Hunting for new ambassadors

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Hunting for new ambassadors

Richard Heller discusses the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt’s intention to offer ambassadorships to business leaders as well as career diplomats.

American Presidents have been doing this for years as a reward for financial and other campaign support. Their London embassy is a special prize: the United Kingdom is a friendly (some might say vassal) state which speaks more or less the same language and shares more or less the same culture and values. If there is any need for diplomacy, it can usually be handled by the Counsellor (a senior career diplomat). The ambassador does not need to do much more than throwing a big party on the Fourth of July in the residence in London’s Regent’s Park. This does not apply (I add hastily) to His current Excellency Robert Woods Johnson, a peerless diplomat, the Metternich to Emperor Donald.

In general, the Republicans are more blatant at selling ambassadorships, but Democrats also hand them out as favours. Bill Clinton rewarded his patron Pamela Harrington with the Paris embassy, and earlier Harry Truman made the Democrat social lioness Pearl Mesta ambassador to Luxembourg, inspiring one of Ethel Merman’s best roles in the Irving Berlin musical Call Me Madam.

 

But I digress.

There is an obvious logical flaw in Jeremy’s Hunt’s proposal. Our country does not have a super-abundance of business talent. If business leaders are any good, they should stay running their businesses, and if they are nothing special they should not be used to give an image of British business overseas.

However, if they are total duds, an ambassadorship would be a dignified way of easing them out of their business before they run it deeper into the sands. Perhaps this is part of a covert plan by the government to revive the British economy.

I wonder if Jeremy Hunt has considered the possibility of employing writers, artists and composers in our missions overseas. They could rapidly create a following for our country. By definition, they are creators and innovators – exactly the image we want to promote for ourselves overseas.

Other countries have quite a tradition of writers as diplomats: the Americans had Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving and the French even more, including Stendhal, Chateaubriand, Paul Claudel, Jean Giraudoux, and Romain Gary. At one point, the French foreign service was actually run by the Nobel Prize-winning poet St John Perse, under his true name of Alexis Leger, although admittedly this was during the 1930s when French diplomacy was at a low ebb.

Writers, artists and musicians are mercurial people and Jeremy Hunt might be nervous about appointing them to a major embassy. However, many career diplomats are the same way. A staid Premier, Clem Attlee, appointed a florid eccentric to our Washington embassy – Sir Archibald Clark-Kerr – at a time when we were begging for American support. The Americans still came through with NATO and the Marshall Plan.

There are many sovereign states which have to share a British ambassador, sometimes with seven or eight others. They have a right to feel insulted.

We could easily send them a writer, artist or composer as a unique ambassador.

The salary (modest, certainly for the writers, who work for peanuts these days) and embassy expenses could be funded jointly with the Department of Culture. The government could take a commission on any work the ambassador produced while in post. Indeed, Jeremy Hunt should expect and demand such work. He has no need of tedious despatches from any of these places. Instead, the ambassador could send him a series of wondrous pictures or sculptures inspired by the locality, or the rum-drenched score of a locally-inspired symphony or the equally drenched manuscript of the defining novel of the 21st century.

I have offered to pilot this scheme for Jeremy Hunt in the accented archipelagic Republic of São Tomé e Príncipe, the most beautiful country which no one knows about. It consists mainly of spectacular tropical beaches varied by virgin rainforest, punctuated with towns, villages and even hamlets decorated with vibrantly coloured public art. It is a democracy in which seven political parties vied for an electorate of around 100,000 in the recent legislative elections. It would obviously be my duty on behalf of Her Brittanic Majesty’s Government to offer refreshment to each of the seven.

By the way, it is not too late for the government to appoint Official Brexit Artists. Why stop at a 50p coin (who knows what that will buy after Brexit, anyway?) The government could commission heroic public sculptures, murals and friezes of Mrs May Bestowing The Gifts Of Semi-Independence Upon A Grateful Nation.

Wake up, the Culture Secretary (the other one called Jeremy)!

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  • Richard Heller
    Richard Heller
    Richard Heller is an author and journalist. He was chief of staff to Denis Healey and to Gerald Kaufman. His latest book is White On Green celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket.
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