On the importance of diplomats and the Foreign Office

The Duty of Diplomacy
Introductory remarks at the launch of the new edition of Satow’s Diplomatic Practice
edited by Sir Ivor Roberts KCMG, President of Trinity College in Oxford.
Locarno Room, FCO
19 October 2009

I had the pleasure of working with Britain’s diplomats as a PPS and then a minister at the FCO between 1997 and 2005.

Unlike some, I have nothing but admiration for the practice and profession of diplomacy. And for its professionals and practitioners.

If we want to build bridges between peoples, swerve round the stone walls that national leaders erect in the false belief that Lord Salisbury’s splendid isolation of a century ago or today’s miserable insulation advanced by Lord Rothermere or Mr Murdoch’s minions will somehow advance national interest, or just oil the wheels - so they turn instead of grating - then diplomats are the bridge-builders, advisors to get politicians to go round walls instead of crashing into them, and carry an oil can in their trousers.

So let us hear it for dips. This new guide produced by a team of them guided by Ivor Roberts will be invaluable. I am especially impressed by the chapters on NGOs, and the use of private envoys.

As a minister I regarded private envoys as irrelevant. A good ambassador, an independent-minded official, and anyone who cared about the job was more than enough for me.
I am worried today that the Government has downgraded the role of diplomats and embassies and the Foreign Service generally. We have moved from state-craft to aid-craft or soldier-craft as the money has poured into development aid, into the military and into the agencies.
A friend high in today’s service told me that the FCO was proposing to require its ambassadors and officials in economy class for transatlantic flights. Turning right as you get on the plane may please our new Salem Puritans for whom travel conditions which do not half-kill you are an unspeakable luxury.
On the contrary, I believe that if you get off a plane cramped, unslept, and tired you will not serve the nation’s interests well.
How long before our officials are required to hitch-hike to Brussels to save money and appease the columnists who hate public service especially the high calling of public service to defend and advance the vital interests of the state?
I also think our diplomats have a duty of loyalty that extends a little beyond their retirement date. I resent reading the comments from men who took everything the Service had to offer – gongs, pensions, perks and retirement jobs - and then turn round to criticise the elected leaders they served.

I respect anyone who resigns on principle because a decision on policy is unacceptable or who feels that the elected leadership of our country was taking a disastrously wrong course. I am not impressed by those who discover their conscience or contempt for a PM or other ministers once the index-linked pension is being paid out.
To work in the FCO at all levels is to have an immense privilege of access to information that the newspapers rarely invest in. It is to witness very able men and women worry their way through big problems and try and find not just the right answer but the good answer. It is to be part of five centuries of service to our country. Just read Hilary Mantel’s fine Booker prize winner, Wolf Hall, about the beginnings of the English state under Henry VIII and you have pages devoted to the centrality of foreign relations and the diplomacy needed to advance the national interest.
So I congratulate Sir Ivor on this work. At a time when MPs are the lowest of the low I am very proud that the we have the FCO and the diplomats we have and long may they serve the nation and its elected leaders to the best of their abilities, wit, and sense of joie de vivre. And preferably in business not cattle class.