Sunday, 12 September 2010

What They Say And What They Mean

So my grandfather was watching BBC parliament the other day, and we happened to come across this speech that William Hague made on July 1st, outlining his vision for the future of British foreign policy. It's a really good speech, sufficiently modest and realistic, but at the same time putting across a compelling programme for reform. Perhaps most interesting is Hague's criticism of Labour's lack of engagement with Europe - ironic that the words should come from a Conservative, but true enough.

The sad thing is that many of the words and actions of the Foreign Office since July 1st have failed to live up to his fine ideals. Here are the obvious examples that strike me:

“It is not in our character as a nation to have a foreign policy without a conscience or to repudiate our obligation to help those less fortunate. Our foreign policy should always have consistent support for human rights and poverty reduction as its irreducible core and we should always strive to act with moral authority, recognising that once damaged it is hard to restore.”

Really? Then why is Hague so keen to give authority to the national security council, which, according to a leaked Whitehall paper, insists that overseas aid "should make the maximum possible contribution to security" i.e. that development aid should be focused on achieving foreign policy objectives, rather than fighting poverty?

“This underlines the essential importance of the work of the British Council and the BBC World Service, which give Britain an unrivalled platform for the projection of the appeal of our culture and the sharing of our values.”

And yet a 'diplomatic insider' last week suggested that the BBC service to Burma is under threat: "The Burma office is up for grabs. It is a question of costs. It is very expensive and has relatively few listeners. The 'human rights' argument doesn't hold much sway with the new Foreign Office." Surely if there's anywhere that Britain wants to export its culture and values to, its Burma.

Hague has since denied that the World Service in Burma is in any danger, but it is the attitude his department has displayed, and the fact that it is willing to make cuts of 25% to the rest of the World Service that is worrying.

“we believe that we must achieve a stronger focus on using our national strengths and advantages across the board to help build these strong bilateral relations for the United Kingdom as well as complement the efforts of our allies, whether it is the appeal of our world class education system”

If the government is so proud of Britain's 'world class' education system, then why is investment in universities falling despite being among the lowest in the OECD?

And how is making it harder for foreign students to come to the UK exploiting this strength to build bilateral relations?

Admittedly, much of this is based on hearsay and speculation, but then after just two months in office, there's not much else to judge Hague on. However, it still seems worthwhile to note the government's failure so far to live up to the high foreign policy standards it has set itself.

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