Britain's Foreign Office is a relic that should be remade for the 21st century

The British diplomatic corps is as elitist as it is ineffectual, but that doesn't mean it's too late for change

The FCDO building in Westminster was designed to evoke 'a drawing room for the nation'. PA
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The architecture of power is fascinating. The White House, for example, is stunningly beautiful but very small as the heart of a superpower. Nevertheless White House staff prefer to have a cupboard office in the building itself (near the President) rather than be relegated to the nearby Eisenhower Executive Office Building 100 metres away.

In Britain, 10 Downing Street is also the heart of power, yet visitors find it remarkably cramped and not especially impressive. For me, the most impressive British government building is the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on King Charles Street, London. It was constructed at the height of the British empire in the 19th century and designed as “a kind of national palace or drawing room for the nation”, according to one of the architects. It’s stunningly beautiful, especially the original parts of the “India Office”. Visitors are told it has “Doric and first floor ionic columns of polished red Peterhead granite, while the top floor Corinthian columns are of grey Aberdeen granite. The pavement is of Greek, Sicilian and Belgian marble”.

The grandeur of the buildings continues but the Foreign Office itself needs redevelopment, re-thinking and even renaming. It is “somewhat elitist and rooted in the past”, according to a high-powered group of former diplomats and what are sometimes called ex-Foreign Office “mandarins”. These men and women are among the best informed and smartest people I have ever met as a journalist, and their recent report, titled “The World in 2040: Renewing the UK’s approach to International Affairs”, should be seriously considered.

They conclude that the Foreign Office in 2024 is not fit for purpose. It is “struggling to deliver a clear mandate, prioritisation and resource allocation”, adding: “The Foreign Office all too often operates like a giant private office for the foreign secretary of the day, responding to the minister’s immediate concerns and ever-changing in-tray.”

The Foreign Office in 2024 is not fit for purpose

In one of the more damning passages, it concludes: "The UK has often sought to project an image of ‘greatness’ to the world that today seems anachronistic. We will be envied for what we are good at, not what we say that we are good at. This means the state working hand-in-hand with our universities, our creative sector, our sports bodies, news and civil society organisations, so they can serve as effective ambassadors for the UK and maximise the country’s considerable ‘soft power’.”

The past few years of revolving prime ministers and post-Brexit failures have been depressing for precisely the reasons this report outlines. British universities, Britain’s creative sector and other parts of its culture are appreciated around the world but have been underfunded and overburdened by its government failures and carelessness. To take just one example, British rock bands and orchestras touring in Europe now have all kinds of pointless post-Brexit bureaucratic hoops to jump through. As the report on Foreign Office reform makes clear, the British state suffers from a kind of ancestor worship, pretending that the buildings and bureaucratic structures that served a Victorian empire in the era of the horse and cart are somehow suitable to today’s challenges.

Whether this thoughtful report will be acted upon by the current British government is unlikely. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s team is not driven by long-term ideas, but short-term survival. Long-term thinking in Downing Street is confined to fretting about tomorrow morning’s newspaper headlines and the latest scandals involving Conservative MPs (too many to list here). The big questions – what are realistic British international ambitions, what is British influence, what are the risks and dangers in the 2020s in a fast-changing world – are rarely discussed publicly. Even if those in Britain’s government disagree with this new critique of the Foreign Office by the experts, they need to explain why.

Besides, criticism and restructuring of the British state needs to go much further. British people are beginning to consider critically the out-of-date traditions of Westminster. The country retains an antiquated two party system, despite the fact it has many more parties beyond Labour and the Conservatives. It has proportional representation for parliaments in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff – but not in Westminster. It is the only European democracy with a “first past the post” system of voting…except Belarus. The only two countries in the world to allow members of the state religion to sit in the national parliament by right are the British House of Lords and the parliament of Iran.

The failure to reconsider the peculiarities of this antiquated system is yet another British tradition. The Victorians got it right. When the old parliament burned down in 1834 (as a result of carelessness) the Victorians rapidly designed and built the new palace of Westminster. Unfortunately bits of that new parliament nowadays are out of date and unfit both as a building (where bits are falling off and fire is a serious risk) and as an institution. The time to fix things is before the worst happens. What’s true of buildings is also true of bureaucracies and government itself.

Published: April 17, 2024, 4:00 AM