Sixty years ago when Harold Macmillan was prime minister, his chief whip, Edward Heath, called Number 10 late one evening to alert the PM to a serious issue. Macmillan was comfortable by the fire, reading Dombey and Son and after listening carefully to Heath, he returned to his novel saying he would deal with the matter in the morning.
McMillan’s response might be judged unthinkable today. All politicians and especially cabinet ministers live within the 24-hour news cycle. The media and many of the public expect an instant response and instant action. Are we requiring our ministers to shoot from the hip?
During his illustrious career, Peter Ricketts (now Lord Ricketts, GCMG) has been permanent secretary in the Foreign Office, chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee and UK ambassador in Paris. He has been at the heart of government and Britain’s foreign policy for more than 40 years. His book, Hard Choices, although beautifully written, is not an easy read. Ricketts points to past UK diplomatic successes and today’s UK strengths, but he also catalogues current weaknesses and challenges; the book’s title is aptly chosen.
A key concern for the author is the failure of senior politicians to engage in strategic thinking. The emergence of the 24-hour news cycle and the growth of social media is partly to blame for this. Ricketts harks back to Macmillan commissioning the cabinet secretary to produce a ‘grand strategy’ (the 50-page Future Policy Study of 1960) over which Macmillan “evidently brooded” and responded with his own 32-page memorandum: The Grand Design.
Ricketts speaks highly of both documents and gives his sad judgment that nothing of similar quality has emerged in the succeeding 60 years. This paucity of long-term thinking is highlighted by the Johnson government’s ‘plan’ for the chronic problem of social care of a 1.25 point increase in national insurance, badged as the ‘health and social care levy’. A sticking plaster for a gaping wound!
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 ‘How We Got Here’ mainly fleshes out the historical context and includes this lighter moment.
In the Vienna of the 1970s, a number of diplomats from both sides of the Iron Curtain were engaged in arms reduction talks that proceeded at a glacial pace. All diplomats would, however, turn up on a Friday evening in the large back room of a restaurant, have dinner together and then have a singsong.
Jointly they put together a song book (that has remained a closely kept diplomatic secret). Alternate songs were from the East and West and the musical director, who was known to moonlight as the US ambassador, would call out the number of the next song to be sung – switching strictly between a Russian folk song and, for example, ‘My Darling Clementine’. This sort of personal anecdote enlivens the book.
Part II is headed ‘What to Do Now’ and includes the chapter on ‘Reviving the Lost Art of Strategy’. Part III brings us to ‘Making Hard Choices’ with an early chapter on ‘Triangle of Tension: Britain, America and China’. Johnson has spoken of his preference for a “tilt to the East” and trade with China is clearly vital. However, how will he square this with China’s human rights abuses, its illiberal policy towards Hong Kong and its role in reducing carbon emissions? Hard choices indeed.
Does Rickett support this government?
Ricketts appears not to be a great fan of Johnson and co. With reference to Brexit and its fall-out, he writes:
“British politics has been poisoned and polarised by the populist appeal to grievances and nostalgia rather than rational, fact-based policy making … Personal loyalty has come to matter more than competence in the allocation of top jobs.”
Wikipedia notes that Ricketts – a cross-bench peer and previous Joint Intelligence Committee member – is joining other lords in taking legal action against Johnson for his refusal to order an inquiry into Russian interference in UK elections.
My only point of disagreement with Rickett’s is his espousal of ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) electoral system (page 158). He justifies this in terms of the system (usually) giving a clear election winner that, in turn, gives other heads of government confidence that the government can prevail in parliament. I regard this as a ‘counsel of despair’. Currently we have a government elected with a 43.6 percent share of the vote but enjoying an 80-seat majority. FPTP as a system maximises the number of wasted votes and generates disillusion among the 56.4 percent who did not vote Conservative.
The copy of Hard Choices I have been reading was lent by a friend. An early task on my ‘to do’ list is to order my own copy from the bookshop. This is a book I must have on my bookshelf!
Hard Choices, by Peter Ricketts published by Atlantic Books