Originally published in 1998/1999, Issue 1
On the 14″‘ of October 1998, Mr. Ted Rowlands, Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhynmey, gave a brief talk on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of which he is a member and took questions from students and staff of the International Politics Department on British Foreign Policy and Human Rights. “It is made up of ‘has-been’s and ,never-will-be’s”, is how Mr. Rowlands described the composition of the Parliamentary Select Committee for Foreign Affairs. He was not only referring to colleagues like Virginia Bottomley but also to himself, having been a Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) between 1976 and 1979. As for the committee’s role, he identified it as essentially to compile reports, advise the Commons on foreign policy decisions and scrutinise the FCO.
In his talk, the Labour MP did not fail to mention the tensions posed by party-political divisions in the committee and interestingly hinted that it was often intra-party conflicts which created problems, particularly on issues such as the European Union. For instance, his Euro-sceptic views were, in his opinion, the reason why a ‘safer’ colleague was appointed Chairman of the committee.
Perhaps more importantly, Mr. Rowlands also stressed the institutional limitations placed upon the committee, the existence of which is, according to him, “based on a false analogy to the American equivalent”. Despite being semi-modelled on its Congressional counterparts, the committee does not enjoy their type of influence since it operates under a different constitutional arrangement, namely one where the executive is not clearly divorced from the legislative branch, as is the case in the United States. Combined with the considerable power of party executives on the floors of the two Houses, the committee’s lack of independence makes it easier for its reports to beneutered if they are contentious of government policy.
What’s the point then, one may ask. Mr. Rowlands’ answer is accountability. He recalled that when he was a Minister he was only required to respond to one or two questions a month in Parliament and perhaps make the occasional statement if there was some controversy in an area under his jurisdiction. Today, on the other hand, with the committee in place and with parliamentary debates enjoying a higher profile due to television, the FCO devotes huge amounts of energy and effort to parliamentary affairs. Since Whitehall spends lots of time trying to anticipate and avoid potential problems that Parliament would pick up, the usefulness of the committee lies in its unseen deterrent value.
As far as the actual issues with which the committee concerns itself, Mr. Rowlands said that these could be long-term, such as the recent report on weapons of mass destruction or related to current affairs such as the ethical dimensions of foreign policy, (a debate brought about by the Sierra Leone affair) and the legal justification of global action (an issue related to the bombing of Serbia over Kosovo). Having just returned from an official trip to Poland, Mr. Rowlands also listed the future of the European Union as another high priority issue. He personally seemed particularly concerned about the institutional problems consequential to enlargement and the twospeed Europe that would be created by Economic and Monetary Union.
On being asked why the issue of NATO enlargement had not been seriously debated in the committee, Mr. Rowlands diplomatically replied that there had been a wide consensus in favour of enlargement and maintained that this “amazing degree of consensus” extended to several global issues, including British-US relations; a subject which, according to him, does not constitute a serious debate. He quickly added that despite this, there are instances where the committee is critical of the government such as in its policies towards Hong Kong and the Commonwealth.
Several of the audience questions which followed, focussed on human rights and the degree of consideration which the issue received by government when formulating foreign policy. Mr. Rowlands’ main observation was that human rights were now more vital than ever before in policy making, not least because of the contributions of non-governmental organisations. He argued that this change of approach could be seen throughout the diplomatic service where huge efforts are undertaken to make the subject a priority, whereas in the past human rights issues were dealt with only when it was deemed necessary. He further added that during the Cold War, the Thatcher government defined human rights mainly in terms of Eastern Europe, while Africa and South America (the silence on Pinochet for instance) were largely ignored. The ex-Minister used the comparison between the inaction against human rights abuses in Uganda during the 1970’s and the sanctions imposed against Nigeria in the 1990’s to point to the changing international context in the field of human rights.
He also linked the subject to the sale of arms, the control of which he said was an important issue. Mr. Rowlands revealed that towards the end of 1977, during his time as Minister, he had taken part in negotiations which narrowly managed to avert a military confrontation with Argentina, only to return to Britain and find a long list of planned arms sales to that country. It was in this respect that he identified transparency between Britain and its European partners on the issue of arms sale destinations as a useful tool, but also stressed that because thousands of jobs in this country depend on arms manufacturing, the subject will always be a sensitive one.
Mr. Rowlands was finally asked whether the select committee’s work was mostly a response to government policies which have already been decided and whether, in view of this, there existed an effort to compile a “guide” for future policy decisions based on the mistakes of the past. His answer was that the committee always tried to avoid chasing the game but jokingly added that ,even postmortems are valuable in their own way”. As for a “do’s and don’ts” guide, the Labour MP maintained that this would be invaluable but has proved extremely difficult so far.