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

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

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism