Review: Inside the Foreign Office, Part 1

“More than fifty shades of diplomacy.”

So says Britain’s Ambassador talking about the nuances of international relations in a BBC documentary about the Foreign Office, the first part of which was shown last week.

It opens just after the 2017 election, with Boris addressing the assembled ranks in the Foreign Office. Typically, he talks about the fate of the Conservative Party in front of impartial civil servants.

He talked about wanting to go to Tehran – and we all know how his dealings with the Iranians ended up for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

The Permanent Secretary, Sir Simon MacDonald, talked about the nature of diplomacy, describing how 17th century ambassador Sir Henry Wootton “Am ambassador is an honest man sent aboard to ie for the benefit of his country.” MacDonald pointed out the triple entendre –  lying meant lazing about and sleeping around as well as not telling the truth. His modern take was that the art of diplomacy is “letting other people have your way”

Sir Simon talked about the changing status of UK – how we were the biggest, most important power before World War 1. It’s all changed since then.

We’re now in second group of countries not able to do much by themselves. So, clearly, it’s really sensible for us to be leaving an enormous collaboration of nations.

We then went to our UN mission in New York where aides were prepping Boris for talks with the Russians who had requested aid to rebuild Syria – which they have helped destroy. They discussed  various ways of how they could use that request to get rid of Assad and ensuing humanitarian access.

While relations between Russians and UK were at a low, Boris talked about how he got on well with his Russian opposite number. Is part of diplomacy really about getting on with people who break as many rules of proper behaviour as they can? The Permanent Secretary says that if you want to influence, you have to engage. And, apparently, a good grounding for this engagement is writing a 5000 word essay on Wonderwall, by Oasis, like our new Ambassador to Myanmar.

We get a great view of the Security Council room courtesy of two British diplomats using special access.  Senay, the Second Secretary talked of the feeling of achievement she feels when she’s written a motion that the Security Council agrees to. And that’s before she got to go in the lift with Amal Clooney.

And if the bilateral meetings are complex, the seating plans for events seem even more fraught with potential for upset. Does Ivanka Trump or the King of Jordan get closer to Theresa May at an event  on modern slavery?

Then the scene shifts to Ukraine where the Ambassador is taking her children to school. Her female partner’s career has had to accommodate moving around the world every 3 or 4 years. From that routine start to the day, she heads to the area of Eastern Ukraine where 10,000 Ukrainians have lost their lives in conflict with Russia.

In contrast with the meeting with the Russians at the UN, there is no problem with filming a meeting between the Ambassador and the Ukrainian Foreign Minister . There’s  a chilling shift of topic to the genocide of the Rohinga Muslims in Myanmar.  A combination of public dressing down and private back channels tries to call a halt to the violence. Ditching a phrase about the killings being a threat to international peace and security was crucial to getting the Burmese to turn up to an “informal working lunch” where Boris would ty and get them to agree to ending the violence and allowing humanitarian access. It is so weird to see them talking serious stuff like this over a typical posh British lunch.

There are another two episodes in this series about a fascinating part of the British establishment.

Interested? You can watch the programme here.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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