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