Britain's place in the world: Foreign Secretary's interview with Sky

The Foreign Secretary William Hague was interviewed by Adam Boulton for Sky on Sunday 4 July 2010

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon William Hague

Adam Boulton: This week William Hague outlined his new vision for Britain’s foreign policy but will he have the money to see it through? Joining me now from Chevening, the Foreign Secretary’s official residence, is the Foreign Secretary. Mr Hague what would the Foreign Office and its activities look with forty per cent cuts?

William Hague: Well actually the Foreign Office have already had some pretty large cuts because a couple of years ago the, the Labour Government removed their protection against exchange rate movements just when the exchange rate fell off a cliff. So they’re well advanced, let us say, on making reductions in expenditure. I think that we will still have to find ways of doing more for less and I think that is true right across the public sector and now we’re looking at all the departments where we can make reductions aright across the whole of Government that, of course, will include the Foreign Office.

AB: Though as I understand it those cuts in the past don’t count, these are new cuts that are being looked for and you were this week talking about Britain needing to expand its diplomatic activities around the world, in practical terms how is it possible you’re going to be able to do that?

WH: Well actually what I’m talking about in diplomatic terms is using our resources much more effectively. I don’t envisage a huge increase in resources going in to Britain’s presence overseas at a time when the country’s borrowing three billion pounds a week, that’s the position that we’ve been left by the previous Government, I don’t think that would be possible.

But it is possible to coordinate much more effectively and get much more out of the resources that we already deploy so that, for instance, in our relationship with India or Brazil we are making sure our education department, culture department, Department for International Development, the Foreign Office are working much more, much more closely together than would have been the case in recent years. So I think, if you like, we can get more bang for our buck in overseas relationships and that’s what I’m going to set out to do. It won’t involve a large increase in the amount of tax payers’ resources and it can’t.

AB: You also said you wanted to see more British officials going in to Europe but again financing comes in to doesn’t it, for example, we’ve been cutting the scholarships we’ve been funding at the College of Europe and that’s where these officials come from?

WH: Yes we will have to have another look at that and we are starting again the European fast stream, this is the, the system that sends bright Civil Servants in to European institutions, they often then return to British Government later on with all the expertise that they’ve developed in Brussels, but bringing a British perspective in to Brussels in the mean time.To completely cut that, to do away with that all together, which was what the last Government did some time ago, is a false economy. It costs this country money when we don’t get our way in Brussels negotiations or when inappropriate directives are past, so it is important to do that. If necessary we will have to find savings elsewhere in order to do that.

But nobody should think that any Government department is completely efficient and has arrived at its point of maximum efficiency, there will be, I think we’ve all seen coming in to Government, there will be ways of saving money in order to pay for necessary projects such as that.

AB: What about this new European diplomatic service that the most, I suppose is the most powerful Briton in Europe, Baroness Ashton is, is trying to set up, I mean, do you support that, do you want to see a lot of Britons in that?

WH: Well I never wanted to see that created in the first place, it was part of the Lisbon Treaty that I oppose. It exists now, we have to try to make the most of it. We’ll see how it develops. We certainly want some good British people to go in to that as well, that’s not an additional cost to the British tax payer other than the fact that we are one of the twenty seven nations that has to finance it over all and I don’t want to see that service cost any more than European delegations cost before.

Which leads us to another point which is the need for budgetary discipline in Europe as well as in Britain. We will be coming up soon to negotiations on the EU budget for the next seven years and Britain will stand very strongly for budgetary discipline and control of spending in the European Union just as we stand for that this, this coalition Government stands for that in the United Kingdom.

AB: But, of course, it might be argued that one of the biggest savings would be to may be even cut back on what Britain itself does and actually use that EU diplomatic service to represent us and, indeed, other countries in the union.

WH: That won’t really work. I can understand that argument but we do still need, whatever we do in the European Union, a distinctive British foreign policy and a British global network, one of the things I was talking about in my speech this week, because there are many subjects on which the European Union nations don’t agree. I hope we’re going to agree on the details of our sanctions on Iran for instance, that we will agree on our policy towards the Western Balkans but whether it be relations with Russia or, or the different levels of alliance with the United States or even whether Kosovo’s independence should be recognised the European Union does not have a common line because the twenty seven nations disagree. And that limits what a European diplomatic service can do because it won’t always be able to stand for an agreed position and if we are looking, as we are, at how to raise British influence and connections with the emerging economies of the world we need our British network to do that.

So we will try to use to our advantage and Europe’s advantage a European external (indistinct) service but that’s no substitute for having an excellent British diplomatic service and British presence around the world.

AB: Do you think that the European Union as a force is inevitably going to get stronger round the world as a European presence as, as you talked about in your speech, other blocks gain in power, Latin American blocks, Asian blocks and the rest, I mean in the end Europeans are going to be forced together aren’t they?

WH: Actually I don’t see the world coalescing in to blocks. That, again, is one of the arguments I was making this week that it’s going to a more network world with overlapping relationships, where bilateral relations are still very, very important as well as, of course, the multi lateral organisations of which a prime example in the world is the European Union.

We should make the most of that whenever we can but we still need those bilateral relations and I think that’s the way, what, what I’ve seen in my first seven weeks as Foreign Secretary is that the other major countries around the world still regard those bilateral relations as of prime importance. China and India want to be able to deal directly with the United Kingdom as well as have good relations with the European Union.

So I think it would be wrong to that, that side of things is going to wither away, far from it, if anything we’re going to have to get better at those bilateral networked relationships. We won’t be able to rely on international organisations, even the European Union, to take over from those relationships.

AB: What went through your mind as you met this week with the Quartet Middle East Envoy, Tony Blair? I mean you’ve both said pretty harsh things about each other, what, what were you thinking, I mean, can you really work with Tony Blair?

WH: Well yes he is the Quartet representative, he does a very good job at that actually. I’ve been in touch with him a lot over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken to him on the phone a number of times about his negotiations with the Israelis to try to get them to ease or lift the blockade of Gaza, something we’re agreed across British politics and across most nations in the world, needs to happen. The blockade of Gaza is unacceptable, it’s unsustainable, it needs to be lifted in accordance with UN resolution 1860 and that Tony Blair is the representative of, not just of the UK but of the EU, Russia, the United States, the United Nations in those negotiations.

So it’s important for any British Foreign Secretary to work with him and I think politicians should be able to rise above past party differences, we’re doing that very much in the coalition Government, we’re putting the national interest ahead of any party interests, and in working with Tony Blair on Gaza I regard that in the, in the same light. Yes I’ve had many disagreements with him, I think his Government did a lot of damage to this country but of course I will work with him on trying to ease the situation in Gaza and improve the prospects of peace in the Middle East.

AB: And, and I mean it’s not just a question of working with him because he’s there you’d actually support him carrying on with that job?

WH: Yes, oh yes I think he, he does a good job. In fact one of the things I’ve always said about him, even in our angriest moments, is that he is a good negotiator. You know one of the things I think to, to which we must, we must give him credit when he was Prime Minister was the negotiations in Northern Ireland. So I might have disagreed with him about a hundred other things but that is something that he is good at and we should try to use people’s skills.

So I have no problem with him carrying on in that role and he gives good advice about the situation within Israel and how to improve matters in Gaza so let’s make full use of that. The, the problems in the world are so great that people have to work together even if it’s across party lines and, of course, across national lines and that’s part of the job of the Foreign Secretary to encourage that.

AB: And all these reports about his security detail costing vast amounts of tax payer on the front pages today, I mean do you support that, that he should get that level of security at that level of cost in these straitened times?

WH: I don’t know anything about that particular level of cost, it’s not provided by the Foreign Office so I don’t, I can’t really comment on that. Clearly former Prime Ministers, whoever they are, whichever party they’re from, do need to be protected but we have to make sure that’s as cost effective as possible, that it doesn’t cost any more to the tax payer than is absolutely necessary and I’m sure the, the departments who deal with that will make sure it’s subject to the right level of scrutiny. But I can’t say anymore about that really today.

AB: On another subject what role are you going to play in this referendum next year on electoral reform, the referendum for AV?

WH: Oh I will support the current electoral system although we’d equalise constituencies. I think the electoral reform we most need, in my opinion, in this country is to make the constituencies of equal size, that would make our system fairer so that votes counted equally. The referendum on the alternative vote is an important part, of course, of a coalition agreement, we will absolutely respect that agreement and everyone will be able to campaign on whichever side of that referendum they wish to.

I will recommend to my constituents and everybody else in the country that they vote to keep the current system, the first past the post system (indistinct).

AB: I mean will you get, I mean I was talking to Paddy Ashdown earlier and he was, he was saying, you know, frankly the Conservatives would be well advised to back off. Are you saying you’re, you’re going to make a big song and dance about keeping our first past the post system personally?

WH: Well it depends what you mean by a big song and dance. Will I be saying to people in that referendum please vote for the first past the post system?

Yes I will. Since I’m the Foreign Secretary I will also a lot of the time be elsewhere in the world doing other things so I won’t be doing that twenty four hours a day. But I’m sure I will make my opinion very clear and will support a campaign to, actively support a campaign to keep the current electoral system.

And that’s all part of the understanding in the coalition, I don’t think that causes any difficulty. What we agreed on, famously agreed on in the thirty six hours before the, the new Government took office, was that we would all vote for the referendum; that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties together would ensure there was a referendum on this subject. But then it’s up to the parties and, indeed, it’s up to each individual MP to decide which way they want to vote, which way they want to recommend other people vote and that’s all understood at the beginning, it doesn’t cause any difficulty for us to express our opinions.

AB: William Hague thank you for joining us this Sunday Live.


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Published 4 July 2010