Wednesday 23 November 2016

Perhaps we should stop pretending

It’s a long-standing tradition in the UK that diplomats are career civil servants, and that ambassadors are appointed from within the civil service.  The argument is that they are politically neutral, and represent the government of the day of whatever colour.  (Although some would argue that this is part of the reason why UK foreign policy changes little when governments change, whatever the ministers may wish.  ‘Real’ policy is controlled by that ‘neutral’ civil service.)  The United States, on the other hand, has a long tradition under which ambassadors are political appointments; when the government changes, the voice of that government abroad also changes.
I can see merit in both approaches; it’s not as simple as saying that one is right and the other wrong.  What I don’t see much merit in, though, is for governments to appoint as their voice overseas people who agree with, and will kow-tow to, the government of the country in which they work, which seems to be what Trump has in mind.  Can anyone imagine his response if the UK Government were to suggest that Hillary Clinton would be quite a good appointment as US ambassador to the UK?
Having said that, if the UK were to move to a political basis for appointments, then it’s clear that we have recently had a change of government, and some of the policy changes between Cameron and May look to be more significant than they would have been if Miliband had been elected last year.  It seems to me that we have what looks increasingly like a UKIP government in all but name – get out of the EU at any price, clamp down on immigration, reintroduce grammar schools, say whatever is thought might be popular, and make up policy on the hoof, just for starters – so perhaps a UKIP ambassador to the US doesn’t really look as silly as many might think.  Farage is probably closer to the views of the current government than any civil servant would be - it’s just that people pretend he isn’t.


glynbeddau said...

In journalist 1961 Jay married Margaret Callaghan, the daughter of Labour politician James Callaghan. In 1977, when his father-in-law had become Prime Minister, Jay was appointed to the important post of Ambassador to the United States by the Foreign Secretary, his friend David Owen. As Jay was just 40 years old, was not a diplomat and had never held any public office, the appointment caused some controversy and accusations of nepotism.

So its been done by the UK

John Dixon said...

Thanks for drawing my attention to this exception to the norm.

glynbeddau said...

That's Peter Jay of course.

Democritus said...

But Jay was Callaghan's / Britain's pick, not Jimmy Carter's and given the economic crisis and IMF Loan negotiations were the primary object was eminently well qualified - albeit not in the diplomatic service.
Theresa May presumably takes the same official view as Queen Elizabeth that 'my dogs wear only my collars'. If she were to make a political appointment to Washington it would have to be a Tory or someone well out of frontline British politics.
There are a few other examples - most recently Tony Blair's appointment of Paul Boateng as High Commissioner to South Africa. Further back Churchill posted Halifax to Washington and Hoare to Madrid throughout the war (partly to get rid of them from the cabinet), followed by his old pal Duff Cooper to Paris in 1944 (Bevin kept him on to everybody's surprise). Dickie Mountbatten was no more a professional diplomat than he was a professional soldier - but was made CinC Southeast Asia by Churchill and our last Viceroy / 1st High Commissioner in Delhi under Attlee for .
As air travel allows world leaders to meet each other in person nowadays so the most important discussions are handled directly and the role of ambassador has declined everywhere. If Boris Johnson can make headway with the new team in foggy bottom and the west wing that will be a coup that goes a considerable distance to offsetting the offence he's clearly causing in continental capitals - pity he publicly renounced his US citizenship over a dispute about parking fines, but c'est la Boris ...