Press reaction to Article 50 ruling “shameful”, says former FCO chief Simon Fraser

Making a success of Brexit does not mean UK should ditch its reputation as a "free, tolerant, outward facing society", says former Foreign Office permanent secretary

By Matt Foster

07 Nov 2016

Britain’s former top diplomat has attacked the media’s “shameful” coverage of last week’s High Court ruling on Brexit, as he urged ministers to “resist the siren songs of Little England” as the UK pulls out of the European Union.

Government lawyers will head to the Supreme Court next month to appeal the High Court’s ruling that MPs must be given a vote to trigger Article 50, rather than relying on the use of prerogative powers.

The ruling sparked a furious reaction from some sections of the press, with the Daily Mail branding the High Court judges “enemies of the people” and accusing the courts of trying to block Brexit. 

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UK Independence Party leadership hopeful Suzanne Evans meanwhile said there was “a debate to be had about whether or not judges should be subject to some kind of democratic control”.

But in a speech to King’s College, London on Monday, Fraser – a lifelong diplomat who led the Foreign Office from 2010 to 2015 – said such rhetoric risked undermining Britain’s place in the world as it negotiates Brexit.

In his King’s address, the former FCO chief said it was “no secret” that “most people in the British foreign policy establishment favoured staying in the European Union”, a view he said was not the result of the “institutional dogma of Foreign Office Europhiles” but the “judgement and experience of people who have spent their professional lives in diplomacy and foreign policy”.

And while Fraser predicted that departure from the EU would be the “biggest shock to our methods of international influencing and the biggest structural change to our place in the world since World War Two and the end of empire”, he said the UK would still have “many assets and instruments of influencing” after it leaves.

“We will continue to have one of the world’s most effective, if downsized, military capabilities; a high calibre diplomatic service; a large aid budget and excellent intelligence and security services,” he said. “These traditional state foreign policy assets will allow us to exert influence and look after ourselves.”

UK must not “close the door to international talent" – Sir Simon Fraser

“And we will still be able to influence the world in many other ways. Our language is the world’s language, as well as the language of the EU. Our media, the [BBC] World Service, our universities, law, creative industries, financial services, music, sport, monarchy, will continue to have global reach. London has become the world’s favourite and best city, and I hope it remains so. We are still widely respected as a free, tolerant, outward facing society.”

However, Fraser said the UK’s continued prominence on the world stage would be undermined if Britain opts to “close the door to international talent in scholarship, business and the arts”.

And he warned against the UK becoming “a more insular and closed country” in the wake of the Brexit vote, “seeking greater self-sufficiency in economic and security policy, behind tight borders”.

“Many find this idea attractive; but in time it would be a recipe for economic, political and social decline,” he said. “We must resist the siren songs of Little England.”

Arguing that Britain has “a strong tradition of engagement in the world”, Fraser said the UK’s international influence would “dwindle if we turn away from engagement towards introspection or, worse, intolerance”.

He added: “It is good that the UK was re-elected a few days ago to the UN Human Rights Council. But there is evidence of potential self-harm in our behaviour towards foreign people, the reported spike in hate crime, the insensitive comments of British politicians and the shameful press coverage of last week’s legal judgment on Article 50.”

“If our Brexit choices damage our economy and cut us off from international interchange, we will hurt our wider power of attraction" – Sir Simon Fraser

Fraser – who is now a managing partner of business advisory firm Flint Global Ltd – said Britain was still admired abroad for its “freedom, tolerance, pragmatism and sense of perspective”.

But he warned: “If we close our door and our hearts to other peoples, if we step back from the principles of international cooperation and respect for the rule of law, we will lose authority – as well as injuring our own future security. 

“If our Brexit choices damage our economy and cut us off from international interchange, we will hurt our wider power of attraction.”

Fraser's anger over the response to the legal judgment comes after Sir Paul Jenkins (pictured), the former head of the Government Legal Department and permanent secretary to the Attorney General from 2006 to 2014, said justice secretary Liz Truss had proven herself "unfit for office" in failing to condemn attacks on the judiciary.

"The three judges are robust enough but she has a duty to condemn damaging contempt for our law and judiciary," the ex-government legal chief tweeted. "In this she has sadly failed."

Truss issued a statement over the weekend which did not directly address media and political criticism of the judiciary, but which said: "The independence of the judiciary is the foundation upon which our rule of law is built and our judiciary is rightly respected the world over for its independence and impartiality.”


Fraser also used his address to King’s College to reiterate his call for a rethink of the money allocated to his old department to cope with the demands of Brexit. The former FCO perm sec pointed out that the Foreing Office had implemented a 25% cut to its operating budget during his own time as perm sec, and said the UK currently spends "more on the winter fuel allowance than on the Foreign Office".

“We spend about half as much each year on aid to Ethiopia alone as we do on our global diplomatic network of embassies," he added. Given the challenges ahead, we need a hard think about whether we have the balance right.”

“We spend more on the winter fuel allowance than on the Foreign Office" – Sir Simon Fraser

He also urged a rethink of the international structures of the UK government, pointing out that the UK now has six separate departments dealing with different aspects of international policy – the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence, the Treasury, and the newly created Department for International Trade and the Department for Exiting the EU.

“Rather than fragmenting our international effort we should consolidate it,” he said. “The Foreign Office, whose status has been eroded over years, should take a stronger convening role as the coordinator of international policy – just as the Treasury convenes other departments in domestic economic policy.”


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