While the departure of Michael Gove may have dominated the headlines and sparked a debate as to the direction of the coalition’s education policy – William Hague’s departure from the Foreign Office and replacement with Philip Hammond has gone largely unnoticed in comparison.
Hammond is one of the middle-aged white men to survive what people are calling the ‘cull of middle-aged white men’. Known for being good on the detail he has also avoided any real negative media despite overseeing steep budget cuts for the military while at the Ministry of Defence. His calm reaction to being heckled at the Tory conference in 2013 was a fair reflection of a man who will not go down in the annals of history for his bombastic speeches or flourishing rhetoric.
Indeed ‘Big Phil’, as he is apparently known in Tory headquarters, may be a steady captain at the helm of the steadiest ministry in government. For that is the legacy bequeathed by Hague who as the Hillary Clinton to David Cameron’s Barack Obama – set about a mission to (in his own words) ‘restore the authority of the Foreign Office’. Hague was certainly a safe pair of hands and, a few defective planes aside in the Libya intervention, he got on with the job with minimal fuss.
However, I do not think he really challenged the movement of foreign policy-making into the Cabinet Office and National Security Council. Looking at Syria and Libya, I think the Foreign Office played a secondary role. A proactive or interventionist foreign policy is not popular with the public as polling on Syria intervention will tell you and Hague may have restored the reputation of the Foreign Office a bit by cooling the guns on intervention. Yet I do not think its experts are really feeding into the big decisions as they once did – which is a shame considering the expertise and talent that heads in that direction from British universities and beyond. Kirsty McNeill in a recent article for the Fabians on Conservative foreign policy did not mention Hague once, which is telling.
Instead, Hague’s real contribution was in advocacy and the use of ‘soft power’ where Britain does still punch above its weight in the world. One example is his initiative on curbing sexual violence in conflict, which gained sufficient international backing to get endorsements from celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, who joined the foreign secretary at a recent summit in London. Another is a scheme to send lawyers to the Syrian border to gather evidence of atrocities for future war crimes prosecutions. That plays to soft power’s strengths – if we are not going to send in the tanks, we can at least send in the lawyers to do something constructive.
Hague also claimed to have set a new course for Britain in Europe, a course that Hammond has 10 months to redirect in a manner that may suit Cameron’s attempt to nix the rise of the United Kingdom Independence party. This may be where the focus on Hammond’s foreign policy vision and his difference from Hague is most closely scrutinised and evaluated ahead of the 2015 election. However, such short-termism is indicative of a reshuffle made late in the day, and the truth is that Hammond’s time in the FCO may be a stopgap that continues to reflect the ministry’s wider marginalisation from Westminster decision making and the fundamental hole in longer-term foreign policy vision coming out of the coalition itself.
James Denselow is a foreign policy specialist at the Foreign Policy Centre. He tweets @JamesDenselow
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