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A going-away present

A great time ago when the world was young there was a pleasant and harmless custom by which a British ambassador when leaving his post could sit down and write a valedictory dispatch to the Foreign Secretary.

13 November 2010

12:00 AM

13 November 2010

12:00 AM

Parting Shots: The Undiplomatic Final Words of Our Departing Ambassadors edited by Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson

Penguin/Viking, pp.400, 16.99

A great time ago when the world was young there was a pleasant and harmless custom by which a British ambassador when leaving his post could sit down and write a valedictory dispatch to the Foreign Secretary. This was not compulsory; often an ambassador withheld his opinions until he was leaving not just a particular post but the foreign office as a whole.

The motives of the valedictory dispatch varied. Some ambassadors concentrated on summarising the country in which they had last served; others attempted to sum up the whole period of their service. Some took the opportunity to deplore the present state of Britain; others told amusing stories; almost all thanked the staff who had supported them, and in particular their wives. Some seemed mainly anxious to display the glitter and elegance of their own prose style.

This agreeable tradition was brought to an abrupt end by Margaret Beckett during her time as Foreign Secretary. She took exception to a particularly brusque description by a departing ambassador of British foreign policy under Tony Blair as ‘bull- shit bingo’. Not notorious for her sense of humour, she used a single exaggerated phrase to cripple a tradition which had given mild pleasure.

Then Matthew Parris was persuaded by an enterprising BBC man, Andrew Bryson, to use the Freedom of Information Act to resurrect the valedictory dispatch. But their victory was not complete. Some dispatches were withheld entirely by the mandarins who direct the FoI process, while others were cut about.

Nevertheless there remains a body of ambassadorial writing which will give pleasure to those who enjoy the cut and thrust of official prose. Some targets of course are easy to hit and they are well represented here.

It may be true that ‘the average modern Austrian only thinks about his schnitzel and his annual holiday and longs to be called Herr Professor’ (Sir Anthony Rumbold, April 1970.) And it may be true that in Thailand ‘gambling and golf are the chief pleasures of the rich, and licentiousness is the main pleasure of them all.’ (Also Sir Anthony Rumbold, 1967). We may even agree that ‘the Swiss love regulating each other’ (Eric Midgeley, February 1973); or that ‘the calibre of Canadian politicians is low. . . the majority of Canadian ministers are unimpressive and a few we have found frankly bizarre.’ (Lord Moran, June 1984)

We can be grateful that some ambassadors were not content with these easy pot-shots but made a genuine effort to educate the Foreign Office into the underlying essence of a foreign country. My own prize goes to Sir Roderick Braithwaite in his final dispatch from Moscow in May 1992:

All those who have dealt with the Russians over the centuries have commented on their indifference to the truth. The lie in Russia has indeed … become an art form. The latest example I have come across occurs in hotels frequented by foreigners: the notice in five languages on the lavatory reads ‘disinfected for your comfort and safety’. Every Russian knows that this cannot be true. Only the most naïve of foreigners would think any different. Yet in a great country you disinfect the lavatory seat; so the notice has to go up.

Sir Roderick proceeds with a masterly analysis of the prospect for Gorbachev’s reforms:

Russia is an epic country … because it is the land where the lie has been erected into a principle of conduct. Concepts such as truth, honour, loyalty, courage have a real meaning for the most ordinary people who are continually having to make the kind of choices which Englishmen have not had to make since our Civil War 300 years ago. To us these big words are an embarrassment. For Russians they are an inescapable part of everyday life. Because Russia has always been a land of villains it is also a land of heroes and saints.

Often the main target is either Britain itself or the modern foreign service. Sir Nicholas Henderson is the only ambassador to score three entries in this book. In his famous long lament from Paris in 1979 he called for ‘a sense of national purpose . . . something akin to what has inspired the French and the Germans over the last 20 years’. Within months Margaret Thatcher was in office and the stimulus had been applied. The standing of Britain in the world rose sharply, but has since receded. Once again we wait to see if our newly elected government can pull us back out of the downward slide.

A collection of such essays is bound to include ample helpings of nostalgia. The editors pick out the persistent fascination of our diplomats with the Arab world. There my prize goes to the young James Craig, who, writing from Dubai in 1964, struck the genuine note:

On the Trucial coast more perhaps than anywhere else the old regime persists … the guard of the compound gate hoists the flag at sunrise and all day long it looks down on the dhows and ferry boats in Dubai creek. The agent sits in court below the royal coat of arms and sees the old procession of clerks and position writers. His servants wear turbans and puggarrees and long shirwani coats. He inspects jails and pursues smugglers. He runs hospitals and builds roads … To each visitor he offers, through his coffee-maker girt about with a great silver dagger tiny handless cups of black spiced coffee. Twice or thrice a year he sits in full majlis while the sheikhs pour in with congratulations, sweetmeats, Christmas cakes and fat goats.

Mr Craig is now the revered Sir James. Dubai has transformed itself since 1964; so has the foreign service. These essays show why that service continues to exercise a pulling power on each generation. All you need for success is intelligence, a sense of humour and, I would add, a committed interest in history.

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