxes of the EU – properly liberalising the European market required much more regulation from Brussels. This, and the accompanying qualified majority voting, has proved an enduring source of irritation for British eurosceptics. Hence Thatcher’s subsequent, and implausible, protest that she had never been told what she was signing up to.

In its broader sweep, the memoir provides some of the deeper explanations as to why Britain has struggled to fit in. By staying out at the beginning, Britain gave up the right to shape the union’s rules and priorities at the outset – hence the distorting impact of the common agricultural policy. The experience of the original six members of the EC was one of economic success. Europe boomed during the 1960s and voters in the member states drew a link between continent-wide co-operation and prosperity. By the time Britain joined in 1973, the continent was heading into post-oil shock stagflation. Austerity at home was accompanied by a realisation that it had arrived too late to alter the heavy pro-agriculture (and thus pro-French) bias in EU spending.

Hannay is a multilateralist. His last five years in the diplomatic service he left in 1995 were spent as British ambassador to the UN. He gives an unvarnished account of the strengths and weaknesses of that institution, reflecting that nothing much happens unless the US is engaged. He is right, though, in the broad conclusion: foreign policy is the pursuit of the national interest and, in the case of a middle-ranking power such as Britain, that requires a base in Europe, a strong relationship with the US and a rules-based international system. The question really, is why so many British politicians find this hard to grasp.

. . .

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles ended his diplomatic career where Hannay had started out – Kabul. After decades ravaged by wars, the Afghan capital had changed somewhat in the interim. As ambassador and subsequently the prime minister’s special representative to Afghanistan, Cowper-Coles had no time for post-imperial ceremony. A forgotten backwater had become a grim battlefield as Britain fought in the US-led Nato operation to defeat the Taliban.

In Cables from Kabul (2011), Cowper-Coles wrote an excellent, and salutary, account of that futile military campaign. He was justifiably scathing about the failure of successive governments to produce anything resembling a military and political strategy to match the bravery of the young men and women sent out to fight and die in Helmand.

Ever the Diplomat is a more rounded personal memoir of Cowper-Coles’ three decades serving in Her Majesty’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Much of it is written in the style of an adventure story. The young Oxford classicist driving his British Leyland Mini across Europe to take up his first posting in Cairo; the soon-to-be ambassador to Saudi Arabia brushing up on his Arabic by spending a couple of weeks with the Bedouin in the Jordanian desert; the senior civil servant desperate to prevent then foreign secretary Robin Cook appearing before the cameras in silly hats.

There is a fair smattering of amusing, often self-deprecatory anecdotes. Thus it is only when he is about to leave Cairo that the author realises that through a mistranslation into Arabic the business card he has handed to all those local contacts describes him as “First Secretary (Flags)”. During a royal visit to the US, he finds himself tasked with explaining to the Queen the rules of baseball. After writing an official brief on America’s national religion, he concludes that he would have done better simply to have told her it was rather like “rounders”.

There are plenty of serious moments. Like Hannay, he caught glimpses of Thatcher’s implacable hostility to the “Ministry for Foreigners”. Cowper-Coles is obviously still sore about his battles with Chris Patten, the then governor of Hong Kong, about how much in the way of democracy and the rule of law Britain should seek to entrench in the territory before the handover to China. And he is scathing about the Foreign Office’s willingness to acquiesce in a war against Iraq that was “both immoral and of doubtful legality”.

More generally, he worries that the UK’s diplomatic service is “too eager to please” its political masters. Ministers should from time to time be confronted with home truths about the world as it is rather than as they might wish it to be. He is probably right. It is just hard to see as self-consciously grand an organisation as the FCO taking up the cudgels for greater humility.

As for the big strategic picture, Britain’s dilemma is, if anything, more acute now than when Macmillan’s experts started work half a century ago. There is a fair chance that if the eurozone nations succeed in adding economic to monetary union, the fog will descend again over the Channel; this, at a moment when the US is fast losing interest in Europe. The search for a role has some way to go.

Philip Stephens is an FT columnist

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