In the midst of my concerns about what kind of country Britain is likely to become, what with Brexit and the government’s inability to decide what that actually means, I noticed a small article in a recent edition of The Times about British diplomacy. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has decided to allow some diplomats to commute to their posts while remaining based in London.
A small number of diplomats, according to The Times, has enrolled in this scheme, which is aimed at cost-cutting while allowing those with employed spouses to avoid having to decide which of them should give up, or at least suspend, their job when they go abroad. It appears that this new style of diplomacy will initially only apply to officers in European posts, for the obvious reason that it only makes sense if the traveling time is short.
But I fear that this reflects not only a desire to save money, but also a changing attitude to overseas postings. It may well spread further afield than Europe. If diplomats are allowed to commute back home, this means roughly a third of their time will be spent traveling and living back in the UK.
It would be easy for these officers to stay in London a few days now and then to attend meetings and brief colleagues, which with holidays will further reduce their time in the post to perhaps half of the possible total. Diplomacy is not like any other bureaucratic 9-5 job.
It requires immersion in the post where one is serving, so all shifts in public opinion, all public comment (including on social media) and local nuances have to be noted, analyzed and reported. This is essential if diplomats are to be able to keep their own government informed about what is going on so ministers know what they are talking about.
It is all the more extraordinary that the FCO should introduce this scheme, which I do not doubt suits some families very well, at the very time when Britain is stumbling about, seeking a way out of the EU. Are developments in European capitals, where public opinion is shifting and old political allegiances are breaking down, suddenly less important? Is it so necessary to cut down on school fees and accommodation costs that Britain prefers cut-price diplomacy?
Is this the message Britain wants to give to fellow Europeans, that we are sending in our best “suitcase diplomats” to help prepare for the next round of Brexit negotiations? I refer to the practice of many international banks that seek to serve overseas markets by sending senior staff, who have to live out of a suitcase, on rapid visits lasting a week or two to potential markets.
It is all the more extraordinary that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should allow some diplomats to commute to their posts at the very time when Britain is stumbling about, seeking a way out of the EU. Are developments in European capitals, where public opinion is shifting and old political allegiances are breaking down, suddenly less important?
I recall from my diplomatic days that we used to advise banks that customers were never fooled into thinking that such people were resident in the country concerned, or had any deep understanding of the local business scene. In short, if you want to take any country or market seriously, you have to show commitment and base yourself there.
The FCO says this scheme only applies to key staff — precisely the ones, in my view, who are most noticed and are required to be the experts on the local scene during their postings. Perhaps these high-flyers already have the language skills (though some will inevitably be learning the language when they arrive).
But if they are not there for a third or more of their time, they will not be as effective as those who spend the majority of their time in their posting, and are able to travel around and meet people outside the capital and get a feel for the country as a whole.
In my view this is diplomacy-lite, and it sends the wrong signal to countries with which we are trying to maintain the closest possible relations, and even to those with which we have a difficult relationship. It is likely to breed a separate class of diplomatic bureaucrats who are only half engaged in the country to which they have been appointed, and to act as a deterrent to those who might seek a career in diplomacy.
If you have served in a number of difficult and sometimes dangerous posts, and might expect to be rewarded — as has been the tradition — with a less demanding posting nearer to home, it will be all too easy for the FCO to instead send out someone from London, possibly a home civil servant who is prepared to help save money and commute.
I detect a number of bad vibrations here, which a country such as Britain, with its previously highly regarded foreign service, should not be seeking to introduce at this time — just as it is becoming semi-detached from Europe, and when it needs to strengthen all its international relationships.
Let us hope that this does not spread to the Middle East, a region that Britain has neglected for some years. Above all, it sends a signal that Britain does not take diplomacy so seriously in the modern age of social media and rapid travel — you can do it from home.
• Anthony Harris is a former British ambassador to the UAE and a career diplomat in the Middle East. He can be reached at [email protected]