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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.