William Hague is not having an easy day in office. It’s the morning after the Christchurch earthquake, and the foreign secretary is trying to establish the status of British nationals in New Zealand. It later emerges that four Britons are confirmed dead.
There is also the small distraction of Colonel Gaddafi. It’s the morning after his second rant on national TV. The speech lasts over an hour and includes references to Bin Laden, the Queen of England and drug-crazed “rats and cats”. The Libyan dictator virtually declares war on his own people.
What’s more, Hague is monitoring uprisings in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Yemen, as well as escalating situations in Egypt and Libya. He absent-mindedly taps a pile of papers on the table next to him.
“The difficulty on my mind most today, in the case of Libya, is the position of several hundred British nationals in a country where law and order seems to have broken down,” the foreign secretary says. “It’s quite hard to get hold of people – the phone networks keep going down. So the thing I’m spending a lot of today on is how to get those people out of Libya.”
A day later, Hague is criticised for delays in evacuating British nationals. Government-chartered flights are held up because airlines are not “able or willing” to take off. Prime minister David Cameron is forced to apologise, and the Foreign Office decides to review its aircraft evacuation procedures. Opposition leader Ed Miliband accuses the government of “taking its eye off the ball”. The Daily Mirror’s front page claims the foreign secretary has “lost the plot”.
Hague tells me a week later: “Clearly we had a bad day on Wednesday, which both I and the prime minister have apologised for. But we got on top of the situation very quickly indeed. All countries have had problems getting people out. We have helped to get a large number of citizens of other countries out of Libya on the HMS Cumberland, on both chartered and military flights out of the country. I must say I had quite a few foreign ministers thanking us for helping get their citizens out.”
One member of Hague’s staff reveals that most of his team worked through the night since the Libyan uprising began, but the foreign secretary is not keen to talk about any emotional impact. “Personal toll? In what sense?” he asks. The toll of knowing you’re in charge of Britain’s handling of a revolutionary Middle East? “We just work hard,” he shrugs. “We just work around the clock. That’s the least of our worries. That’s what we’re meant to do: work hard. It’s true that people notice what we’re doing more in these situations, but that’s fine.”
Last April, Hague told the Jewish Chronicle: “I don’t think we have much of a role in the internal affairs of Egypt.” Now he claims to have “tried to push things in the right direction” before the recent revolution took place. Can he explain the disparity?
“When I went there in early November, the purpose of my visit was to say to people like Gamal Mubarak – people in the ruling party – that you need to provide for a strong opposition in Egypt. You need to allow an opposition to develop, otherwise you’re going to face trouble of a different kind.
“I didn’t know – none of us knew – how quickly that was going to arise. That’s not us interfering in or taking a role in the internal affairs of Egypt, but it is us trying to give good advice, and to push for democratic reform. In this government, we approached that in the right way.”
Hague accepts that more could have been done in the last decade to push that advice: “Yes, I think they should have been more vigorous.” He taps the pile of papers again.
Former US secretary of state Dean Acheson once remarked: “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.” It’s over 60 years since Acheson made that observation, yet the fundamental criticism endures – that Britain lacks direction on an international platform. The Spectator’s James Forsyth recently wrote: “The coalition’s approach to foreign policy is not to have a foreign policy. There is no Cameron doctrine. As events unfold in Egypt, the government does not even know what it wants to happen.”
The foreign secretary denies this. A Hague or Cameron doctrine would not work in the modern world, he says. “For five years – all through the time I’ve been in opposition – I’ve deliberately avoided having an over-simplistic word or single phrase that tries to describe the whole of foreign policy.” He claims that a doctrine “leads to more trouble than it’s worth”, pointing to Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy and the many difficulties that resulted from it.
“There isn’t a single doctrine that can be applied to all the world’s problems, and we shouldn’t pretend that there is. It’s rather intellectually naive to think that is possible. Sometimes, in retrospect, governments are described as having had a foreign policy doctrine. But, by that, people mean there’s something that stood out more than other things in the five or ten years of a government.”
Hague says that an address he gave seven weeks after becoming foreign secretary comes closest to defining his approach. In a speech entitled Britain’s Foreign Policy in a Networked World, he declared: “Our new government’s vision for foreign affairs is this: a distinctive British foreign policy that is active in Europe and across the world; that builds up British engagement in the parts of the globe where opportunities as well as threats increasingly lie; that is at ease within a networked world and harnesses the full potential of our cultural links, and that promotes our national interest while recognising that this cannot be narrowly or selfishly defined.”
Leaning back in his chair, Hague says: “That’s what I want people to understand. That the world isn’t in power blocs now. That the conventional notions of ‘balance of power’ are out of date. I would describe our foreign policy not as a doctrine, but as strategically enhancing Britain’s influence through strengthening our connections with the emerging nations of the world.”
To his mind, previous foreign secretaries have been less ambitious. They have only sought to maintain Britain’s influence in the world or manage its decline. “I say that has been the case for far too long. That is why we need to do things differently.”
By ‘differently’, Hague means the formation of the National Security Council to oversee all aspects of security. He also means an increase in the number of foreign ministers. Under Labour, there were four. Under the coalition government, there are six-and-a-half (Lord Green being the half).
“There are ministers going to countries that have not been visited by a British minister in many years,” says Hague. “I’ve been to over 30 countries myself in the last nine months, including places that haven’t seen a British foreign secretary in more than a decade – or ever.”
Hague will also be announcing a reshaping of the diplomatic network in the coming weeks. Diplomacy is a key pillar of his foreign policy – in his first keynote speech as foreign secretary, he promised “an ambitious approach”. But a couple of weeks ago a leaked Foreign Office internal briefing revealed plans to cut around 450 jobs from embassies and consulates to save £30m a year. Speaking in the Commons, former foreign secretary Jack Straw warned that job loses would “considerably undermine” the Foreign Office’s ability to act in Libya.
Hague denies that his proposals are undermined by cuts. “There are no plans to ‘axe’ jobs in UK embassies,” he states. “The plans are to replace, by 2015, most of the junior UK civil servants (doing mostly administrative work) in our embassies with locally-engaged or other staff. Those plans are an essential part of the savings the FCO needs to make from its running costs in order to live within its budget, and sustain and strengthen the global diplomatic network.”
What, then, can we expect from his shake-up of British diplomacy? “Patterns of economic, political and diplomatic power in the world are changing, so we will need to adjust our diplomatic weight to take account of that,” he explains. “The context of those changes is that we will not be reducing the overall size of our diplomatic network. It’s very important to retain Britain’s global presence.” And, he insists, the announcement will not involve overall reductions.
Another core Foreign Office reform outlined by Hague in his first few weeks was a renewed focus on business. Last July, Hague spoke of a “joint responsibility” with Vince Cable “to use our global diplomatic network to support UK business in an interventionist and active manner”. He still holds enthusiasm for this today, though the approach has been criticised as simply an extension to trade policy. One journalist derided it as “little more than trying to flog things to foreigners”.
Hague responds: “It is a criticism that can only come from people who’ve never really had to make or sell anything, or earn their living in the world. Obviously, if we didn’t trade – well, we’re nothing in this country. There will be no schools, or hospitals or defences, foreign policy or anything else if we don’t actually trade more successfully with the rest of the world.”
He continues: “It’s such a shallow, ignorant criticism. Government spending is not going to produce economic growth in this country or any other European country in the next decade. So the expansion of world trade, including our trade with growing economies, is one of our most fundamentally important national objectives. It’s essential. The commercial emphasis that we place in our foreign policy, the expansion of trading, is fundamentally important, and it is right to be so.”
Sensitivities about the difference between commercial gain and foreign policy were highlighted recently by the decision to take eight defence firms on the prime minister’s four-day visit to the Middle East. The trip should have been a PR success, with David Cameron as the first Western leader to visit Egypt post-Mubarak. Instead, he was forced to explain why a third of his delegation was there to promote the sale of arms rather than democracy.
Hague believes that the commercial negotiations undertaken by the Foreign Office are not always “black and white”. He says: “Good trading links and expanding economic links can often go along with improving human rights and rule of law. I don’t accept that, generically, there is a clash over economic co-operation between countries and human rights-related issues. There can be, of course. I have my differences with how the last government conducted Libya. But was it right to move Libya away from weapons of mass destruction and sponsoring terrorism in the world? Well, yes, it was right to do that.”
The Foreign Office has revoked more than 50 licences for exports to Bahrain and Libya since the uprisings began. Such licences are believed to be mainly related to crowd-control measures, although the foreign secretary maintained there was “no evidence” that British tear gas was used to crack down on peaceful demonstrators in the Gulf state.
“You have to have a good legal reason to stop people exporting things,” Hague explains. “We can’t, just on a whim, say that there’s a whole list of things that we’re not exporting. We have among the toughest criteria in the world for exports under successive governments. We can’t just say, ‘We don’t like the look of you, so our businesses aren’t allowed to do business with you.’”
Despite his strong words, a few days later defence secretary Liam Fox announced a review into Britain’s arms sale policy, to ensure “the right balance” is struck between countries protecting themselves and using our arms exports for internal repression. Hague backs this. “It’s right that we continue to review this, especially given the rapidly changing situation in North Africa and the Middle East. But I don’t think anyone can argue that it’s wrong to sell defence equipment to a country such as Kuwait, which was invaded 20 years ago and has a right to defend itself.”
Born in Rotherham, Yorkshire, as a young boy Hague ordered Hansard papers to read in his spare time. Aged 16, he stood in front of delegates at the Conservative Party’s 1977 national conference to warn his audience about the UK’s approach towards socialism: “It’s alright for some of you - half of you won’t be here in 30 or 40 years’ time.” His words were described by Margaret Thatcher as “thrilling”. Hague went on to study PPE at Oxford before taking a job as a management consultant, where FTSE 100 chairman and former MP Archie Norman was a mentor.
He entered Parliament in 1989, after a by-election in Richmond, North Yorkshire, becoming parliamentary private secretary to Norman Lamont in 1990. He became a cabinet minister in 1995 as secretary of state for Wales. Then, at just 36, and following a crushing Conservative defeat at the 1997 election, Hague became party leader. His reign was not an easy one, and after another difficult election in which the Tories only gained one seat more than in 1997, Hague resigned as leader and retired to the backbenches. When David Cameron became leader in December 2005, Hague agreed to take on the shadow foreign affairs brief, which led to his current role as foreign secretary after the 2010 general election.
Despite such a rich life at a young age, Hague has recently been accused of lacking political ambition. He has ruled out ever standing as leader again, and intends to retire from politics in his 60s. It’s likely that his role as foreign secretary is one of the last jobs he will have in frontline politics.
“I feel I’ve been a better politician since I got being the leader out of my system,” he says. “You can consider things more dispassionately, and without any regard for your personal situation. That’s quite a big advantage.
“This isn’t a launch pad to one day be the leader again, which, I think, must be a great distraction, and has been for some of my predecessors,” he continues, making a less-than-subtle dig at David Miliband.
The more personal the question, the more stilted our conversation. Hague is not a naturally open person. The formal language of the Foreign Office probably suits him in this regard. One fellow Conservative reveals that, despite working with Hague on numerous occasions, he still doesn’t know him or confide in him. “He’s not the kind of person to let people in,” he admits.
It is a trait that Hague probably recognises. He put one of his failures as party leader down to a lack of empathy for fellow MPs and staff. He told one interviewer back in 2003: “Because I don’t need much emotional support, I don’t always appreciate other people need it… I don’t think I was great at putting an arm round a colleague, or saying, ‘Come and have a whisky’.” For a former management consultant, it’s an interesting admission.
Does he say to colleagues, ‘Come and have a whisky’ now? “No!” he exclaims. “I continue with my… Actually, I hope I’m more sensitive to people needing a pat on the back, or to be told they’ve done a good job. But I’ve never needed other people to tell me whether or not I was doing well.” He sighs. “I’m perfectly self-contained from that point of view.”
Hague also seems extremely self-aware. He tells our photographer: “I don’t put my hands in my pockets and I don’t cross my legs.” Maybe he fears another ‘baseball cap’ moment. But it feels as though controlling his image and his reluctance to talk personally go hand-in-hand with the formality of being foreign secretary.
One member of staff describes him as “a younger elder statesman”. Clearly, much of Hague’s career has traded on his youth. He made the news as a 16-year-old warning a sea of grey heads about socialism. It was also one of his main campaign tools in the 1997 party leadership contest, and a reason for his eventual victory. Even his favourite politician, William Pitt the Younger, was Britain’s youngest prime minister at just 24.
Being both young and impatient, in 1997 Hague turned down a deal offered by Michael Howard to succeed him as party leader. If he had accepted, he may have had a more successful tenure. But Hague has no regrets. “I’m very happy with the way things have turned out. I was happy to take it on, when I became leader, and I was happy to give it up. I did my slot. Somebody had to do the night shift, and I did that – the most difficult part.”
About to turn 50, he is no longer the fledgling darling of the Right. Fellow Conservatives privately speculate about what happened to the zealous young man who stood on the back of a lorry, promising to save the pound. He can no longer trade on his youth – and for some, perhaps that is why he’s seen as lacking the same spark. But the way he speaks about his current role does not suggest he is the tired, ambitionless politician touted by the press. “At some point, I will return to my writing, my books, playing the piano. I’d love to. But what we’re doing at the moment is the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved in, since I’ve been in Parliament. For the last 22 years, this is what I’ve been training for.”
Critics may claim he lacks a strong, clear foreign policy. But that may be a footnote in the history books compared to his response to the Middle East. And Hague knows it. “If, in the next six months, we can help these countries across North Africa turn into stable, peaceful, moderate democracies, actually then we will have achieved more than at any time since the enlargement of Europe into central and eastern Europe,” he says. “If we don’t – if they become violent or extreme places – think of the consequences for uncontrolled migration, for the growth of terrorism, of political extremism, right on Europe’s doorstep. This is one of the biggest challenges for Europe since the Second World War.”
The Middle East may well define this younger, elder statesman in a way he is reluctant to do himself.