Associate professor, PhD at the Department of Diplomatic Service and Communication of the Faculty of International Relation of YSU

Someone once said that, distilled, the essence of diplomacy is ‘protocol, vitriol and alcohol’ - but nobody mentioned the sweat. Privilege and privation make a strange cocktail, a cup it has been many diplomats’ experience to sip through a long career, though times have changed from the days in the 1940s when, as one dispatch put it, "Administration was primitive and gentlemanly. You could rake overseas a "reasonable” amount of luggage and servants. The borderline of reasonableness lay between pianos and grand pianos.”

Along with the perks, the hardships could go beyond the physical. Being an ambassador was more than a day job: spouse and sometimes children too, were bound into a routine of entertaining and being entertained. You, your house, and often your family, were always, at least a little bit, on parade. Offering hospitality went with the job. Domestically there were cities and societies that presented particular challenges, and those diplomats whose career has taken them away from the Service’s easily defensible functions in the EU, NATO, the UN, the GAAT, the WTO and other acronyms, and away from Britain’s First World working relationships with Europe and with the United States and Russia, have sometimes felt thrust into what, with bitter sarcasm, we used to call the "Outer Darkness”: no doubt a word-play on the division made by the despised 1960s Duncan Review, between an Area of Concentration and Outer Area.

Doing a sophisticated job, with the trapping of a sophisticated lifestyle, in an unsophisticated place, hasn’t got any easier as resources have been cut. Successive performance reviews of the FCO as an institution have tried to create grids of goals, roles, objectives and means, to find ways of measuring and ordering priorities, to tighten the definition of entitlements, and - ever and anon - to save money.

Until very recently diplomats had to retire at sixty - at the height (many thought) of their powers. Women-admitted to the Diplomatic Service since 1946 but under special rules, limited to 10% of the intake-were paid 20% less than men doing the same job and they had to resign when they married. Equal pay was conceded in 1955 and the marriage bar was rescinded only in 1972.

"There is an outside vision of diplomacy and ambassadors,” Sir Christopher Meyer told us, "that is impossible to eradicate from the public imagination and particularly from the imagination of journalists, whose Pavlovian default position when they write about ambassadors is to write about envoys quaffing champagne and sucking on cherries dipped in asses’ milk and that they are all living the most glorious life. Now, let’s not beat about the bush-when I was entertaining Americans, they did not expect fish fingers; if I was going to influence members of the American cabinet or White House I didn’t serve them fish fingers. I enjoyed a high standard of living when I was ambassador to the United States but the balance to that was having two tours in our Embassy in Moscow in the depths of the Cold War when Russia was the Soviet Union and Moscow in those days was quite clearly a hardship post. It was a hardship post for all kinds of reasons.

"A hardship post is a place where the material and psychological conditions of service are particularly arduous. The pressure put upon you by these circumstances actually makes it difficult for you to do your job. You get paid a bit more money for serving in a hardship post and I think it gains you some extra pensionable years.”

In Moscow, said Meyer, hardship meant: difficulty in getting fresh food and vegetables and decent food to eat on a daily basis; it meant a highly restricted movement because the Soviet authorities didn’t like diplomats travelling around the country, or even far beyond the city of Moscow, so you were in a claustrophobic bubble from the moment you arrived. And then there was the psychological pressure, which was unrelenting, of the old KGB constantly up to tricks to ensnare you in some embarrassing blackmailable situation, as they tried several times on me. I actually found that type of hardship stimulating and terrifically exciting, but for some people it was terribly oppressive and they didn’t withstand it very well.’

Lord Patten seconded the view: "I’ve seen over the years the Foreign Office subjected to one round of cuts after another and I’ve seen it put in the dock again and again to demonstrate that it’s useful; and I think it’s completely absurd. I’ve always believed that part of the problem is that you get some of the Stakhanovites in the public-spending division of the Treasury going home from Waterloo on a wet cold Tuesday night in February, with papers in their box, including the latest public spending bid from the Foreign Office. They sit down in their little corner of the compartment, damp and cold, at half past eight or quarter to nine in the evening and have this vision of diplomats- of their equivalents in the Foreign Office-slipping into swimming pools in tropical climates with butlers in white bumfreezers waiting on the edge with crystal cut glass with gin and tonic clinking away. And it’s a complete nonsense. Of course ambassadors very often live in nice houses and have staff, but they are also just as likely to be living in pretty difficult places with junior staff who are having a tough time. And they do a very, very good job.”

Denis MacShane told us that "I stayed recently since I stopped being a minister with an ambassador in one of the most important posts in Europe. I was given one of the guest bedrooms and I froze that night because I didn’t have enough money to fully heat his embassy… I don’t think the Foreign Office, as part of the Whitehall machine, is anything other than quite mean and quite hard.

"There’s an endless argument: should we maintain the splendid embassy in Paris? Well, should we maintain Buckingham Palace or Lancaster House? I think on the whole yes. Ambassadors are only there for a short time, and if we sold the embassy in Paris for a little fortune now and shunted the fellow out to the suburbs and put him into an anonymous office block somewhere I just don’t think anyone would come to see him.”

Warming to his theme, Mr MacShane continued: "The question of how you educate your children is a huge problem. The French have a network of international Lycees in every major capital city, we don’t… You can’t seriously expect a man to go seriously to Afghanistan or Iraq, places where ambassadors have been kidnapped or diplomats have been killed- and have his children tootling around on the pavement playing hopscotch.” MacShane had a point, certainly- though one is tempted to ask if, in this case, it is not the minister who has gone a little native.
2122 reads | 18.10.2013

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