Lord Malloch-Brown Attacks Foreign Office For Not Forseeing Arab Spring

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Mark Malloch Brown Was Giving Evidence To The Foreign Affairs Committee In The Commons
Mark Malloch Brown Was Giving Evidence To The Foreign Affairs Committee In The Commons

Former Labour Minister Lord Malloch-Brown made an in-depth critique of the Foreign Office's handling of the Arab Spring on Tuesday to a select committee of MPs, claiming their practices were outdated.

Mark Malloch Brown was Minister of State for Africa, Asia and the United Nations in Gordon Brown's government, after having previously served as the UN's Deputy Director-General.

He blamed the Arab Spring on "inequalities" in the region, saying: "The question one's left with is,'Why did it take so long?' Because the pattern of inequalities, not just economic inequalities but the marginalisation of women, the lack of secular education, the lack of any kind of adequate political participation - all seem to amount to a time bomb.

He went on to claim that the Foreign Office had "misread" countries such as Tunisia as being "authoritarian but stable, with a relatively successful economic model".

The reason the Foreign Office had made so many mistakes in failing to spot the Arab Spring coming, he said, were down to political problems.

"I do think a series of prime ministers who've reduced foreign policy to a fief of no10, have vulgarised and simplified the width of foreign policy analysis the Foreign Office engages in. This is not peculiar to the British system, this has been happening elsewhere around the globe. A combination of modern communications and 'celebrity diplomacy' makes the head of government, together with CNN, the conduit for diplomacy - it dumbs down the agenda to, what does the PM want to focus on?

"And in the Middle-East it was Iraq and terrorism and Israel against Palestine. But it wasn't these other things."

Lord Malloch-Brown suggested the Foreign Office needed to adapt to this world, saying that "political and social change in these countries is no longer old business of coups within elites - it's either democracy and what's bubbling up down there, or it's the street pressing for democracy, and that means the answers to where change will come from no longer come from cocktail parties and foreign ministries. So there's a huge need for our diplomats to get out and about."

He also blamed the division of responsibility beyond the Foreign Office to departments such as the Department for International Development and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. "If you look at any foreign embassy, sometimes the Foreign Office people are a minority.

"What the BIS or Treasury people thought about what was happening in the private sector of Egypt would have been critical to reporting on what that country was going to do, or what DFID was seeing at grassroots of their projects. We have got to be much more coherent in breaking down the boundaries between different departments."

And in one strange twist he pinned some of the blame to University admissions standards, saying that Foreign Office languages "is in crisis. The kind of diplomacy I'm talking about needs more, not less, languages. You're talking to people who don't have English as a language. Even with a mainstream language like arabic, the cutbacks that have occurred [in the Foreign Office] are key.

"This strange decision of the Foreign Office - which I view as highly politically correct - to not make languages a requirement for recruitment any more is a 'flipdown' because universities like Oxbridge have cut down the language requirement - because they don't want to discriminate against schools where those languages are not available.

"It's accumulated upwards to a Foreign Office without enough languages. and instead they test for language skills, but that means people have to get long times off to acquire those languages, and that's not consistent with a careers track that includes Brussels, Washington and New York, and not about going and earning your spurs by being an Arab language expert in the Middle East region.

"So we've got the incentives and the recruitment wrong and that was exposed by our failure to see the Arab Spring."