Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Oh dear, oh dear, life is hard

One would not mind hearing civil service mandarins moaning about how dreadful everything in their world had become if one did not know that largely it was their fault; that we are all paying for this; and, in any case, they are ignoring the elephant in the room.

Sir Christopher Meyer, formerly Our Man in Washington and subsequently Chairman of the somewhat pointless Press Complaints Commission, is doing a bit of complaining himself in the Daily Telegraph.

It seems that the “lights are going out in the Foreign Office” and the great British diplomatic service, traditionally held in the highest esteem by all foreigners is no longer so. In fact, the reputation is under threat.

He then goes on to produce a great deal of misplaced nostalgia (British diplomats have never been known for their extensive knowledge of languages, for instance) and complaints about all the things that are going wrong.

There are several things he does not mention. Apparently, it has escaped Sir Christopher’s attention that the Rolls Royce that is our foreign and diplomatic service has been unable or unwilling to negotiate with any kind of credibility within the European Union and its predecessors. Not to put too fine a point on it, those Europeans who are so full of admiration for British diplomats have run rings round them.

There is, as a number of comments have pointed out, no real need for the FCO any more as the EU Foreign Service, in existence for about twenty years, will, post-Lisbon, become the main diplomatic service for all the member states. Britain, thanks in great measure to our brilliant diplomats, is not a sovereign country and, therefore, has no need for diplomats, ambassadors, attaches or any of that paraphernalia.

The only thing we do need to deal with is expats in trouble, the very task Sir Christopher finds demeaning.

As to the politicization of the diplomatic corps, Sir Christopher Meyer was one of those who pushed the process along, as I wrote as long ago as 2005 on EUReferendum.
If we must have ambassadors, a questionable proposition in this day of easy communication, they should not, in my opinion, be self-publicizing glamour boys or girls. The Meyers seemed the epitome of Blairite politics and diplomacy. So, I was not unduly surprised when Sir Christopher proceeded to stab the Prime Minister and the entire government severally and together in the back by publishing a somewhat self-serving (his brilliance as described by himself in his book appears to be undeniable) memoir of his days in the American capital.

Well, now, before we start to laugh too heartily at another problem Tony Blair seems to have encountered, let us have a look at the truth of the matter.

Sir Christopher Meyer is a civil servant, a diplomat. One assumes he signed something called the Official Secrets’ Act at some point in his career but that does not seem to inhibit anyone any more. As ambassador he was in a position of trust and confidentiality. Above all, he is not supposed to engage in open party politicking. Two years after his ambassadorship he is not exactly expected to diss his employer, the British government.
It’s a bit much to have this self-publicist weeping crocodile tears about the … sob … disintegration of the great British diplomatic service.


  1. "British diplomats have never been known for their extensive knowledge of languages, for instance". How Meyer could think this is beyond comprehension. Perhaps because he was ambassador in an Anglophone country. A very close (and Eurosceptic) relation of mine spent his entire career in the F(C)O, ending up as ambassador. He speaks five languages well. His staff were brilliant linguists. If Meyer can get that sort of thing wrong, I'm not really open to anything else he says. However:

    Meyer's wife, Catherine, was involved with Vote 2004, a former incarnation of Open Europe that campaigned for a (UK) vote on the constitution.

  2. Actually that was my comment, Confused, based on my experience as teacher in what was then the FCO language courses. They don't have them any more. Obviously I know nothing about your relations but my own experience is that what diplomats and what the rest of us call knowing a language well are two different things. Your eurosceptic relation may be an exception. Well, he has to be if he really is a eurosceptic. I recall Catherine Meyer's rather chic occasional appearance.

  3. Oops. Sorry, Helen. Hence my name. I'll have the first coffee of the day before posting next time.

    The FCO is a nest of europhile vipers. I hope that when we again need (and are allowed) a Foreign Service we can build it with men and women who pass the Secretary Shultz Test*.

    * I know you know it, Helen, but for the sake of those who don't:

    "When newly appointed diplomats would come into Schultz's office [Reagan era] for the obligatory grip-and-grin, he would walk them over to his desk, where there was a globe. He would spin the globe around. And he would say, 'Now point to your country.' And the statesman would invariably point to Spain or Thailand, to which Secretary Shultz would say, 'No, point to your country,' reminding them where their true loyalties lie."

  4. There is a long and hallowed tradition of diplomats without countries. The Nazi puppets come to mind, and the Soviet ones. Closely allied, the Belorussian and Ukrainian SSRs had UN seats. Did the Mongolian People's Republic? I forget. Tannu Tuva had maybe two embassies and a bunch of interesting postage stamps, none of which ever actually saw Tuva, but went straight into the safes of Western dealers. Then there was the Spanish Republic, which even issued passports, recognized only by Mexico and Tito.