hard heads soft hearts
Wednesday, June 05, 2002
an excerpt from "The Complete Yes Prime Minister", by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay
"We were getting to the root of BW's problem. He was under the impression that the PM ought to know what is happening. The basic rule for the safe handling of Foreign Affairs is that it is simply too dangerous to let politicians get involved with diplomacy. Diplomacy is about surviving until next century - politics is about surviving until next afternoon. BW's problem is that he has studied too much constitutional history - or, at least, taken it too much to heart. He was arguing, not very articulately, I may say, that "if you've got a democracy, shouldn't people, sort of, discuss things a bit?"
We agreed that full discussion with the PM was essential. Therefore, Bernard argued, the PM should have the facts. There was the fallacy! BW needs to understand the following argument clearly:
i) Facts complicate things
ii) The people don't want them
iii) All that the press, the people and their elected representatives want to know is Who Are The Goodies? and Who Are The Baddies?
iv) Unfortunately, the interests of Britain usually involve doing deals with people the public think are Baddies
v) And sometimes British interests mean that we cannot help the Goodies.
vi) Therefore, discussion must be kept inside the Foreign Office. Then it produces one policy for the Foreign Secretary, which represents the FO's considered view, and he can act upon it. QED.
BW was concerned that the FO produces only one considered view, with no options and no alternatives.
In practice, this presents no problem. If pressed, the FO looks at the matter again, and comes up with the same view. If the Foreign Secretary demands options, the FO obliges him by presenting three options, two of which will be (on close examination) exactly the same. The third will, of course, be totally unacceptable, like bombing Warsaw or invading France.
One further option is occasionally used: encouraging the Foreign Secretary to work out his own policy. The FO then shows him how it will inevitably lead to World War III, perhaps within 48 hours. BW understood the idea, but - quite properly, since he was a Private Secretary at the moment - wanted to pursue the discussion from the point of view of the politicians. BW wondered what happens if the Foreign Secretary still will not accept the FO's advice after all the options have been presented. I explained to him that it is a free country, and the Foreign Secretary can always resign.
The whole basis of our conversation then took an unexpected turn. A Flash Telegram arrived. Dick read it, and informed us that the East Yemen are preparing to invade St. George's Island in support of the Marxist guerillas. BW though this was bad news. It is, of course, moderately bad news for the government of St. George's - but its very good news for the guerillas.
BW wanted to know, of all things, if it was good news for the islanders. I'm afraid he has been a Private Secretary too long - he is beginning to react like a politician. Dick suggested, and I agreed, that we could do nothing to help the islanders. If they appeal to us, we shall give to them every support short of help. If the Prime Minister insists that we help, then we follow the traditional four-stage strategy, the standard Foreign Office response to any crisis:
We say that nothing is going to happen
We say that something may be going to happen, but we should do nothing about it
We say that maybe we should do something about it, but there's nothing we can do
We say that maybe there was something we could have done but it's too late now"