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Civil Disservice: The Art and Craft of Lying for Britain

Former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall charts how she was employed to bend the truth – and the consequences of this for our current politics

The UK Foreign Office in Whitehall, London, with an allegorical figure representing art. Photo: PjrStatues/Alamy

Civil DisserviceThe Art & Craft of Lying for Britain

Former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall charts how she was employed to bend the truth – and the consequences of this for our current politics

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Many of those who criticised my decision to resign from the Foreign Office in December 2019, on the basis that I was unwilling to promote the Government’s half-truths about Brexit, cited the old saw by Sir Henry Wotton in 1604 – that “an ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country” – or the more recent quote by Ambrose Pierce – that diplomacy is “the patriotic art of lying for one’s country”. 

At the time, I was able to laugh off such comments.

The people making them were effectively agreeing that the Government was lying about Brexit, and merely contending that I should have supported those lies – hardly persuasive. Integrity is also supposed to be one of the core principles of the Civil Service and one I believed I had upheld throughout my career.  

However, a recent remark by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis prompted me to reflect on my time as a diplomat.

During an interview with the BBC, he accused the EU of being “disingenuous” about offering “flexibilities” on the Northern Ireland Protocol. But being disingenuous is a fundamental British skill and one which, I realise, was elevated to an art form in the Foreign Office, where I worked for 33 years.

Communication is one of the core competences British diplomats are expected to possess – the ability to communicate complex issues clearly and concisely; and being able to persuade others to accept the British point of view or preferred version of events and to agree to our preferred course of action. But this is not the same thing as speaking honestly.

In fact, when I was a diplomat, effective communication skills frequently required the ability to spin or gloss over inconvenient facts to suit the British narrative. This was never presented as ‘lying’ – indeed, the Foreign Office prided itself on upholding the Civil Service values of integrity and honesty and we were all instructed never to be caught saying an outright lie. 

But as I now review my time as a diplomat – with the benefit of a few years distance – I am ashamed to admit that, for much of my career, we were doing exactly that. And not just to foreigners, but to our own fellow citizens.

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Cambodian Refugee Camps

I began lying to British voters right in my very first job, as desk officer for Thailand, Burma and Laos from 1987 to 1988.

At the time, Oxfam was running a major campaign to persuade the Government to stop providing humanitarian aid to Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand, on the basis that the Khmer Rouge was in practice diverting the aid for its own purposes, while neglecting the people for whom the aid was intended.

Thousands of Oxfam supporters wrote letters to their MPs who forwarded them to the Foreign Office for a response. I helped write the stock reply which we sent out in droves, saying something along the lines that ‘we regularly coordinate with the UN to monitor delivery of our aid’. This was superficially true – we did coordinate regularly with the UN – but also misleading, because in practice we only monitored the aid up to the outskirts of the camp.

The Khmer Rouge blocked UN agencies from entering the camps and completely controlled the distribution of aid once it was inside the camp. 

As a new desk officer, I did what I was told and helped churn out literally thousands of these letters for several months. But, one day, fed up with the amount of time it was taking (this was before computers – each letter had to be typed by hand), and also feeling uneasy about their content, I approached my head of department.

I suggested a change of approach. Instead of dismissing Oxfam’s concerns with bland assurances, why didn’t we just engage on the issue? If it turned out that Oxfam’s concerns were right, why not stop the aid – because it surely was not British policy to be empowering the Khmer Rouge? To my astonishment, they agreed to take up the idea. A few months later, Britain did change its policy and stopped all aid to Khmer Rouge-run camps. 

The Balkans Conflict

In the early 1990s, I was head of humanitarian affairs section in the Foreign Office’s United Nations Department, responsible for policy on refugees, war crimes, the Geneva Conventions and the UN’s Humanitarian Agencies.

The biggest crisis was the conflict in the Balkans, precipitated by the break-up of the former Yugoslavia after the end of the Cold War. The conflict was most brutal in ethnically diverse Bosnia, where Bosnian Serbs drove more than a million Bosnian Muslims and Croats from their homes in a process of ethnic cleansing. 

 The UK poured in humanitarian aid and supported the deployment of UN peacekeepers, but for years resisted proposals for more robust intervention.

Instead, officials regularly drafted statements and resolutions condemning atrocities ‘by all sides’ and calling on ‘all sides’ to exercise restraint – without ever acknowledging the plain truth that, by far, the most atrocities were being committed by one side, the Bosnian Serbs, who were also the aggressors.

To the irritation of senior officials, I regularly stuck my hand up in morning meetings to object to this ostensibly ‘balanced’ language which misrepresented the situation. But the language remained distorted, and we remained “even-handed” – until Bill Clinton decided to support a decisive NATO intervention against the Bosnian Serbs which brought the war to an end. 

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Iraqi Sanctions

I witnessed similar disingenuousness in the late 1990s, when I was working on Iraq policy.

The UN Security Council had refused to lift sanctions imposed on Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, until Iraq had accounted for all its alleged weapons of mass destruction. In 1995, two scientists who surveyed the country on behalf of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation assessed that as many as 576,000 Iraqi children may have died as a consequence of the sanctions.

Again, the Foreign Office received many letters from MPs’ constituents expressing concern. And again, I helped churn out hundreds of replies saying that it was not the fault of the sanctions, but of the Iraqi Government, which had refused to accept the Security Council’s offer to let it sell oil in order to purchase food and medicines under UN supervision.

As before, our reply was technically correct – but it was also misleading, in that it glossed over British responsibility for the humanitarian situation, which undoubtedly was exacerbated by its sanctions. 

Aftermath of 9/11

In 2001, I briefly worked as the head of press in the British Embassy in Washington, after 9/11. In that job, you would think the role would involve actively briefing UK and US journalists based in Washington on the British response to the attacks, including our contribution to the effort to oust Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts from Afghanistan later that year.

In fact, I spent most of my time trying to reveal as little information as possible to the journalists. There were a few anxious moments in the first few weeks of the war in Afghanistan when it wasn’t clear whether the invasion was going to be successful. But, under orders, I maintained the public line that all was going according to plan. 

I did the same thing two years later, in 2003, when I was embedded in the post-invasion planning unit in the Pentagon for a few short weeks in the run up to the Iraq War.

As one of only two non-Americans in the unit, one of my jobs was to brief allies on the preparations, as a way to encourage them to join the coalition. It’s not news now, but I can confirm from my experience that the planning was shambolic and dysfunctional. 

I reported this with ever increasing urgency to colleagues in the British Embassy – but unfortunately without any impact, because all of the key decisions were being taken directly between Downing Street and the White House. But to US allies, I gave an upbeat, glossy spin on the preparations taking place – something for which I now feel profound guilt. We also now all know the lies that were told about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Extraordinary Rendition

From 2004 to 2006, I was head of the UK’s human rights department in the Foreign Office. It had been my dream job, in which I had hoped to promote human rights around the world. Unfortunately, for much of the time I found myself on the defensive, trying to explain and justify UK and US actions during the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

One issue was the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Another was whether the UK was facilitating the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects to secret sites around the world, where they might face harsh interrogation tactics, including those endorsed by the infamous Torture Memos drafted by White House lawyers, which justified waterboarding. A third issue was whether the UK was benefiting from intelligence information possibly obtained through torture. 

Human Rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International bombarded MPs and the Foreign Office with questions on these issues and it fell to me to provide the relevant lines for ministers to take. However, I was unable to obtain clear assurances from the Foreign Office’s counter-terrorism policy department to assuage any of the concerns.

The best I could do was draft lines saying ‘the British Government does not condone torture’ or ‘the UK is one of the lead countries campaigning against torture’. Fine words, but they did not answer the questions. They were deliberately evasive.

I ended up being sidelined from terrorism policy discussions because I kept asking awkward questions and pushing for Britain to raise the issue with the US.


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Loyalty Not Lying

I can recall dozens of other incidents when we were similarly disingenuous on behalf of the UK. But perhaps the most egregious example of all was when I was working in the European secretariat of the Cabinet Office from 1995 to 1997.

I was responsible for coordinating European Union policy across Whitehall and steering discussion through Cabinet.

On one occasion, I was asked to write up the minutes of a Cabinet meeting on EU policy and diligently recorded the discussion as accurately as I could. To my dismay, the head of the secretariat was furious with me. “You can’t write that,” he scolded, before informing me that I had to record what they “meant” to say, not what they actually said.

He then rewrote the minutes, with each minister’s contribution ever so slightly nuanced to give it more polish, some comments omitted, and the summary supporting the conclusions the Prime Minister had wanted all along. It was a classic Sir Humphrey moment. 

British diplomats’ mastery of the English language meant we were also able to apply our fabled ‘communication skills’ in international settings. In numerous UN or EU meetings, it was often the British diplomat who would come up with the vague bon mot or turn of phrase for a joint statement or resolution, which would allow other countries to come on board, even if they actually had a completely opposite point of view.

The goal was to achieve consensus, rather than precision, even if that meant confusion over what had been agreed down the road. We could each brief our capitals with our own interpretation, and deal with any problems later.  

Anyone watching hearings of British ministers or officials before parliamentary committees will have seen the same tactics. The evasive answers, the sly word which distorts a meaning, the half-truth which glosses over a problem, the false promise which does not amount to a genuine commitment. 

Civil servants have been able to convince themselves that this was not lying – we were merely putting the best possible arguments forward on behalf of our government. We were helping to build alliances. We were supporting our ministers and helping to deliver their policies. We were doing our duty as loyal civil servants. 

Now I regret the harm we have done.

Heads Down

While politicians the world over have always been masters of spin, civil servants were supposed to be the guardians of truth and probity. What if more of us had spoken up about the false basis for the Iraq War or questioned the treatment of terrorist detainees? 

Why should we be surprised that we now have a Prime Minister who lies consistently and blatantly about almost everything – when so many civil servants have knowingly connived in his half-truths?

Boris Johnson says he did not know how the redecoration of his Downing Street flat was being funded and that he did not knowingly mislead Parliament over the ‘Partygate’ scandal. But some of his civil servants must surely knew.

Why haven’t more of them called out his Government’s repeated misrepresentations of the details of Brexit, including the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol? Why aren’t more civil servants objecting to the Government’s plans to renege on the deal, potentially breaching international law?

Why did it take whistleblowers to expose the chaos around the evacuation of Afghanistan? Why did civil servants cover-up the Prime Minister’s role in supporting the evacuation of rescue dogs over people?

These actions cause real harm, incur real costs, and in some cases significant loss of life. 

The uncomfortable truth is that it is not just this Government which lies, though it has taken it to an extraordinary degree of brazenness. And it is not just politicians. As my own shameful experience attests, lying is hard-baked into the British system and enabled by civil servants.

It was after all a British Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, who immortalised the phrase ‘being economical with the truth’ to justify his misleading comments during the Spycatcher trial in 1986. Anyone willing to replace Lord Geidt as the Prime Minister’s ethics advisor will need to have an extremely flexible understanding of what ethics entail.  

Though telling the truth can be painful, systemic lying corrodes democracy. When ministers tell lies, they insult the intelligence of voters. They undermine trust in our institutions. They degrade the reputation of the UK internationally. When civil servants enable such lies, they are not performing an act of public service but a harmful act of disservice. 

One of the most troubling aspect of events in Britain in recent years is not the behaviour of this Government, but the complicity of the senior Civil Service. We may pretend to ourselves that we are not lying, but it is no wonder that for many, we are indeed ‘perfidious Albion’.

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