Thursday, 22 January 2009

How many feet can a millipede fit in his mouth?

I was taken back many years on reading of the so-called Foreign Secretary's recent behaviour in India and his comments about the so-called "war on terror" (see here and here). When at university I sat on a college committee concerned with student accommodation in my capacity as president of my hall of residence. It seemed to me to be quite a responsibility. We had to decide both policy and detail on a wide range of matters having a direct impact on current and future students. It took time to prepare for the meetings and discussions were always thorough. On each issue we had to reach a decision acceptable to a majority and on the more contentious items that often required a degree of compromise and, indeed, of taking decisions we were unsure of but which we were persuaded were worth trying-out.

And then there were the student union representatives. Not a single meeting passed without them calling for a vote of no confidence in the college Principal or secretary or a head of one department or another or the chairman of the committee or, more often than not, a number of the above. Only the tea lady escaped the need for instant dismissal in the furtherance of the revolution. Thank goodness she never forgot the biscuits.

It really was quite pathetic to see serious business interrupted by such selfish juvenile pranks, but that was the way of the world. It served only one purpose, to ensure their views would never be assumed to be worthy of respect. I decided from my first day not to get involved in student politics and felt entirely vindicated by the pointless posing of those who did. Since then I have sometimes wasted time wondering whether those egotistical radicals ever grew up. Because I cannot remember their names I will probably never find out although I think I have a fair idea that they did not. I draw that inference from the behaviour in government over the last eleven years of other student radicals. Exactly what I witnessed has been seen time and time again on the national political arena. Classic recent examples have come in simple Harriet's support for the legalisation of discrimination on the ground of gender and hapless Jacqui Smith's temper tantrums any time one of her shallow and impractical proposals has hit the buffers. For these people debate is an empty concept. Their minds are made up and they are determined to get their way. Whether or not the subject under discussion has anything to do with what they want and whether or not serious flaws are disclosed in their predetermined conclusion, they do not understand anything other than "me me me". Until recently this was just a domestic problem.

Since 1997 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been relegated steadily in importance. Robin Cook was almost credible as Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw was an ineffectual in that job as in every other he has had in government and Margaret Beckett was an insult to the office acting purely as a mouthpiece for the Prime Minister. It was inconceivable that any of those three would act like a student union radical when dealing with senior politicians of a friendly sovereign state - Cook because he had too much sense, Straw because he doesn't believe in anything and Beckett because it was never in the script handed to her from 10 Downing Street. Now we have David Miliband, a man unconstrained by any such qualifications. He is cut from the same cloth as simple Harriet and hapless Jacqui, albeit a somewhat more intelligent cloth than either of them. He is a student revolutionary who has never grown up.

Respecting the view of others and being prepared to act as though you respect them are essential qualities in the world of diplomacy. You do not take a swipe at an outgoing US President by criticising the term "war on terror" that he used to justify policies you supported. If you do you will find his successor including a rebuff to your juvenile grandstanding in his inauguration speech. Nor do you harangue senior ministers from India about their approach to Kashmir. If you do you will find the enormously powerful Indian press reporting every damning criticism of your overbearing attitude and your ignorance of how sensitive an issue Kashmir is in Indian politics.

When I heard about these examples of Miliband's dentopodiatry I cast my mind back not just to the brainless student lefties I encountered in my youth but also to other recent Foreign Secretaries. Not just the three I have already mentioned but their predecessors in the previous two governments: Malcolm Rifkind, Douglas Hurd, John Major (very briefly), Sir Geoffrey Howe, Francis Pym, Lord Carrington, David Owen, Anthony Crosland and James Callaghan. It is unimaginable that even the most bullish of these (probably David Owen) would have been so crass as to upset two massively powerful friendly governments, especially not in quick succession

Diplomacy requires tact and discretion. It is about seeking to advance a position by siding yourself with the person you are seeking to influence and working from the inside, not by antagonising them and trying to impose your will from outside. On that college committee (so long ago that Cif was still called Jif and Mr Muscle was just a twinkle in Vim's eye) I learned a valuable lesson in persuasion from the student union politicos - put up the backs of those you need to influence and you do your cause a double disservice. They are reluctant to agree with you because you seem to be trying to force them into a particular position and they are also reluctant to give your argument credence because you have exposed that you lack judgment. How will the new American administration and the Indian government view David Miliband from now on? Well, let me put it another way. How would you view David Miliband if you were them? Would you hang on his every word thinking he is someone who is on your side and shares your values or would you be wary lest you become the next victim of a verbal attack or find he seeks to interfere in a domestic issue of little relevance to his job?

Fortunately there is little sign of any issue arising on which either America or India needs to seek support from the UK Foreign Office in the near future. Let's hope that remains the position until Miliband is no longer in office. How much damage he has done to relations with other countries remains to be seen.


The Great Simpleton said...

The problem with the younger generation of Labour politicians is that they seem to think that they are absolved of the sins of their fathers, whether through naïvety or ignorance I don't know.

By that I mean the Empire. During their student days they will have ritually castigated our role as being all bad and evil as if purifying their souls. Amongst themselves they don't understand that for the rest of the world's politicians this is a running sore that they can use to great effect. Furthermore, they aren't intersted in protestations from gap year students that their opposition to the Empire somehow gives them a right to sound off.

Anonymous said...

do you know your number 3 on google search for dentopodiarty?

As for cif,jif,mr muscle and vim,do I detect a stain on your character?hmm

Brilliant piece as always.

TheFatBigot said...

Excellent point, Mr Simpleton, and one I hadn't considered before.

And Mr DMC, google-searching words used in blogs is a clear sign that you need to get out more.

As we all know the real rot set in not when Jif became Cif but when cheese & onion were put in blue packets and salt & vinegar in green. Nothing has been the same since that change turned my world upside-down.

Anonymous said...

You should be running the country