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Simon McDonald: “It’s the end of the game for Britain”

The former head of the Foreign Office on the UK’s decline, why we should not “make an enemy” of China and how he brought down Boris Johnson.

By Harry Lambert

Simon McDonald spent 40 years in the Foreign Office, but he will be publicly remembered for one act: helping to bring down Boris Johnson. In July 2022 McDonald made a pivotal intervention in the week that the prime minister fell. He released an excoriating public letter which contradicted No 10’s account of how much Johnson knew about allegations of misconduct by Christopher Pincher prior to appointing him as the government’s deputy chief whip.

“I was telling a truth no one else could tell authoritatively,” McDonald, 62, told me when we met in late April at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he is now Master. McDonald ran the Foreign Office as the department’s lead official from 2015 to 2020. He knew Pincher had been subject to a formal investigation in 2019 and that Johnson, then prime minister, had been briefed about it.

“For some reason, No 10 decided to say, ‘There’s nothing here. There is nothing to know. And if there is something to know, the prime minister doesn’t know it.’” That line changed as pressure mounted, but McDonald watched in disbelief as No 10 put out “new lines, and they were rubbish again”. In speaking out, McDonald went against an unwritten code that constrains former officials, but he felt he had to act. “The truth matters, and No 10 had forgotten that.”

I had come to meet McDonald to discuss British grand strategy, expecting a bullish view of our place in the world. Instead, I encountered a man who could uncharitably be described as being resigned to British irrelevance. We spoke on a Friday afternoon in a bright, book-lined study overlooking a grass-cut courtyard. There was something elegiac about our conversation. It was as if McDonald felt the week was ending for Britain too.

That sense began with McDonald’s view of today’s politicians. Careers are now much accelerated, he noted. Politics has sped up. Ministers without any experience are propelled into the great offices of state.

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“When I started [in 1981], your typical minister had served quite a long apprenticeship, coming into cabinet with a lot of miles on the clock.” For Douglas Hurd, with whom McDonald worked as a young official, leading the Foreign Office (from 1989-1995) was “the culmination of a long career. Now you can be foreign secretary within a few years of entering parliament. Boris Johnson’s first job in government was foreign secretary.”

The concerns of foreign secretaries have also shifted. “Liz Truss spent a massive amount of time on her image,” McDonald said. “Her social media feeds were something that she curated all the time. She was nurturing the audience that eventually voted her to the leadership of the Conservative Party. Maybe as a cabinet minister you should be deeper into the policy implications rather than thinking, ‘I’m in Sydney, what’s the best photograph?’ ”

The UK’s fading position in the world has deeper causes than its recent foreign secretaries. Britain’s global decline has been “both absolute and relative. India, China, Japan, Brazil, Australia – they all count for more than they did 20 years ago.” Population is power, and the UK has fewer than 70 million people, now without preferential access to the vast European trading bloc which it neighbours, and no regulatory say over the EU’s rules of trade. “We can still be a player, but I think we are mostly a soft power player.” The problem is that Britain is “still trying to play a hard power game, but we don’t have the resources to back that up any more”.

But has not Britain led on Ukraine, catalysing others to act by being the first to supply weapons at various points, from anti-tank missiles in January 2022 to tanks themselves a year later? “These all to me feel in the soft power side of life: to draw other people’s attention to something, to galvanise activity.” McDonald sees Britain’s extensive training of Ukrainian soldiers in the same vein.

McDonald entered the Foreign Office on the eve of the Falklands War, an operation that he thinks the UK would no longer have the forces to carry out alone. The British navy had almost 100 warships in 1982. Today it has fewer than 40. The Falklands showed the UK “doing something by itself, without American approval”. It was an exceptional event. British foreign policy since has been defined by the UK’s eagerness to act in America’s slipstream.

For decades, that approach was balanced by the UK’s role in Europe. Now, having left the EU, “our strategic choice has boiled down to one country”, McDonald said. Other strategic avenues are either undesired (“we don’t want to become China’s chief partner in Europe”) or insignificant (“getting together with Australia, Canada and New Zealand is nice, and we can agree violently on everything, but it’s not going to make the international weather”).

McDonald also thinks little of the idea that Britain can act collectively alongside other “middle powers”. You could call him a geographical determinist. He believes Britain has no business sending aircraft carriers halfway across the world in a bid to be a player in the Indo-Pacific.

Our attempt to become one is American-led. Barack Obama saw the US’s geopolitical future in Asia, not in Europe. This is part of the problem McDonald sees with the strategic straitjacket Britain is now in: America is changing, and its interests are not our own. “America is much less interested in Europe than it used to be. The Eastern Seaboard does not count internally in the way it used to. The United States is more Spanish-speaking, more Pacific.” The Ukraine war has dragged America’s focus back to Europe for now. McDonald is sceptical it will remain there.

[See also: Why Britain is deluded about Germany]

Could the West have prevented the war in Ukraine? McDonald attended the Bucharest summit in 2008 at which Nato membership action plans were drawn up, at US insistence, for Ukraine and Georgia. McDonald sympathises with the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s rejection of those plans. Russia would have viewed Ukraine’s inclusion in Nato as a hostile act, “so where was the forward defence? Where were the divisions that were going to make this a reality?” America was stretched fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the UK – to McDonald’s point – could not act alone. “Nobody had the resources.”

Britain itself was caught up in the US’s wars. “So many people died,” McDonald reflected of the war in Iraq. “For what purpose?” Britain, he believes, waged war at vast expense for “no benefit”. As an official, McDonald put together a paper for the incoming prime minister in 2010 on Afghanistan, recommending a move towards withdrawal. The UK did not withdraw until 2021. “I don’t believe anything extra was achieved by prolonging our stay.”

Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative security minister, once quipped to me that pessimists of British power think the UK should “fall back and guard Dover”. He said it in jest, but the quip seemed almost apt as a description of McDonald’s defence policy.

“It’s not satisfying to a lot of people, but it is time to have a proper look at the fundamentals,” McDonald said. “We’re not going to be in all the military discussions in the future.” And Britain should not mind. I asked if this was the end of the great game for Britain, in its wider sense. “Yes,” he said, falling silent for a beat.

Foreign policy itself is changing, McDonald believes. Intra-state conflict will matter less. “Planetary issues” – climate change, deforestation, plastic, pollution – will matter more. “Our scientists and researchers will be as important as our generals.” In any case, he argued, voters care little for foreign policy. Their focus is domestic. Britain can take pride in its civic institutions. They can be the basis of our global relevance.

Yet major wars threaten. One is already raging in Europe. Another may soon start in the South China Sea. For McDonald, Taiwan should be the test of the UK’s new worldview. Britain, he argued, should not “make an enemy of China”. “This, for me, would be a break point between London and Washington.” Harold Wilson, he noted, did not send British troops to fight in Vietnam.

For now McDonald is confident that the US itself will not go to war with China. He thinks that its security leaders, such as Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, and Bill Burns, the director of the CIA, know that would be “a strategic disaster” – although, he pointed out as I left, “Bill Burns is not going to be there forever”.

[See also: Could disgruntled Tories really topple Rishi Sunak?]

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This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List