Daily archives: May 29, 2023

Missing the Soprano 131

I had the chance to catch up over a few drinks with an old friend just retired from the diplomatic service. I guess I too would have been doing that around now, had I not stumbled upon extraordinary rendition and torture and quixotically attempted to stop it.

My friend wished to impress upon me how much less fun the job is now than when we were young. That is certainly true in many ways.

Even before I retired, the job had become much more about form-filling and accounting than it had about actually doing anything useful. Diplomats were becoming ever more confined to their circle of diplomatic premises and luxury hotels, and less and less connected to the country in which they were posted.

My friend’s complaint was somewhat different.

He said that there was now a real sense of diplomatic isolation. Being British Ambassador had always carried enormous prestige within the diplomatic corps. The weight of imperial history multiplied the effect of representing what is still one of the world’s largest economies, bolstered by the prestige of originating the language of international communication.

A few weeks before my friend’s retirement, the Italian Ambassador had hosted a soiree for a visiting minor opera star, who there trilled some Verdi. This is the trivia of diplomatic exchange, fostered by national cultural institutes.

My friend, as British Ambassador, had not been invited to the soprano soiree.

Now I know that sounds ridiculous to anybody outside the peculiar world of diplomacy. But to two former Ambassadors having a natter, the very notion conveyed a world of meaning. The UK is no longer one of the inner circle. Even the Italians snub us.

This is of course, in part, a product of Brexit. Indeed, had the UK still been in the EU, he would automatically have got an invite along with all the other EU Ambassadors.

But that is not the whole explanation, because the Italian invited several non-EU Ambassadors.

The UK’s fall from diplomatic grace matters, not least because Scottish Independence is going to have to be achieved in the teeth of Westminster opposition.

There is only one determinant of Independence and it has nothing to do with legality in domestic legislation of the state you are leaving.

The only thing that makes you an independent state, is recognition by other independent states.

There simply is no other criterion that makes the slightest difference.

And the UK is hated. Lots of countries would like to see it broken up.

The EU hate the UK because of Brexit. It sends an excellent message from their point of view, that the cost of leaving the EU is dissolution.

The developing world hate the UK because the Tories have absolutely slashed the development aid budget and perverted it to other uses. They hate the UK because of the history of colonial exploitation and slavery which is only now becoming fully acknowledged.

The international institutions hate the UK because of its rogue state decisions: the invasion of Iraq, and the refusal to obey the UN and the International Court of Justice by decolonising the Chagos Islands, being only two.

Even the United States is not the dependable supporter of the UK it once was, with Joe Biden’s political background in Irish American politics a key factor.

My friend despaired that the UK’s reaction to this isolation was a series of increasingly wild moves to try to gain relevance.

The UK was out in front in declaring China a threat and an enemy, which FCO professionals view as neither justified nor of obvious benefit. The UK is indulging in peculiar, and almost entirely unprovoked, military threat towards China with its declared US/UK/Australian alliance and extraordinary reorientation of UK defence strategy to the Pacific.

As if the UK has any ability whatsoever to constrain China’s growing world pre-eminence.

On Ukraine, too, the UK sought to be noticed, by trying to be the most “out there” country in promoting the war, wanting to be the always the first to push the next weapons escalation, with depleted uranium shells, with long range missiles, with battle tanks.

It all amounted to a policy of shouting “Me, me, me” loudest, with zero substance behind it.

My friend had another gin and tonic. He was glad he was retiring. He would have liked to see the soprano.


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