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Prophets of decline

Lord McDonald
Written by Robert Tombs

What are the views of the people who represent us abroad and direct our foreign policy? If Lord McDonald is typical, they have largely given up on Britain.

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Simon McDonald – Baron McDonald of Salford, GCMG, KCVO — has had a stellar Foreign Office career.  It included service as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, Germany, Israel and the United States, appointment as Principal Private Secretary to Jack Straw (2002-3), Foreign Policy Adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Head of the Overseas and Defence Secretariat at the Cabinet Office and finally the top of the greasy pole as Permanent Under Secretary and Head of the Diplomatic Service from August 2015 to August 2020. He is now Master of Christ’s College, Cambridge – the final Establishment accolade that Sir Humphrey coveted, but which even he never finally achieved.  Such brilliant success must command respect, even awe.

Last week Lord McDonald gave an extraordinary interview to the New Statesman (19-25 May).  Perhaps the item most noted by other media was that he played a ‘pivotal’ part in the fall of Boris Johnson by an ‘excoriating public letter’: ‘The truth matters,’ says Lord McDonald, ‘and Number 10 had forgotten that.’  Not mentioned in the interview was an earlier political intervention, when he accused the government before a parliamentary committee of pulling out of an EU scheme to provide protective equipment during Covid in order to promote Brexit – an accusation which he later withdrew, admitting that he had ‘inadvertently and wrongly’ misinformed the committee ‘due to a misunderstanding’.  He is a strong anti-Brexiteer.

It is, however, his reflections on foreign policy and global strategy that strike me no less forcibly.  He draws a contrast between today’s politicians, especially novice Foreign Secretaries such as Johnson and Truss, with the calibre and experience of earlier incumbents, who had served ‘quite a long apprenticeship’ before taking office.  He cites the example of Douglas Hurd – a charming and amiable man, and a Foreign Office insider, for whom the Foreign Secretaryship was, notes McDonald, ‘the culmination of a long career’.  Yet Hurd presided over the disaster of British policy in the Balkans, which he himself described as looking ‘feeble and inhumane’, and ‘falling to bits around us’.   Even more experienced, of course, was Sir Anthony Eden, who had been in and around the Foreign Office for twenty years when he brought about Britain’s most humiliating diplomatic failure of the century, though Lord McDonald does not mention him.  Foreign Office insiders, it seems, do not always know best.

He goes on to lament – in terms familiar in King Charles Street at least since the 1930s – Britain’s ‘absolute and relative global decline’.  It was this declinism, of course, which led us to join the Common Market in the first place: otherwise, said one of Lord McDonald’s predecessors, we would become merely ‘a greater Sweden’.  Half a century later, It does not seem that Lord McDonald would disagree: we’re always declining.  In contrast to his view of Britain’s sadly reduced status, he mentions ‘India, China, Japan, Brazil, Australia – they all count for more than they did 20 years ago’.  What a bizarre assessment.  India and China are large developing countries: by definition they are — well, developing.  As such they inevitably ‘count for more’ then a generation ago, when they were roughly at the economic level reached by England in the 15th century.  But despite their economic progress, they and of course Brazil face huge political problems.  Japan was economically stagnating for decades and is facing steep population decline.  If Australia ‘counts for more’, surely it is as a partner with Britain and American in AUKUS?  And Japan similarly has been increasing its defence capabilities – in close association with Britain.  But in any case, do China and India provide a meaningful yardstick for Britain?  If so, one would equally have to acknowledge the ‘absolute and relative decline’ of Germany, France, the United States, Italy, Russia … Indeed, everywhere.

But, he protests, Britain has only 70 million people.  Lord McDonald read History at Cambridge.  He must know that Britain has always been a small country with a relatively small population: we had roughly half that of France in Napoleon’s time.  That is why throughout its history Britain has always needed allies.  In what sense does this today constitute a ‘decline’?  Britain is evidently what is has been for three centuries: one of the world’s half-dozen most powerful states.  But McDonald insists that we can no longer really be a ‘player’: for us the Great Game is over.

When asked whether Britain’s effective aid to Ukraine, in which it acted fast and provided international leadership, does not disprove his declinist lamentations, he cannot bring himself to accept the obvious.  He insists that this was merely ‘soft power’ – the most we are capable of nowadays.  Providing weapons and intelligence, training soldiers – ‘soft power’?  This is turning a basic concept of foreign relations on its head.

Britain’s decline is the very core of Lord McDonald’s view of the world.  Has he always thought like this, I wonder.  Or is it just a consequence of Brexit Derangement Syndrome?  If he has always held these opinions, it is astonishing that he could have been promoted to senior diplomatic posts, and finally become head of the Foreign Office.   Would a man of such corrosive and ill informed pessimism advance so far in the Quai d’Orsay, for example?  No chance.  That tells us much about the two institutions.  If, on the other hand, Lord McDonald has developed these views only since Brexit, it would explain some of his actions while still in Whitehall.  Let us be grateful that he is now safely ensconced in his Master’s Lodge.

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About the author

Robert Tombs