Mar 3, 2006

Who runs British Foreign Policy?

Power of the legislative in Britain, while in theory this should be the most powerful branch of Government, it is fact one of the weakest in terms of foreign affairs. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, the parliament only has retroactive power. It cannot oversee foreign treaties and dictate policy to the executive. Also, many of its members are not well versed or have little interest in foreign affairs. They have the concerns of their constituents to put first. Furthermore, since the executive is in part formed from the party with the most members in the House of Commons, it would seem common sense that the majority would follow their party line and leader on such matters, for the most part. The Commons can put questions to the Prime Minister (for 30 minutes a week however, not very long), put questions to the Foreign Secretary and hold debates on some issues.

The House of Lords has even less power. Because of the Parliament Act of 1911, the House of Commons was established as the most powerful of the dual chambers, able to bypass the House of Lords if a motion was passed in the Commons 3 times with a majority. Also, since the executive gives the right of peerage and therefore the right to hold a seat in the House of Lords, its own position is further undermined. However, in spite of that it has many experts who may have specialist knowledge in areas such as foreign policy and such expertise may well have a bearing on the foreign policy course taken.

Public Opinion is usually expressed through the House of Commons, for obvious reasons. However, foreign policy generally has little impact on voting and therefore how the legislative and executive acts, for instance Margaret Thatcher informing the House of Commons that Britain was at war with Argentina over the Falklands, rather than ask for its consent.

Sometimes though a particular piece of foreign policy can capture the public imagination enough to put pressure on the executive and legislature. Such an example would be the recent Iraq War (2003). Because of the large public opposition to the proposed military action, Tony Blair went to the House of Commons and had a vote to decide it, in order to gain legitimacy. Of course, with the largest party in the Commons and the outspoken support of the Leader of the Opposition for military action, it was a near certain thing that it would pass, but under certain circumstances it would change the direction of foreign policy.


The main power and driving force behind foreign policy would seem to be the executive. This seems intuitive, after all it is the executive that is responsible for the day to day running of the state. The main area of power would appear to be the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Here information is compiled about various countries and used to make informed options to be given to the executive. As this shows they make the options which are given t the executive they have a lot of control and initiative over the process. However, this information is not always followed, for instance when Margaret Thatcher declared war on Argentina. She refused to listen to FCO advice to negotiate with Galtieri about it.

The power of the Foreign Office and the Foreign Minister itself is often subject to the personalities involved. A particularly outspoken Foreign Minister (for instance, Robin Cook) may have a far greater role in deciding foreign policy then a more laid back personality (an example being Jack Straw).

Another area of power is the Treasury. As this has control over the budget and economy for the UK, this decides how much can be spent on foreign activities, such as aid, deploying troops or funding foreign embassies. Funds available will always be a limiting factor in what any state can do.

The Defence ministry will also have a say in such affairs, however, this is lesser as there is more to Foreign Policy than war and aid missions, so the role is lesser than the FCO or the Treasury.

The Beaurucracy also often acts as the agent for gathering information which can then be disregarded or taken up by others. A good example is the lead up to the Iraq war, where the Butler report stated “there was no recent intelligence that would itself have given rise to a conclusion that Iraq was of more immediate concern than the activities of some other countries.”1 Another is of course Margaret Thatcher ignoring FCO advice as to what to do over the Falklands crisis.

The Executive

The Executive is essentially responsible for the day to day running of the state. The main elective branch of this is the Cabinet, however, it also extends to permanent Undersecretaries (top civil servants) and advisors.

The main power lies with the Prime Minister in the British system, as he is the Chief Executive. He appoints the Cabinet and has a series of powers, known more commonly as the “Royal Prerogatives”. This come from the original powers of the Sovereign when the monarchs had much more power in the UK. The power to appoint the Cabinet cannot be overlooked, as this means the Prime Minister can pick a Foreign Minister who is sympathetic to their world view, or someone who will even take the back seat of foreign policy (as exhibited by the relationship between Tony Blair and Jack Straw).

Also the Royal prerogatives give the British PM almost more power than any other western leader. In effect, the Prime Minister can dissolve Parliament if it disagrees with him and call elections (although this is an extreme measure), create peers for the House of Lords, appoint Government ministers, make treaties, command the military, declare war and make peace. All of these have a direct impact on Foreign policy. The PM can also accept or refuse a resignation from any Minister, which can overrule what Parliament can do concerning Foreign Policy.

The effect of NGOs.

These tend to have a limited effect on decision making. For instance, the Stop the War Coalition had a (claimed) 2 million members organize a mass protest in London, the largest London has seen, and all it did was force the PM to seek a Parliamentary mandate to legitimise the attack. Also, there is very little of a “lobby culture” among UK politics, as votes more often go to party loyalties than individuals running in them.

That said, the funding for the central party for an election may have an effect on foreign policy. More often this is actually directed at domestic policy, but not always. An example would be the sales of UK arms to Indonesia. After the 1997 election, the Labour Government declared it was to have an “ethical foreign policy”, which seemed to include the sales of arms to a military dictatorship who was having a particularly brutal civil war in one of its provinces (Aceh) and trying to stop another one (East Timor) from breaking away. This was due in no small part to the British arms industry, which is the second largest in the world after the USA, and has several large companies, such as BAE, who are the biggest defence contractor in Europe.2

Despite the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and The Joint Commons Committee on Defence Exports both putting pressure on the Government, sales to Indonesia continue and "We have seen no evidence that the government has taken any action (other than talking to the Indonesian authorities) to investigate claims that British built military equipment has been used in violation of human rights or offensively in Aceh,"3 a report said.

However even these NGOs that are big business have limited power. For instance, both British Petroleum and Shell opposed the Iraq war because Shell and have made huge investments in natural gas in Saudi Arabia, which could be at risk in a confrontation with the Saudi government. All oil companies in the Middle East would face a more dangerous political climate, caught between the American-Israeli intervention and nationalists fearing reversion to a neo-colonial system. 4 Yet this was ignored by the Executive, even though the CEO of BP is a peer.

In conclusion, it would seem that power is definitely vested mainly with the executive when it comes to foreign policy. Because of the lack of a UK constitution, the first post the post system for selecting the legislature (which determines the executive for the large part) and the wide ranging powers that devolved from the Monarch to the Chief Executive it is at the heart of all decision making. Any other influences are based on proximity and access to the executive, as the case with the controversial head of Strategic Communications, Alistair Campbell was an excellent example of. Because of the limited hold of the legislature over the executive, there is little influence there. And NGOs can only really lobby effectively through Parliament too.

Bibliography and Sources





Christopher Hill - The Changing Politics of Foreign Policy, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills Basingstoke (2003)

Baylis and Smith - The Gobalization of World Politics. Oxford University Press, Oxford (2001)

Kegley and Wittkopf -World Politics, Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, Belmont CA, USA (2004)

Anthony Sampson - Who Runs This Place: The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st century, John Murray publishers, London, (2005 edition)

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