The Foreign Secretary gets the better of Sir Humphrey
George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, had a little ritual when he appointed new American ambassadors. He’d show them a large map in his office and ask them to point to their country. They’d duly shove their finger at Uruguay or wherever they had been posted. “Nope,” the old Marine would growl, tapping at the United States. “This is your country.”
Unlike the US, Britain has almost no tradition of political appointments to its embassies. Indeed, our mandarins managed to negotiate a convention that specifically restricted the number of outside nominees – a textbook example of how, in real life, Sir Humphrey almost always gets the better of Jim Hacker.
Perhaps not this time, though. To his immense credit, Jeremy Hunt has announced that he wants to open Britain’s diplomatic legations to all the talents. If, for example, a successful businessman has close links to a particular country, he might make the ablest ambassador there.
At the same time, the Foreign Secretary is increasing the language requirement in our embassies, doubling the number of linguists we send overseas. Mr Hunt voted to stay in the EU, but he has plainly accepted the spirit as well as the letter of the referendum result and is determined to strengthen Britain’s global presence.
In 20 years as an MEP, I have met a great many diplomats. The political appointees stand out for their charisma and their expertise. They tend to be unusually interested in the countries they have asked for. I never get the feeling, as I sometimes do from the lifers, that they are simply doing their job.
It’s not that the career diplomats are incompetent or lazy, far from it. It’s that, like any other closed group of experts, they are subject to groupthink and to déformation professionelle. They tend to overvalue their links to existing regimes, including some remarkably nasty ones. They often fail to anticipate change: days before the Arab Spring began, for example, our embassy in Tunisia drafted a memo predicting that nothing much would happen during the following year.
Nor do they always succeed in hiding their disdain for public opinion. I remember one British diplomat reacting to the EU referendum by asking wretchedly how the British people could have moved so far away from him – a reminder, I suppose, that we all tend to place ourselves at the centre of the universe.
These tendencies, over the years, have given rise to the suspicion that Sir Humphrey is, if not exactly unpatriotic, perhaps too ready to see the other side’s point of view. An old joke has a tourist on Whitehall asking a policeman which side the Foreign Office is on. The copper strokes his chin ruminatively. “That’s a very good question, sir.”
I should stress that we do have some outstanding ambassadors; I even heard a rumour about one of them having voted Leave. But all organisations can benefit from fresh blood and fresh perspective – the Foreign Office especially.
‘Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent to blow up the King and the Parliament…” In an age that has become cynical about MPs, it is striking that our chief folk festival is a homage to parliamentary rule. Striking, but apt none the less.
The survival of Parliament, not only on that grim day in 1605 but in the years that followed, was almost unique to England. Across 17th-century Europe, assemblies voted to disband themselves and hand absolute power to their kings. Monarchical absolutism was seen, in those days, as a modernising force, and the scrapping of the various diets, corteses, councils and estates-general was seen as sweeping away medieval clutter.
Bonfire Night took on other connotations too, alas. For a long time, it had an ugly anti-Catholic tinge, with effigies of the Pope sometimes joining the Guy. Still, we should all come together to celebrate the survival of a Parliament which, by next Guy Fawkes Night, will be fully sovereign again for the first time since 1972.
We long ago overcame our paranoia about the Bishop of Rome. Soon, we won’t need to worry about the Treaty of Rome, either. FOLLOW Daniel Hannan on Twitter @DanielJHannan; at telegraph.co.uk/opinion
Homage to parliamentary rule: a Bonfire Night parade in Lewes, East Sussex, celebrates the defeat of Guy Fawkes’ plot in 1605