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Ian Proud - Blog - The Kremlin
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Gun-toting Ambassadors, racist diplomats and squabbling officials - David Lammy needs to reform a failing Foreign Office

Jon Benjamin, Britain’s former Ambassador to Mexico, hit the headlines in May after pointing a semi-automatic rifle at a member of his staff. This incident spoke to a deeper rot at the heart of the Foreign Office at a time when Britain’s influence abroad is in sharp decline.  Here’s what awaits David Lammy when he arrives in King Charles Street as the ninth Foreign Secretary since 2014.


The Foreign Office wasn’t always this bad. William Hague focused on modernisation.  He launched a Diplomatic Academy and reopened a language school, to create ‘the best diplomatic service in the world’. He grew the UK’s overseas network. Ministers worked in partnership with officials and there was a level of mutual respect. That all vanished after he left. Hammond was singularly unsuited, Boris was never taken seriously, Hunt had good ideas but was ignored by officials who knew he wouldn’t last long.  The ‘system’ circled the wagons against an overly assertive Raab.  Liz Truss was disinterested, Cleverly was liked because he had no ideas, and no one knew why Cameron jumped onto Sunak’s sinking ship having abandoned his own.  Change in any civil service department relies on Ministers spending long enough in their departments to nudge the Mandarins forward.


But he also needs to grip Foreign Office Officials who have resisted change better than Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister. Sir Simon Fraser didn’t like Ministers spending Foreign Office cash, launched Hague’s Diplomatic Academy on a shoe-string and drove the Diplomatic Excellence Programme with little vigour.   Sir Simon MacDonald blogged that he didn’t ‘do’ radical reform following the publication of Naked Diplomat Tom Fletcher’s Future FCO report in 2016 which made various suggestions to improve the capability of Britain’s diplomats. That Report was shelved and barely any its recommendations have been implemented. The Foreign Office has become progressively de-skilled. It stopped training diplomats in diplomatic skills over twenty years ago. Almost one third of diplomats fail or don’t even take the foreign language examinations that are a requirement for them to do their jobs overseas.  A Foreign Affairs Committee demand that the Foreign Office reports on improvements in language performance has been routinely ignored for years.  


David Lammy needs to set his own vision to improve Britain’s international capabilities and task a junior Minister with holding officials to account.


The balance between expertise and leadership at the top of the Foreign Office has never been struck.   In 2020, Sir Philip Barton was parachuted into the job, tasked with merging the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development shortly after the onset of COVID. However, he lacked the corporate leadership skills needed to drive forward a complex merger. His main failing, highlighted in a report that I wrote in 2022, an inability to resolve in-fighting among former FCO and DFID officials and make clear decisions on the way forward. A damming National Audit Office report earlier this year highlighted a basic lack of progress in getting the two merged departments to work together.  Essentially, after Dominic Raab was ousted in the teeth of bullying allegations, pressure to make the merger work evaporated.


David Lammy should consider, for the first time, appointing a senior industry leader to drive the machinery of the Foreign Office along more professional lines.

  

Which brings me back to Jon Benjamin.  He’s not the only diplomat to have messed up. An Ambassador was once sent home for leaving the Embassy in his pyjamas. One diplomat wrote and circulated a note about Pope-branded condoms ahead of a Papal visit. Two diplomats fell foul of Russian honey traps while I was posted to Moscow.  Benjamin’s case was different because the story was leaked by a local member of his staff.   Two-thirds of Foreign Office staff are people employed locally to work in Embassies around the world. They are paid lower salaries compared to the average in their countries and are commonly treated as second class citizens by the well-paid and pampered minority of diplomats. Sir Simon McDonald solidified this disenfranchisement by dismissing them all as only having a job rather than a career. This lack of respect coupled with a sense that the Foreign Office has been drifting rudderless since the merger has fostered a toxic culture in British Embassies.  The yearly staff survey confirms a stubborn and immovable level of bullying, harassment and discrimination across the UK overseas network.  The Office spends millions each year paying consultants to offer advice on culture and things like that.  It hasn’t worked.


David Lammy should step back and look at whether a more modern structure for the organisation, less racist and colonialist and more authentically inclusive and internationalist, would be better.  


Because if he wants to the UK to have a greater impact on major global evets, like in Ukraine and Gaza, he first needs to fix a failing Foreign Office.

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1 Comment


Sean Mac
Sean Mac
Jul 09

David Lammy


Chatham House


One party there to learn what UK foreign policy is going to be for the next five years, and the other party there to reveal it.

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