Brexit

Bravo: May’s appointment of Barrow illustrates the rise of Whitehall’s Russia hands

The UK's new man in Brussels is a good hire

BY Iain Martin   /  4 January 2017

Sir Ivan who? A replacement for the author of history’s longest farewell to staff email – I’ve-resigned-thanks-it’s-been-great-my-round-at-the-pub-if-anyone-fancies-it-I’ve-put-500-euros-behind-the-bar – has been announced. The Financial Times broke the news that it will be Sir Tim Barrow taking over from Sir Ivan Rogers as Britain’s man in Brussels. Here points are deducted from anyone claiming dismissively that this is bad news because they have never heard of him. Most of the non-politicians and non-mandarins weeping and wailing about the departure of Sir Ivan Rogers yesterday had probably never heard of him until they suddenly became extremely attached to Sir Ivan as a celebrated foe of the Prime Minister in particular and Brexit in general.

Barrow is a serious player and a career diplomat who was ambassador to Moscow until 2015. He has also served in Brussels at UKREP, been ambassador to Ukraine and advised numerous Foreign Secretaries. His appointment looks like rather good news and tells us quite a bit. Several initial thoughts:

1) This is a major victory for the Foreign Office and a move away from decades of Treasury dominance.

Under New Labour, and the command of Gordon Brown, the traditional government by Treasury mantra was given fresh impetus. The place steadily accumulated more power as Brown ranged into the rest of Whitehall and the path for promotion became the Treasury. The Treasury attitude to the European Union, and sensible scepticism about the euro, acted as a break on Tony Blair’s ambitions. The attitude of the Treasury elite is best-described as moderate Euroscepticism. Incidentally, anyone who tells you all mandarins are Europhiles is a clown. That is not to say that the Treasury elite view was ever for Out – we’re talking shades of Remain here – but the Treasury way was not for more integration unless, as they saw it, it could not be avoided. They took a hard-headed, truculent at times, ultra-realist approach that did not survive contact with Cameron’s botched EU renegotiation. It was in that spirit of Treasury scepticism that Sir Ivan Rogers was sent to Brussels by David Cameron, ironically to toughen up the operation in a snub to the FCO. We know what happened next, or quite a bit of it with more to come… Now, a Foreign Office hand with a background in geopolitics, Russia and Western security has been given this key posting.


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2) The Russia hands are back.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the path to success in the British foreign policy and intelligence community lay through Russia, or the Soviet Union. Expertise in languages useful in the Cold War, and an understanding of the UK’s main adversary, were valued. This had some unfortunate consequences in the aftermath of the Second World War, when Communists infiltrated MI6 at a senior level. But for every one of those traitorous scumbags there were hundreds and thousands (over the decades) of officers and officials dedicated to Western interests. Knowing about Russia and understanding it leaders, its economy, its diplomatic predilections and its armed forces were what mattered in the Cold War. Those who knew that stuff were termed “Russia hands”. After the Wall came down they lost allure, and as I described the Treasury became where it was at. Prime Ministers such as Blair and Cameron ran their own foreign policy and the FCO had the fancy building but less clout than it liked to pretend. For at least ten years the “Russia hands” have been going around London saying that too little attention is being paid to Russia and that it will turn out to be a mistake just you wait and see. They were right, it turns out. The rise of Russia under Putin, the spread of hacking by the Russians and their surrogates meant to discredit democracy, and the threat to Western Europe, all means that knowing about Russia is once again back in fashion. Which means…

3) Barrow’s appointment shows the government has worked out that concern about European security is its strongest Brexit hand.

Listening to some of the most depressed commentary from my Remain friends – it’ll never work, we’ll never manage to sort out the question of pan-European drug regulation, all the banks will leave, we will be murdered in our beds – I have become increasingly perplexed by the navel-gazing. Of course leaving the EU will involve difficulties. It is a vast over-grown political construct and we want to be friends and trade with it after we leave, so there will be a lot of talking to be done. But we’re not supplicants or hopeless dopes here. Europe (of which the EU is only a part) is not in a healthy state (migration, terrorism, currency, banking) with problems that surely stretch well beyond rows about the European Medicines Agency. We’re back into the territory of basic security and diplomatic protection of Western European interests, where the UK can help – a lot. The UK is, for all defence has been cut too much, the leading non-US player in Nato. It has the best listening, intelligence and security capability in Europe, which it leverages through the Five Eyes intelligence relationship with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Poles on their recent visit to London with the cabinet clearly grasped this, what with them being on the eastern frontier. As a veteran “Russia hand” now long since retired put it to me before Christmas: “Wake up! When is the rest of Europe going to wake up to what it at stake here?”

Barrow will bring an entirely new and useful perspective to Brexit and related matters. A sensible deal with the EU can be married with the UK stepping up its role in protecting Western European security from what is coming.