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Inside the Foreign Office.

The author is a veteran Diplomatic Correspondent, having worked for the Daily Mail for many years, attended countless briefings and conferences and having lunched, dined and chatted with scores of diplomats. So the report he has given is a searching and good one. We learn how the Foreign Office works now and the changes it has had to suffer. We are given measured portraits of the fifteen Foreign Secretaries he observed and followed during his time and of the nine 'PUS', the actual heads of the Office who run the show.

We get a very useful picture of the actual work load of the Secretary and the office itself, and how the roles both of the Secretary and his staff, his ambassadors and envoys, have changed due to speedy aircraft and fast, abundant, electronic devices. One is given astonishing figures of thousands of cables, messages flowing in all the time and thousands of miles the Secretary has to cover to make the visits now expected of him. The Office itself is presented with its complex net of departments and technical sections, as well as the social aspects of the present intake into a structure still seen as the elegant fortress of Britain's upper class elite. There are few women and fewer 'ethnic minorities' but this appears to be changing slowly. The author also refers occasionally to the Secretary's daily programme.

He reports in a considered but straightforward manner what happens in a crisis and at conferences, on the usually difficult relations between the Foreign Secretary and his Office and Downing Street. This gives him the opportunity to tell some amusing stories about several Secretaries. One gets the impression Prime Ministers sometimes regarded their Foreign Secretaries as nuisances who had to be told what to do. There are discreet hints that FO staff sometimes did not take kindly to their new bosses. Of the Secretaries, seven were Conservatives, Lord Home serving in 1960 and 1970, and six Labour, two of them, Gordon-Walker and Crosland serving only months, due to loss of seat and death. Lord Howe served longest, six years and one month and John Major the shortest -- just three months. Only a few, Lord Callaghan, for example, introduced changes in the structure.

The Foreign Secretaries and their officials are, of course, actively involved in every international crisis in the 30 years the author covers. He is therefore able to give lively accounts of the Rhodesia issue and conferences, for instance, and of the bombing of Libya. Inevitably, attention focusses on that 'Handbag Lady', Prime Minister Thatcher. It also shows the growing influence of speech writers. In the old days Ministers were supposed to write their own speeches. It is not concealed either that there is a constant struggle between the FO and Downing Street with much depending on the personalities involved. In politics this is as it should be.

Britain's membership of international organizations like NATO, the UN, and, of course, the European Community, have changed the FO and its working methods radically. This has produced floods of papers and meetings. It has also given a different shape to policy making itself for in most cases now British reactions have to be adjusted and harmonized to those of others; the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, for instance, and the dispatch of British troops to Bosnia. Membership creates embarrassing problems like the constant efforts to balance interests and relationships between the US and the European Community, as in GATT.

There is, of course a special chapter on the Foreign Office and the media. It took the FO some time to admit that Diplomatic Correspondents might be useful. By the time Lady Thatcher arrived at Number Ten, an impressive duo of competing officials, Christopher Meyer from the FO and Sir Bernard Ingham from Number Ten, proved effective and colourful, each in his own way. There is little doubt that media relationships practised in the US and in Europe were learned from. But essentially the author maintains that, despite private briefings and drinks and meals, and the selected flock of correspondents on the planes of Foreign Secretaries, the FO maintains a carefully controlled, though not necessarily unfriendly, distant attitude to the media.

John Dickie deals briefly with pressures on the Foreign Office, both inside Parliament and by organized lobbies. The FO tries to control pressure issues somehow by encouraging Study Groups made up of experts, academics and others. There are now 350 pressure groups listed in London compared with 7,000 in Washington. Another centre of pressure groups is in Brussels, the seat of the EC Commission.

The author finally makes some sensible suggestions, based on his experience. Foreign Secretaries fly around too much and too often. He reveals that Douglas Hurd flew 20,404 miles in January alone! Such trips should be cut by half at least. A deputy Foreign Secretary should now be appointed to enable the Foreign Secretary to have the time to concentrate on 'global responsibilities', and also have time to discuss matters at length with his senior officials. Summits are becoming frequent, like the routine EC summits. Dickie believes that ambassadors should be given back their old, traditional functions. That would, among other advantages, strengthen the morale of the Foreign Service itself.

This craftily written book makes one wish that experienced authors would write such books on other Offices, like the Treasury, for instance.
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Author:Muray, Leo
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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