That sound you hear is the massed ranks of long-departed British ambassadors turning in their graves. Some of us, alive but retired, have had to reach for our smelling salts. The world of British diplomacy has been shaken by an event of seismic significance. #Not only has the Valedictory Despatch returned from the dead; it has turned up on the publicly accessible website of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Step forward Our Man in Beirut, Mr Tom Fletcher, with his terrific farewell blog, published at the end of last month.
Let me explain, as this will be gibberish to most of you. In the good old days of Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service, it was the custom for ambassadors to write a valedictory despatch at the end of their posting. In contrast to the rather utilitarian style of daily diplomatic reporting, ambassadors were expected to spread their wings a little with candid comment on the country in which their service was coming to an end, larded, where the wit was willing, with humorously pungent observations on the character of the local population. Though always addressed to the foreign secretary personally, the best of the despatches were widely distributed throughout the diplomatic service for the enlightenment and amusement of its members.
A Valedictory Despatch gained an added dimension when an ambassador was not just leaving his or her post, but was retiring from the Diplomatic Service. This would give envoys the chance to comment on their entire careers, 30 years or more, with the same candour and wit.
As you may imagine, these were usually pretty sensitive. They were very definitely not intended for public consumption. They could give serious offence to any number of countries if their contents became known outside the portals of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Heaven knows what foreign ambassadors in London write about us British. But you would not be terribly chuffed to hear yourself described as “a tremendously second-rate people”, or “possibly the only people to have made no use of the wheel”, or living in a country that is “a latter-day version of Sodom and Gomorrah”, as various British ambassadors have characterised various countries around the world. Some of these missives were deemed so incendiary that their circulation was restricted even within the diplomatic service for fear of leaks.
To get a full flavour of them, go to Parting Shots by Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson, who, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, managed to prise some choice examples from the Foreign Office. (Declaration of interest: it includes my own from Germany, but not that from the US, which the FCO declined to release.)
And leaks there have been – big leaks. In 1979, the late Sir Nicholas “Nicko” Henderson’s final despatch from Paris, lamenting Britain’s decline, was reproduced in the Economist. There was a great hoo-ha. But it did his career no harm. He was hauled out of retirement by Margaret Thatcher and sent to Washington as ambassador, our top diplomatic appointment.
Twenty-seven years later, a different fate awaited the leak of Sir Ivor Roberts’s farewell to Rome. He was also retiring from the diplomatic service. He took the opportunity to launch a trenchant and well-aimed attack on the managerialism and permanent revolution that had seized control of the Foreign Office. It reminded him of the Cultural Revolution. “Can it be,” he asked, “that in wading through the plethora of business plans, capability reviews, skills audits, zero-based reviews … we have forgotten what diplomacy is all about?”
That was in 2006. The FCO was under far less robust leadership than in 1979. Indeed, it seemed intent on serious self-mutilation. Around this time it closed its language school (since reopened), scattered its diplomatic archives and, following the leak of Roberts’s missive, for all practical purposes abolished the Valedictory Despatch. It was another step along the road of hollowing out the best diplomatic service in the world. The service has still to recover – and it will not do so any time soon if budget cuts continue to take great lumps out of muscle and bone. The fat went long ago.
In the digital age, the very phrase Valedictory Despatch may have a musty, Victorian odour about it. But it doesn’t matter what you call it. Whether it was written with quill pen, Remington typewriter or MacBook Pro, a key requirement of the person composing it has always been the ability to render incisive judgment, with style and wit. So my spirits were lifted to the skies when a friend directed me to Mr Fletcher’s blog. Perhaps it’s a little post-modern in style for, say, the great Palmerston or Bevin. And how will future diplo-bloggers reconcile going public with the necessary candour? But, hey, who cares? The Valedictory Despatch is dead! Long live the Valedictory Despatch!
Sir Christopher Meyer is a former British Ambassador to the United States and Germany.
Photo: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images