Empty Shelves and Institutional Decay at the FCOSeptember 10, 2011
A few weeks ago I was rather sarcastic about the fact that I’d bought a copy of Robert Marett’s Through the Back Door that had belonged to the Foreign Office Library.
It turns out that I’m not the only one who is dubious about the FCO selling off its books
On Thursday William Hague gave a speech ‘The Best Diplomatic Service in the World: Strengthening the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as an Institution’ to staff at the FCO which contained this passage
Finally, as a politician and part time historian I was surprised and indeed shocked upon my arrival here by the sight of the vast expanse of empty wooden shelves where once the 60,000 books, pamphlets, reports and manuscripts of the historic Foreign Office Library were housed, here in this building.
The Library embodied 500 years of British and world history; of our experiences of exploration, diplomacy, war, peacekeeping and the forging of Treaties; of our role in the abolition of the slave trade and the creation of the Commonwealth. It contained unique historical documents such as the 1692 Charter of Massachusetts, many of them annotated by the officials of the time.
Once regarded, in the words of Gladstone’s Foreign Secretary Lord Granville as “the pivot on which the whole machinery of the Foreign Office turned”, it was broken up in 2008 and the collections dispersed, mainly to Kings College London, to whom we should be grateful. This revealed insufficient understanding of the sense of history, continuity, identity and tradition that strong democratic institutions need.
It is ironic that the only object to survive the gutting of the library is a one hundred year old twenty-foot stuffed anaconda known as Albert, who remains suspended over the empty bookshelves, while the books from the period when such an unusual foreign gift found its way into the Foreign Office have been dismantled around it, and can never be reassembled. To my mind the fate of the FCO library is emblematic of a gradual hollowing out of the qualities that made the FCO one of our great institutions.
I recently read Hugh Heclo’s On Thinking Institutionally (discussed by David Brooks in this New York Times column) where he makes the point that contemporary political thought and practice tends to reflexively favour individuals over institutions and reflects on the damage that this causes . As the title suggests Hague’s speech is very much in this vein and marks a very different perspective from the emphasis on ‘modernization’ characteristic of the last government. However, I suspect that this is very much Hague speaking from his own perspective rather than marking a change in the overarching philosophy of British public administration.
Heclo, H. (2008) On Thinking Institutionally. Boulder Colo.: Paradigm.