Insider secrets of the tricks of old dogs, a cat and a political pipe dream

The New Mandarins
March 11, 2005

John Dickie," runs a biographical note in the diaries of the old mandarin Nicholas Henderson, published in 1994, "diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Mail for three decades. Never without a carnation in his buttonhole, he brought to his paper both panache and probity in reporting such as was more usually to be found in the 'heavies'. Nor can anyone say that the bestowal on him of the OBE has blunted his edge."

Ten years on, the former Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, otherwise Lord Howe of Aberavon, mandarin first class, obliges with a bouquet for the dust jacket of Dickie's latest: "This is a fascinating and well-focused account of the far-reaching changes in the management of Britain's foreign policy - John Dickie's skill in producing the aptly illustrative anecdote is as sharp as ever."

Dickie was a diplomats' diplomatic correspondent - a dying breed, as he himself remarks. He walks the walk and talks the talk. He knows his way around the Office (Foreign) and the Club (the Travellers'). He has contacts, and form, and access. He is favoured. Among mandarins, the author is persona gratissima . This relationship certainly yields a story, and sometimes a scoop. Is it a little too cosy? Dickie is privy to a great deal. He knows that "whenever policy advice is set out for a [Foreign Office] minister it now has attached to it guidance on how to sell it, indications of what sort of opposition may have to be faced and how best to overcome resistance to it in other parts of Whitehall". He knows which paintings hang where in the private office. He knows which newspapers are the Foreign Secretary's preferred reading (the International Herald Tribune, Le Monde and the Financial Times ). He may well know the thickness of the pile of the Foreign Secretary's carpet. He has interviewed mandarins of every size and station. What is the nature of these encounters? Does he buttonhole, one might ask, or is he buttonholed?

The anecdotes are all there. Howe is seen carousing with his Czech opposite number on a visit to Prague in 1985 while his political director, Derek Thomas, slips off to a rendezvous with the dissidents of Charter 77. On rejoining the ministers, Thomas passes Howe a note, assumed to be something to the effect of mission accomplished. In fact, it read: "Doesn't the gypsy fiddler remind you of Ernest Borgnine?", to which Howe replied: "Rather more like Nigel Lawson, I think." In the absence of source notes (all interviews were conducted off the record), readers may be forgiven for wondering if this sally was divulged by Howe himself - that rapier-like wit. The same Howe reappears a little later establishing "a relaxed, confident relationship of trust and cooperation between the Foreign Office and the press, both on his travels with correspondents and at home".

This relationship was ruined, apparently, by the rebarbative Robin Cook, the villain of the piece, who evidently did not endear himself to the mandarinate. The lack of endearment is precisely reflected by their scribe.

Cook, one of the very few people mentioned in the book to come in for any form of criticism. is shafted without compunction throughout: "'he was a cat, not a dog' was one knowing assessment of how cautious people had to be with him in his moods"; "[He] had a limited interest in forward-looking policy and rarely let any of his junior ministers become involved in it".

The biggest scoop is probably the inside story of the Foresight project, a push (almost a putsch) for radical reform of the Foreign Office from within, driven by the Young Turks, as everyone seems to call them, and adopted or co-opted by their elders. Foresight produced a trenchant and enlightened report, in 2000, addressing everything from attitudes to emails. The Permanent Under-Secretary took notice. Small reforms of an egalitarian bent were made almost immediately. The colour-coding of papers according to the official grade of paper-writers was abolished. A fitness centre was opened, with classes in outlandish pursuits such as Pilates, yoga and kick boxing. The use of first names was encouraged. (Not, however, with the PUS, who remained "PUS".) To some, this is permanent revolution. To others, the Sisyphean struggle goes on.

The New Mandarins is a mine of information on processes and procedures. Appendix two contains "The Foreign and Commonwealth Office organogram", showing posts and responsibilities down to "People and best practice". The book as a whole is something like an organogram made flesh. What it lacks is any sustained analysis of policy and purpose, to say nothing of efficacy and effect. Keeping silent - maintaining a kind of authorial omertà - seems to be almost a matter of honour. For one so well versed in the subject, with a magpie eye for the culture, this is a curious abstinence. Rather gingerly, for example, he broaches "the frequently levelled complaint that the Foreign Office is good at responding to crises but on occasion has been less successful at thinking strategically about future challenges and anticipating problems ahead", but discusses it chiefly in terms of cybernetics. He highlights the publication of the official document UK International Priorities: A Strategy for the FCO (2003) - a statement of purpose that passed virtually unnoticed then and since - but fails to say what the strategy is, beyond noting the clear priority given to "our relationship with the US" for achieving it. In the matter of "the special relationship", Dickie is an acknowledged sceptic; here he hedges his bets, even when he should be provoked. "While it is recognised in the Foreign Office that it is important to avoid policies at variance with those of European Union partners wherever possible", he reports blandly, "the idea of having a consensus on a single foreign policy is usually dismissed by British diplomats as an objective often inconsistent with transatlantic coordination. Although urged by ministers to pursue such a goal, they rate its achievement as a politician's pipe dream." New mandarins, old mantra.

Old dog, new tricks.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.

The New Mandarins: How British Foreign Policy Works

Author - John Dickie
Publisher - Tauris
Pages - 254
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 1 86064 978 5

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