Philip Hammond, the newly appointed Foreign Secretary. Photo: Getty
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From the Castlereagh-Canning era to Philip Hammond

Philip Hammond's appointment as Foreign Secretary is a triumph for capable functionaries and Little Englanders.

If you think that politics can be brutal now, it is worth remembering that there was once a time when feuding cabinet ministers were wont to draw pistols on each other. After their duel of 1809, both Lord Castlereagh and George Canning (who took a bullet in the thigh) were able to recover their reputation. Both, indeed, went on to become dominant figures in 19th-century British foreign policy. They bequeathed a set of organising principles that, though contested, were traceable through their pre-eminent Victorian and Edwardian successors – Palmerston, Aberdeen, Granville, Salisbury and Sir Edward Grey – and even through to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Despite Britain’s diminished international status after 1945 there was seldom a shortage of “big beasts” to pick up the mantle at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). It was Thatcher’s foreign secretaries Geoffrey Howe and Douglas Hurd who were often her greatest sources of frustration, partly because of her perception that they were too inclined to side with the cautious mandarins in King Charles Street.

In the Blair era, too, Robin Cook brought a distinctive approach in the form of his “ethical foreign policy”. And for all the crises and debacles of the past 200 years, a sense of continuity and history still runs through the FCO more than any other ministry. Jack Straw, who held the reins from 2001 to 2006, has spoken of the lessons of the Castlereagh-Canning era. William Hague is an accomplished biographer of William Pitt (mentor to both Castlereagh and Canning) and William Wilberforce, the politician and anti-slavery campaigner.

Set against this illustrious and tempestuous past, the appointment of Philip Hammond as Foreign Secretary has left many observers cold. Yet there is a certain rationale to it. Hammond performed solidly as defence secretary, a post that has long been a poisoned chalice. He has a better relationship with the armed forces than some of his recent predecessors – a not inconsiderable achievement, given the extent of the defence cuts over which he has presided. More importantly, he also managed to get these cuts through parliament while averting a Tory rebellion. He had the advantage that potential rebels were pulled two ways – between those inclined towards a Liam Fox-style emphasis on strong defence and a new breed with a more Little Englander disposition.

However, it is also easy to foresee friction between the minister and his new department. Hammond is a cold-eyed cost-cutter. Before the reshuffle, Cameron was already facing a revolt over the foreign aid budget, much valued by the establishment but a long-standing target of the Tory right. That the Foreign Secretary is on record saying he would vote to leave the EU unless substantial powers are returned to Britain brings him into sharp conflict with Foreign Office orthodoxy.

One could also argue that Hammond’s elevation represents something else – the triumph of the tinkerer over the thinker. He brings with him no clear philosophy of Britain’s place in the world, nor any proven depth of interest in foreign affairs. Hague’s tenure, though not without its critics, brought a reinvestment in the Foreign Office as an institution. Under the “Diplomatic Excellence” initiative, he emphasised the importance of restoring language training and a sense of historical and institutional memory. He was unquestionably a big beast.

That Liam Fox reportedly turned down a subordinate role as a minister of state under Hammond tells its own story. There is no declaration of intent or change of direction here – no new ethos. What we have is the triumph of the capable functionary.

Cameron has previously flirted with a bigger role in the international arena – gymnastically over Libya and abortively over Syria last summer. But a combination of defeat in the Syria vote, the effects of America’s lurch towards retrenchment and his inability to get anywhere near the steering wheel at the EU has blunted those ambitions.

Beyond the Tory reshuffle, one wonders who and where are today’s heavyweights. Potentially influential voices on the Labour benches seem muted by fear of the Chilcot report. On the Tory side, who were the alternatives to Hammond? To revisit the old cliché about Britain “punching above her weight” – and to borrow from the management-speak so popular in Whitehall – is the best we can hope for a boxer “fit for purpose” within the division? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Northern Ireland's election: Will Arlene Foster pay the price for a domestic scandal?

The wind is in Sinn Féin's sails. But both parties have to work together after the poll. 

Will voters use the forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland assembly to punish ministerial incompetence?

After all, these elections are all about the Democratic Unionists’ Arlene Foster and her disastrous mishandling of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, the energy subsidy she previously introduced as enterprise minister without putting cost controls in place, thus racking-up a £500m liability for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Her refusal to stand aside as First Minister and allow an independent investigation triggered a sequence of events that collapsed the power-sharing executive that runs Northern Ireland, necessitating this poll.

The electorate offers its verdict on Thursday.

So far, there has been a predictable rhythm to the campaign. Cautious and insular, the parties have all been here before and know how to harvest their vote. Elections in Northern Ireland are effectively a race to see who can shore up their core the most, (made harder by the overall reduction in seats from 108 to 90 across 18 multi-member constituencies).

Foster knows she is fighting for her political life. Her woeful handling of the RHI scandal, exposed her severe limitations as a politician. Brittle and stubborn, she further damaged her reputation at the DUP’s manifesto launch by refusing to take any questions from journalists on the basis she had "man flu".

Her pitch was a sectarian "Project Fear" warning that Sinn Fein might overtake the DUP as the largest party and push for an early referendum on Irish unity. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams joked after the launch on Twitter: "Just for the record, I didn't give Arlene the flu." 

Foster’s campaign might be ugly, but in Northern Ireland’s hyper-tribal polity, it could prove effective. If the DUP suffers a reversal, however, her colleagues may yet think twice about re-nominating her for First Minister/deputy First Minister.

Meanwhile, as Sinn Féin’s new "leader in the North" Michelle O’Neill finds herself in exactly the same situation as Foster was 12 months ago at the last assembly elections - taking over from a male predecessor who had been a mainstay of the political process for years.

O’Neill is so far proving formidable. She benefits from the fact the wind is blowing in Sinn Féin’s sails. After all, the reasons for this election - the DUP’s incompetence - will play well among republicans and nationalists. 

Sinn Féin’s pitch is therefore about ensuring "equality, respect and integrity", with O’Neill claiming this is "the most important election since the Good Friday Agreement". The Shinners are pushing for the strongest possible mandate in what O’Neill describes as the "short, sharp negotiation" that will take place after the elections. She says she doesn’t want a new agreement, "just the implementation of previous ones".

In terms of the other parties, Mike Nesbitt, a former television journalist turned leader of the Ulster Unionists, deserves credit for trying to appeal beyond the tribe. He has offered his second preference vote to the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party. Tactically, he has to try something to dislodge the UUP from the political sediment.

Both the UUP and SDLP are essentially fighting for relevance in these elections. They constantly claim the electorate has had enough of the SF-DUP duopoly and wants change, it’s just that the voters never vote for it. 

Following Thursday’s results comes the hard bargaining, if the parties are to get power-sharing up and running again and avoid a period of direct rule from the Northern Ireland Office. Both Foster and O’Neill need to be seen to strike a hard bargain. Foster will be desperate to claim she is still in control of events. O’Neill, the newcomer, will want to show she is no pushover.

If she is smart, Foster will  push for an early restoration of the executive and try to put this mess behind her. If, on the other hand, there is a lengthy delay, the election could become a running sore. After all, as the DUP may yet have to be reminded, power-sharing lies at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.