Thursday, July 1, 2010

The vagueness of Hague

In which Malcolm considers the descent into irrelevance of a once-significant political figure.

As Malcolm considered this post, he had one ear on William Hague, doing a tour d'horizon from his new-found fief at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Malcolm's problems with Hague start and finish with two images: the toothy youthful Hague beside Thatcher (left, but only here) and any one of Steve Bell's later grotesques (right, and more accurate).

Trite tripe

The speech, it transpired, was not vintage Hague: too tightly-scripted and designed-by-committee. For, ultimately, Hague is circumscribed in three obvious ways:
  1. He has nothing new to say. UK foreign commitments have not changed significantly these last two months. The postures of the ConDems on matters transmarine differ little from their predecessors. Only yesterday, Liam Fox (the Mod getting its retaliation in first?) nailed the Union Jack firmly above the Kabul last-ditch.
  2. The autumn spending review is the trumpeting Jumbo, still constrained for the time being in the junk-cupboard.
  3. Don't mention the EU. It's all gone swimmingly for the Tories since they acquired the figleaf of coalition, as the continuing suppression of Daniel Hannan testifies. The fractious matter of Europe (the one topic guaranteed to stir trouble inside the party) demands the silence of the "p" in swimming-pool. Hague's single paragraph on the EU was sotto voce between nods to the left for Obama and to the right for Lord Salisbury.
That accepted, Hague was buffing up a decent gloss on the post-Iraqi and extended-Afghani turd.

One sure sign of a minister struggling is a heavy emphasis on the cyberspacial: sure enough, the FCO press-release is headlined: Britain's Foreign Policy in a Networked World.

Much is made about the hundred million young Pakistanis with access to mobile phones, from which they can derive opinions and views. This theme, decorated with a few gratuitous Twitter mentions (see below), suggests Hague needs to reconsider seriously any attempt to cut back on BBC overseas services and, especially, the potent BBC web-sites.

Two details from Hague went straight to the fillings in Malcolm's teeth.

Why decry the amount of trade the UK does with Ireland?

It is estimated that by 2050 emerging economies will be up to 50% larger than those of the current G7, including of course the United Kingdom. Yet the latest figures show we export more to Ireland than we do to India, China and Russia put together.

That is a totally fallacious factoid.

For a start the British and Irish markets are effectively integrated: look at the small print on your cornflakes package or toothpaste tube for evidence. When Malcolm's alter ego pays his annual MobileMe due to Apple, it is surcharged at Irish VAT rates. A large proportion of Irish imports are re-exports via Britain. The good folk of Buncrana are fated by geography to do some shopping in Derry. The Maheraveely motorist, in urgent need of a new tyre, may head for Clones.

What's this about Castlereagh?

For no obvious gain, except a rhetorical flourish, Hague trotted out this:
When Foreign Secretary Castlereagh went to the Congress of Vienna in 1814 it was the first time a British Foreign Secretary had even set foot overseas to meet any of his counterparts since 1782 when the position of Foreign Secretary was established. Today Foreign Ministers communicate through formal notes, highly frequent personal meetings, hours a day on the telephone to discuss and coordinate responses to crises, and quite a lot of us communicate by text message or in the case of the Foreign Minister of Bahrain and I, follow each other avidly on Twitter.
All that shows is an ignorance of the circumstances of the time of George III. It also ignores the scurry of delegates (foreign ministers of stature, if not in name) from London across Europe in those years. Leaving aside the facile notion that the involvement of a nominal Foreign Secretary comprehends the totality of a foreign policy, Hague might have reflected on (say) June, 1520, and The Field of Cloth of Gold. Was that not cutting-edge (if, ultimately ineffectual) foreign relations?

Anyway, consider what Oliver Cromwell's Secretary for Foreign Tongues (one John Milton, no less) might have been able to express, with or without the medium of Twitter. Hague (1 July 2010) will not endure as Long or as memorably as John Milton an Englishman His Defence of the People of England (24 February 1652). Milton's invective is more inventive, more vitriolic and more enjoyable, if nothing else.

Hmm: Milton's publsher there (see right) appreciated the organic link between Britain and its westward island: another lesson that Hague might note (though the Irish excoriators of all things Cromwellian might cavil).

A banal bottom line

After all his frotting and frothing, Hague concluding with a miserable punch-line. Pick the bones out of this, if you can find even one:
So we are now raising our sights for the longer term, looking at the promotion of British interests in the widest sense. In the coming months we will develop a national strategy for advancing our goals in the world that ties together the efforts of government, that is led by foreign policy thinking, that works through strengthened international institutions as well as reinvigorated bilateral relationships, that is consciously focused on securing our economic prosperity for the future, and that unashamedly pursues our enlightened national interest of seeking the best for our own citizens while living up to our responsibilities towards others. In short, it is a foreign policy that embraces the networked world. For seen in this light, although the next twenty years is likely to be a time of increased danger in foreign affairs, it is also a time of extraordinary opportunity for a country that sets out to make the most of the still great advantages the United Kingdom certainly possesses.
Hardly Miltonic. Where Milton present (a solecism which reminds Malcolm of a former Headteacher of Malcolm's acquaintance announcing to the full school assembly that "Beethoven is dead at the moment") he might find a Puritanical chortle as he struggled to decide which motto from Horace's Ars Poetica best summed Hague's spiel:
  • Difficile est proprie communia dicere. [It is hard to speak common truths in a way of one's own.]
  • Brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio. [When I struggle to be brief, I make myself obscure]
  • Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus. [The mountains labour, give birth to no more than a ludicrous mouse.]
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