The Foreign Office Is Full of Colonial Relics

A visit to the home of UK diplomacy showed me that the Foreign Office is more colonial throwback than modern workplace.

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Oct 15 2018, 12:25pm

A statue of the 1st Earl of Minto. Through the corridor is a display about "Diversity Firsts", celebrating female and BAME diplomats (Photo by Phil Miller)

Last month, scores of historic buildings across London threw their doors open to the public for one weekend only. As a journalist who has written extensively on British foreign policy, I was curious to see inside the Foreign Office.

From the outside, I had an inkling of what was to come; above a window arch there was an elephant carved into the stone, with a bare-chested woman with a nose ring, bangles and a sari draped over her head. Underneath the lady and her elephant was the word "Asia" in block capitals. It was the first sign of many that day that the Foreign Office is still wedded to its colonial past.

After passing through security, I was ushered down 20-foot-high corridors flanked with red granite columns and cold benches hacked out of stone, towards a vast glass-roofed courtyard, roughly the size of a football pitch.

There, diplomats were dotted around the marble-floored plaza, running recruitment stalls and bragging about how many languages they spoke. A familiar voice beamed from a TV screen. It was Jeremy Hunt – Foreign Secretary, and Boris Johnson's successor. In a recorded message, he helpfully told me where I was. "This is the Durbar Court in the old India Office, designed by Matthew Wyatt. From here, a subcontinent was governed for almost a century." On the walls above, I could see more carvings in block caps. This time they were a bit more precise than just "Asia" – I made out "Goa", "Rangoon", "Bombay", "Madras" and "Calcutta". Hunt was right. This was where India was run, the so-called "jewel in the crown" of empire.

A quick primer as to how India once looked: The East India Company, a British mercenary army-slash-business, conquered vast swathes of the country from the 1750s. After a major uprising against the company in 1857, the British crown stepped in to establish formal colonial rule across the Indian subcontinent, until independence in 1947. Before the British arrived, India accounted for a quarter of the world's GDP, with Britain, France and Germany between them struggling to manage 11 percent. In 1950, shortly after Britain left, India had been reduced to just 4 percent. India was deliberately de-industrialised under British rule, with its riches sent to London.

When the British Empire ended in most countries, Britain handed over its administrative buildings to the local elite. However, in London, the diplomats seemed to have missed the memo about the empire being over. Rather than turning the old India Office into a museum, it is at the heart of Whitehall's daily work. Imagine popping into the staff canteen for lunch and gazing at those names in the Durbar Court, before going back to working on foreign policy. What must that do to your sense of Britain's place in the world?

Weaving my way up to the second floor, I found a life-sized statue of a man called "Clive". There was no sign explaining who he was, but it was clear from the colonial context that he was Robert Clive, often called "Clive of India" – an East India Company commander who ensured that they conquered key parts of the subcontinent and made himself millions in the process. He was an empire builder, a mercenary and a Tory MP. Some historians blame his policies for the Great Bengal Famine of 1770, in which a third of the population died. You wouldn't learn this from the Foreign Office open day, though.

durbar court foreign office
The names of Indian cities carved on the walls of Dunbar Court (Photo by Phil Miller)

I could go on listing all the colonial statues, paintings and assorted relics that I saw on the tour, but I will leave you with just one more.

In a corner of the Durbar court is a statue of a man called "Minto". This commemorates Gilbert Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, the 1st Earl of Minto. He was a senior Scottish employee of the East India Company, and rose to become their Governor General of India in the early 19th century. He tightened the Company's territorial control of the subcontinent to unprecedented levels, and expanded its conquest around the Indian Ocean. His descendent, the 4th Earl of Minto, became Governor General of India in the early 20th Century amid the rise of national liberation movements. In 1909, he passed the Minto-Morley reforms, which gave Indian subjects a tokenistic role in running their country, which was really an attempt to avoid giving Indians genuine democratic rights.

Perhaps the greatest irony of my tour was standing on the steps of the Durbar Court, looking at Minto with my left eye and spotting a sign in my right eye that said "Diversity Firsts".

Within 20 yards of Minto, the Foreign Office’s equality and diversity team had busily erected a wall of portraits, showing pioneering female and BAME diplomats. It perfectly illustrated Britain’s flawed approach to racism and discrimination – government departments highlighting those who smash the glass ceiling, while continuing to put the empire builders and imperial rulers on a pedestal.

Besides, neo-colonial policies persist. This year, Indian police shot dead protesters in Thoothukudi, near Madras, who were campaigning against pollution by a British mining company. In 1984, Thatcher sent an SAS officer to advise the Indian army on the suppression of Sikh separatists (Sikhs had their own kingdom before Britain conquered it) – and since I unearthed the documents about this, in 2014, both the Cameron and May governments have poured resources into blocking a public inquiry.

Of course, many things have changed. Among other developments, India now has a space programme, while Tata Steel owns many British factories. But my visit made it easier for me to understand how someone like Boris Johnson felt so comfortable being Foreign Secretary, prone to the "insensitivity" of reciting a colonialist poem while on an official visit to Myanmar. And it reminded me of the importance of Jeremy Corbyn's recent call for colonial history to be taught in schools, with visits to historical sites. Perhaps his foreign secretary would open the Durbar Court to daily visits for GCSE history classes?

Other European countries, like France and Belgium, have made moves (with varying degrees of success) to make their colonial history more accessible to the public and place it within a critical context. Perhaps it’s time Britain does the same. The Durbar Court should be a museum, not an office.

@pmillerinfo

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