The For­eign Sec­re­tary gets the bet­ter of Sir Humphrey

The Sunday Telegraph - - Sunday Comment -

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

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