The NHS – A Model for UK Diplomats?

The appointment of Jeremy Hunt comes amidst turmoil on many fronts for the U.K. Almost eclipsed by the ongoing struggle over our future relationship with Europe, a woman in Wiltshire has died apparently at the hands of a Russian nerve agent. At the same time a critical NATO summit is taking place this week that may decide our wider capacity to confront wider Renewed Russian aggression. President Trump himself has just arrived in the UK, along with all the volatility that has accompanied his presidency so far, and one result of this, a global trade war embracing the world’s largest economies, is kicking off. The world is not in a good place, and the U.K. and its people are in many respects, on the front line more than we might realise.

Where to start? Mr Hunt is fortunate that, despite decades of cuts, the Foreign Office retains considerable policy expertise to brief him on options for addressing all of these challenges and more. What may surprise him is the sheer scale of the difference in level of resources available to him, moving from the second largest spending government department, to almost the smallest. The FCO fills both the ‘first responder’, ‘urgent’, ‘planned’ and ‘rehabilitative’ role in most interactions between the UK and the world on running costs of around £1 Billion – less than 1% of the NHS budget. From this money the Foreign Office staffs nearly 270 embassies and offices around the world with over 14,000 people. That the organisation is able to continue to wield UK influence in the face of the rising tide of challenges globally and the volatility in leadership over recent years is a huge testament to the teamwork, sheer commitment and hard work of the FCO’s staff.

The other aspect that may strike him is the lack of any real national public engagement with or awareness of the work of his new department. In many ways the FCO has been at best semi-detached from the country it serves, with very little of the public warmth of feeling or familiarity which embraces and sometimes encumbers the NHS. Of course, the new Secretary of State may understandably find this refreshing after some years of being under the intense spotlight. Yet he might reflect that, despite all the irritations it can cause, that huge reservoir of public support for the purpose , if not always the methods, of the NHS, is something British diplomacy could benefit from. This is even more the case given the emergence of a multiplicity of new international actors, in the UK and around the world – whether cities, devolved administrations, large public bodies, charities, media groups or diaspora groups, all interacting and competing in an ever more complex global ecosystem. For democratic and open societies this ‘soft power’ is of huge benefit – drawing in credibility and relationships of trust that the ‘hard power’ institutions of officialdom cannot hope to match.

Now is a propitious time to be thinking about this ‘soft power’. Today, Portland PR launched the latest iteration of it’s influential ‘Soft Power 30’ index ranking those countries with the most potent soft power globally. Yesterday, the British Council, City of London and British Foreign Policy Group hosted a meeting at the Guildhall of some of the UK’s most significant soft power actors to discuss the UK’s Government’s proposed ‘Soft Power Strategy’ and what it means. Soft power is usually discussed as a mechanism for external projection into the world. Less remarked is its ability to reach inward and connect local communities to international issues. This is particularly important for the UK at such a volatile time when certain communities may understandably see ‘the foreign’ largely as a source of threat. For a country such as the UK so economically and security dependent on remaining engaged and open internationally, engaging with and addressing these concerns is just as valuable for our cities, regions and other major institutions as engaging outwards into the world.

The new Secretary of State is well placed to draw on his experience engaging with those restless, combative but passionate communities of support around the NHS, and how, for all its faults it has delivered a very British source of influence. International diplomacy will likely never yield the passion or immediacy of the NHS, but it is arguably as important if not more so to our health and wellbeing. As Mr Hunt well knows, such a diverse and impassioned set of communities of interest provide real headaches for politicians and civil servants. However the alternative may be less attractive still, for without innovation in the way the UK defines and pursues its national interests, the traditional Whitehall centric model risks diminishment in a rising tide of diverse national ‘soft power’ voices and interests that could end up pulling in dangerously different directions.

So to the surprise of some, including perhaps himself, Mr Hunt may just be one of the few politicians with the experience and expertise to understand how to manage a process of change whereby the FCO embeds itself more effectively as the link between the UK and the world. Managing a more effective engagement with the UK’s Soft Power is increasingly important to achieve that, and to building a renewed and strengthened 21st Century diplomacy that can take on the major challenges facing the UK, and the world.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Tom Cargill

Tom Cargill is Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group. He has worked in various roles in the public, private and NGO sectors, including at the charity for children in care Believe, as well as 10 years at Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) followed by 4 years at the engineering, procurement and construction multinational Bechtel. He is the author of numerous reports, chapters and articles on international and foreign policy issues.