British foreign policy, ‘The scope for change’, 1974

J.Cable to staff in PUS Planning Committee, 12 February 1974

Cover note attaching a report: “British Foreign Policy: the scope for change”. Notes that the FCO Planning Staff have produced this paper “as a basis for discussion by the Planning Committee of the changes that might have to be made in British foreign policy to meet two rather different requirements: (a) the objective demands of Britain’s economic predicament and the altered international situation; (b) the wish of Ministers of a different political party to implement their declared programme… A paper of this kind… might be suitable for submission to a Labour government or to a coalition government including Labour ministers”.

The paper: “On a realistic assessment of prospects for Britain at home and abroad during the rest of the seventies, it seems likely that the main task for any British government will be to ensure national survival… The difficulty for Britain will be to get through the lean years that lie immediately ahead. During this period we shall incur an unprecedented burden of external indebtedness… Unless Britain continues during the seventies to enjoy the confidence and support of richer and more powerful countries.. it is difficult to see how we can avoid crippling economic privations with all the economic, political and social repercussions these might entail at home and abroad.”

“Although we may often have to sacrifice immediate national advantage to the preservation of important longer term interests, it is difficult to see that Britain, during the next five years, will be able to afford foreign policies that offer no prospect of material national advantage, whether immediately or in the medium term. Foreign policy aspirations of an altruistic or intangible kind (such as general human welfare, assistance to developing countries, liberation of the oppressed, prestige and unremunerative [sic] kinds of influence) – all of these will be luxuries which Britain will not be able to afford if they entail a net drain on British economic resources or conflict with other objectives directly related to national advantage. Insofar as British foreign policy has altruistic or intangible objectives, therefore, these should be selected from those that can be pursued at little or no cost”.

“Yesterday’s policy… From June 1970 until October 1973 the first priority for British foreign policy was British membership of the EEC…The second priority was to maintain British security through the unity and strength of NATO… outside Europe and the Atlantic area, British foreign policy sought mainly national advantage: through the cultivation of friendly relations with Arab oil producers and the upholding of British interests and prestige throughout the world. Multinational organisations such as the Commonwealth or the United Nations were seen primarily as the means, not the ends, of policy. So were such concepts as détente, aid to developing countries or the rule of law”.

“Today’s policy”. UK priorities, following the oil crisis, are now “immediate national advantage (the pursuit of bilateral oil deals with Middle Eastern producers), the maintenance of American support, British influence within – and the strengthening of – the EEC… The energy crisis and its economic repercussions have also sharpened the distinction, throughout the world, between those countries whose cooperation might alleviate British problems and those only liable to increase the strain on diminished British resources”.

“Possible alternatives… British attitudes towards foreign policy will require considerable adjustment”. Sub-section entitled “British objectives. In each case [ie each alternative] the essential objectives include: a. to maximise the contribution of foreign policy to the achievement of economic growth, with low levels of inflation and unemployment; b. British access to energy, raw materials and food, together with the ability to finance their import; c. British ability to withstand external pressures based on the threat of armed force; d. the preservation of those overseas assets, positions of influence or hopes of international cooperation of actual or potential benefit to British interests”.

Alternative 1 is “tilting the triangle towards America… – essentially the present policy, but with a change of emphasis”, assuming the US is the best ally to help the UK as ally and a source of finance for balance of payments deficits. This would mean resisting causing “grave offence” to the US in UK foreign policy, tilting away from the EC.

Alternative 2 is “reducing European burdens”, to reduce the “net flow of British resources” to Europe and “reduce constraints imposed by membership of the EEC on British policy”. This would mean adopting a variety of policies to restrict EC encroachment on the UK economy.

Alternative 3 – withdraw from the EEC

Alternative 4 – “The off-shore island”. This means withdrawal from the EC, reduce the contribution to NATO, possibly including troops from Germany, though remain as France, in NATO, but would continue to support US diplomatically. Costs: “If American support was not forthcoming, a major reduction in British ability to withstand external pressure and in [sic] her international influence and credit-worthiness”. Would also reduce UK’s military security.

Alternative 5 – “Going it alone”. This means withdraw from NATO and EC and opting for non-alignment, eliminating US bases, providing diplomatic support for Southern African liberation movements, a revival of the Commonwealth and a more active role in the UN. Advantages: “Minimum external constraints on British domestic policies and on the moral content of British foreign policy”. Costs: “Britain would enjoy no reliable external support for her defence [sic] of her economy”. This would need an increase in economic self-sufficiency and a “siege economy” would result. “The pursuit of improved relations with the Commonwealth and Third World would demand the maintenance and increase of aid programmes and the loss of trade and investments in Southern Africa etc… Liberalisation of immigration controls might also be necessary”. Other countries would be less disposed to help Britain with loans, there would be a “heavier expenditure than at present” on the Air Force and Navy and “on an independent deterrent” plus more expensive intelligence effort to make up for ending of US links, also a “diminished scope for Britain to influence the world trading and monetary systems; less weight in international decision-making… Britain would also have less political attraction for foreign investors” plus exclusion from dynamic European markets, less able to influence other governments such as US, Canada and Australia, would involve extra £100m per year in aid and changes in immigration laws, “restrictions of contacts with Greece, Portugal, Spain, Chile, Argentine [sic] etc would involve the loss of minor arms export opportunities (£14m orders in 1973) and some additional loss of trade”, restricting involvement in Southern Africa “would risk undermining the value of investment already there (about £1,350m in 1971….Some adverse consequences for British exports to South Africa… Possible damage to UK re-export trade in gold and diamonds”.

Conclusion. Alernativet 1 is the most advantageous. “We would then be giving priority to Anglo-American relations… maintaining our European links at slightly less cost”.

Minutes of the 53rd meeting of the Planning Committee, 19 February 1974, chaired by Permanent Under Secretary, FCO

Commenting on the above Planning Staff paper. PUS Brimelow noted that Sir John Hunt, Cabinet Secretary, had previously said that “the paper paid too much attention to alternatives which were unrealistic”. However, “it was conceivable that, if a Labour government proceeded to re-negotiate the terms of our membership of the Community, to expel the Americans from Holy Loch, or to support liberation movements in Africa, we might be inadvertence find ourselves pursuing the less attractive alternatives…  In discussion, the paper was criticised on several grounds: (i) Instead of considering the sort of foreign policy we wanted and working out the economic implications of this, it should begin by asking what sort of economic environment would best contribute to solving Britain’s problems and proceed from that to examine the foreign policy most likely to create such an environment. Everyone in Whitehall agreed that we needed a world in which trade was expanding and business confidence was maintained; but all the alternatives in the paper, except, Alternative I, involved a retreat into an autarky which was contrary to Britain’s economic needs. (ii) Most of the five alternatives identified in the paper were unrealistic. There was no point in discussing alternatives in which Britain would lose vital elements in her foreign policy – easy access to other markets, a basis for common defence etc…(v) The paper was too long; Mr Callaghan was not a reading man”.

“It was agreed that, in preparing for the new government, officials should avoid the mistake which had been made in 1964 of refusing to entertain radical ideas of any kind. Officials would have to argue strenuously against policies in the manifesto which would harm our central economic policy – such as termination of the Holy Loch agreement – but they should be careful to deal constructively with other parts of the Labour programme – for example, on how to construct a viable defence policy on a budget at the same GNP level as our European allies… Much would depend on the personal reactions of Labour Ministers and on the chemistry between them and senior FCO officials”.


Sir John Hunt, Cabinet Secretary to Thomas Brimelow, PUS FCO, 13 February 1974

Commenting on the paper. Hunt suggests that a group of Permanent Secretaries meets in 10 days time “to look at the main points which we would need to put to Ministers after the election. This will be primarily a matter for the Foreign Secretary, but the Prime Minister and some other Ministers will also be deeply involved and it would be helpful if we had reached a general consensus amongst ourselves. As I said at the beginning I think we should try to offer a measure of advice, if only to suggest what are the essential interests which would need to be preserved in making decisions on policy”. Suggests a short paper taking accounts of these points, and that towards the end of March the new PM should meet Ambassadors from Washington, Bonn, Paris, the EEC and NATO at Chequers “on a Saturday or Sunday for a free-ranging discussion on these matters… There will be quite a job to balance our objectives against what will appear to be a credible policy to our allies and their views would be helpful and perhaps a useful corrective”.


National Archives: FCO 49/503

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