13th March 2018

Sir Nicholas Soames’s speech during a debate on the Diplomatic Service and Resources, Tuesday 13th March 2018.

Sir Nicholas Soames’s Speech During a Debate on the Diplomatic Service and Resources

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 13 March 2018

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on his excellent speech in opening this important and serious debate. I will not respond to what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—he is also my friend—said, other than to remind him of famous lines written in worse days: “To hell with the future and God bless the past, and may God in his mercy look down on Belfast.” I think that to characterise the situation with the European Union in the way that he did is not sensible or helpful to his constituents.

I will commence my remarks by paying tribute to the Foreign Office and all those who work there. What it now achieves on its very, very limited budget is exceptional. Generally speaking, the standard of our people and our representation abroad is astonishingly good, as my right hon. Friend made clear. I hope the House will acknowledge that, and thank those staff and praise them for their efforts.

I strongly endorse the words of my hon. Friends the Members for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) and for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) about military attachés. When I was Minister of State for the Armed Forces I used to interview every military attaché personally, because I believe it is a significant and important position within an embassy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow said, military attachés are part of the golden currency and their role is far wider than just the military. In places such as the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and particularly in the middle east where the golden currency is relationships, those military attachés play a vital role that should be seen—as indeed it is—not as a sort of job at the end of a distinguished career, but as a job for someone very much on the way up. It is an important part of our diplomatic effort.

It seems yet another act of self-inflicted British mutilation that, at a time when the risks and problems abroad are ever increasing, and when through a very poor decision this country has decided to leave the European Union and make our way in a complex and difficult world alone, we should so ill resource our Foreign Office. We must put that right immediately. Contrary to what most of the tabloid press believe, this country is not a superpower, and it is inevitable that our influence—already sadly but quite clearly on the wane—will further decrease as the realities of the folly of our exit from the European Union become clear. A middle-ranking power, for that is what we are, must work very hard indeed to protect and further its interests. It must burnish and sustain its alliances, networks and friendships to keep them in good working order, and above all in good repair, ready for the day when we need them for the big stuff. Such a day is today, and the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister, and all those concerned will be doing all they can to bring our allies and friends alongside us in the very difficult task that we have over the next 24 hours when dealing with the Russians.

To continue that theme, if we are to have any credibility, and ultimately if we are to maintain our seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is it not ever more important to stamp what the United Kingdom stands for around the world, and redouble our commitment to NATO and other organisations?

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. He was a distinguished and successful Foreign Office Minister, and he has seen all these things in action. He is completely right: we will have to redouble all our efforts, call in all our chips, and work very hard to retain our influence and position on the world stage. That is an incontestable fact.

Some people have suggested in recent months that after Brexit, instead of spending so much time on Brussels, we should spend more time on other European capitals. My feeling is exactly the opposite: to secure the foreign policy and security outcomes we want, will we not have to double our efforts in Brussels to ensure that we win arguments?

I agree, and I would say further that we will have to ride every single horse in the park, not just the European horse. We no longer have a diplomatic network in the way that we used to, because our diplomatic network has been subordinated, in a perfectly sensible way, to working within the European Union. We will have to revitalise that, and indeed there is now a great rush to hire people or move them around, to ensure that the embassies are properly equipped. My father was for a time the British Ambassador in Paris. I was in the Army at that time, and I look back on those days, before we were members of the European Union, at the sheer scale of British diplomatic efforts to achieve what we set out to achieve, which was truly remarkable. We will have to replicate that right across Europe in order to retain our position.


I will continue if I may.

These relationships with allies, friends and networks do not just drop into our lap; they require continuous and ceaseless effort, and the most serious diplomatic work. Take the example of the last few months. With our allies we continue to be engaged in an active diplomatic and other campaign to counter Islamist extremism. We have also once again entered an era of deterrence in the face of threatening rhetoric and aggressive behaviour from Russia. While military deterrence must be properly integrated with political, economic, diplomatic and other hybrid deterrence measures, credible conventional military capability remains a vital part of a strategy designed to keep the peace. It also ranks, pari passu, with the diplomatic effort required to ensure the same thing. In an environment of uncertainty, it is essential that we stand with all our diplomatic, military and other assets, ready to reassure, and if necessary defend, our allies in a manner that will force any potential opponents to think twice. As I have said, that requires not just military assets, but most especially our diplomatic reach across the world.

On the news this morning one suggestion made by one of the experts in response to Russia’s actions was that we should withdraw from the World cup in Russia, and instead hold it here in England. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that that would be an impressive way of putting pressure on Russia to bring about change? It is perhaps a diplomatic way—well, it might be an undiplomatic way of doing it, but it is an important way.

I do not think that it is nearly serious enough for the kind of steps that the Government will need to take against Russia. Just to say a lot of dignitaries will not be sent to the World cup is nowhere near good enough. It is a pathetic response. We will need to do much better and be much tougher, so that it is understood across the full spectrum that the behaviour in question is something up with which we will not put.

It is not just a question of money, although that is vital, of course. It is also a question—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury made the point extremely well—of how we marry our hard power, which is sadly considerably diminished, to our exceptional soft power, and ensure that they both work closely together in achieving our diplomatic objectives. It is frankly far too casual and complacent a habit, into which this country falls at the slightest opportunity, to assume that that happens by magic. It is my view that our exceptional and truly remarkable soft power is not well or effectively co-ordinated with our other diplomacy. Indeed, there is a view in the Foreign Office that it should be left well alone to get on with it by itself. The issues of security, development, energy, climate change and all the rest of it have to be worked through in tandem with soft power, as well as with diplomacy, the military, development aid experts and everyone else involved, so that they work together and not in competition.

I want to return to a point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury has already enlarged on, and mention how extraordinarily impressed I was by our diplomatic mission in Harare—our excellent ambassador and her wonderful staff—and by the DFID staff, who are excellent. They are working together and acting as a force multiplier for the United Kingdom and for our objectives in Zimbabwe. We could not have been so successful in Zimbabwe with that extraordinary aid programme, which is brilliant, without everyone working together. It is a model for the rest of the diplomatic service. There are still places, in the lands of the ungodly, where that does not happen. It is unthinkable, to my mind, that the Foreign Secretary does not issue a fatwa to the effect that it will happen everywhere—and that right soon. It is a ridiculous waste of money and assets for the two to be accommodated separately. They should be accommodated together and work together for British interests.

I cannot believe that my right hon. Friend the Minister believes that it is sensible even to consider closing more diplomatic posts. Indeed, we must now be pretty much at the bare minimum of our representation. We need adequately to staff the smaller posts, so that we do not just have an ambassador and a locally engaged driver. It is all very well having locally engaged staff. They are marvellous and do a good job, and they are very loyal; but they are not, at the end of the day, Brits. We are after promoting our British way of life and our values. I again endorse the point that we must return constantly to making sure that people understand the values of this country as we make our sad way from the European Union. It is right that we re-establish our values as they are. That requires a good, decent diplomatic story.

I also reaffirm my unstinting support and admiration for the BBC World Service and congratulate everyone who works in that extraordinary organisation on the excellent job they do for this country. It would be a foolish short-term measure to reduce in any way the financial support to the BBC World Service, and I look to the Government to give me an assurance that that will not be the case. I endorse the views of the provost, or rather Lord Waldegrave—he is the provost of the school that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury went to—about the winner of the battle between the two great Departments of state, with respect to the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. I always used to say—I hasten to say it was as a joke, because I actually got a letter from the Foreign Office staying that it did not work for the Russians—that the Treasury works for the Russians, given how successfully it has undermined our military effort. I wholly support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in the energetic and earnest campaign that he is rightly waging to increase our military spending to about 2.5% as a bare minimum.

My right hon. Friend has mentioned the BBC World Service. Does he agree that in many of the countries that he mentioned, where we need to have one family in one location, the role of the British Council is also extremely important and is a crucial way of building up our soft power, as is the role of the BBC World Service?

My hon. Friend has always been known for his natural exuberance. If he would pause for a second, he would hear the magisterial exposition that I am about to give of the British Council. Another balls-up by Bellingham.

To pre-empt my hon. Friend’s over-excitement, we have a priceless asset in the British Council. I again urge the Foreign Office to accept its vital importance. It is important that it should work extremely closely with the Foreign Office and in the general promotion of the British aim, and that the Government should continue to fund it, recognising the exceptional results that it achieves for Great Britain. I try always, when I am lucky enough to travel abroad, to call on the British Council. I cannot tell you, Mr Bailey, how much I admire the remarkable work done, in place after place where I have been, by the people who work for the British Council. It is extraordinary. They build profound relationships with people—for example, through the learning of English, which hopefully equips people to come here and study. It is part of a greater British effort, and important for that.

There is a compelling—indeed, unassailable—case for Britain to retain and develop its active diplomacy, which means it must be better resourced, and to provide the money needed to do the job properly. We are all struggling to retain a rules-based world, which is clearly in our best interest and which we have always promoted. We have, over the years, been its architect and great supporter, with our American allies and others. It is today a concept under considerable threat. Our country is truly at a crossroads. Our global influence is already coming under considerable pressure and it is essential for the further success, safety and security of this realm that our diplomacy is properly resourced, so that it can do the very good job that it currently does on a shoestring.

Vol 637
No 109
Columns 251wh – 255wh


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