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413 UK & international governance: Governance and policy


Foreign and


Commonwealth Office Britain’s most glamorous government department has been dazzling foreign dignitaries since 1792


F


or the former Foreign Secretary, R A “Rab” Butler, the Foreign Office was “rather like a Rolls-Royce—you know


it’s the best machine in the world, but you’re not quite sure what to do with it”. Mrs Tatcher was also rather baffled by its function. “We have a Department of Agriculture to look after the farmers,” she once said, “the Ministry of Defence to look after the soldiers—and we’ve got the Foreign Office to look after the foreigners.” Te Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), however,


actually has a number of crucial functions. Britain no longer has an empire spanning a third of the planet, but it is still a permanent member of the UN Security Council, with seats at the top table of the G8, the EU and Nato. And the FCO employs around 14,000 staff around the world. A third are UK-based, and two thirds are based overseas in the FCO’s network of 270 diplomatic posts in 160 countries.


Dazzling the world One of the great offices of state, the FCO was originally known as Te Foreign Office (FO) until it was united with the Commonwealth Relations Office and the Colonial Office in 1968. It was founded in March 1782, when Lord Rockingham’s government merged two departments that had been active since 1660: the Northern Department (which dealt with the largely Protestant countries of northern Europe) and the Southern Department (the more senior wing, which dealt with the largely Catholic and Muslim countries of southern Europe, the Americas and the British Isles). As the British Empire expanded throughout the


19th century, the FO became an increasingly influential component of government. Its headquarters in Whitehall, London, built at the height of Victorian imperial power, were specifically designed to impress and bedazzle foreign diplomats, with grand halls such as the Locarno Suite, the India Office Council Chamber and Durbar Court. Commissioned in 1861 by Prime Minister Lord


Palmerston—who spent 15 years as Foreign Minister—the building was completed in 1868 by George Gilbert Scott as “a kind of national palace or drawing room for the nation”. Tis Palladian temple, hewn from Portland stone and richly


“There is a sense of humility in this building, as well as a sense of grandeur”


decorated, works hard to establish parallels between the British and Roman empires. Its 22-ft high corridors are even lined with statues of Victorian luminaries, bedecked in togas to resemble Romans. “You get a strong sense that this is a building that has shaped


the world,” says former Foreign Secretary David Miliband. “It’s where the Liberal Foreign Secretary Edward Gray looked out his window on the eve of World War I and made his famous speech about ‘the lights going off all over Europe’. Many of the problems in this world have been started in this building, or have had very real links to it—from failed treaties or British-enforced borders that went wrong. So there is a sense of humility in this building, as well as a sense of grandeur.”


Safeguarding British interests Its current priorities are threefold. First, to safeguard the UK’s national security by countering terrorism and weapons proliferation, and working to reduce conflict (the FCO is ultimately in charge of the Secret Intelligence Services, also known as MI6). Second, to build the UK’s prosperity by increasing exports and investment, opening markets, ensuring access to resources and promoting sustainable global growth. And third, to support British nationals the world over through modern and efficient consular services (each year it deals with more than 1.7 million requests from UK citizens around the world). For centuries, the FCO has had a reputation as


being “full of toffs”. In his history of Foreign Secretaries, Algernon Cecil wrote that it was “the last choice preserve of administration practised as a sport”. Recent Foreign Secretaries have worked hard to open up the department to a more diverse and representative intake. But the FCO’s mandarins still have to work in a very different way to other departments, as the former Foreign and Home Secretary Jack Straw observed. “Where the Home Office works by diktat,” says Straw, “the FCO has to work by persuasion.” — www.gov.uk/fco


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