Getting Our Way, By Christopher Meyer

Meagre rations from the diplomatic bag
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Sir Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador in Washington and more recently head of the Press Complaints Commission, is what was called in my wife's school a "notice box" and, in my school, "rather full of himself." Nothing wrong with that.

It puts him in good company along with Andy Marr, Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, David Starkey and the other talking heads whose loquacity on the screen has made them into minor celebrities - and brought them the prestige of a BBC documentary series. The presenter expounds a theme with an air of urgency while standing in front of some monument to the past; cut to archive material and interviews, and on to the next location. And then, of course, there's a book.

In Meyer's case the three-part series is not due for airing until next year. The theme, however, is clear enough. It is the importance of the diplomat in British history, acting as honest broker between the national interest of the state he serves and the country in which he has been sent. He must represent the former and understand the latter.

The British have always been thought rather good at it, perhaps because the upper middle classes from which the service has traditionally been drawn have produced a particular type, educated enough to be curious but self-confident enough to be dispassionate. Not always to the liking of their political masters, many of whom have shared Mrs Thatcher's belief that too many ambassador's have "gone native" in their eagerness to empathise.

Meyer fits the stereotype, being both charming and clever with a somewhat de haut en bas (patronising is the word many would use) approach towards his employers and any he thinks less bright than himself. It made for a good account of his years as ambassador to Washington in the Blair-Bush years, full of gossip and caustic asides, even if it offended his seniors in the service.

Perhaps in expiation of his sins, Meyer makes this book – and presumably the series – into a panegyric for the role and virtues of the old-fashioned diplomat. Not for him all the contemporary concepts of global networks subsuming state-to-state dealing, the diminution of the diplomat in favour of issue-centred negotiations (finance, climate change, security) in which the expert is king, let alone the concentration of authority in the hands of Number Ten or the creation of a foreign minister for the whole EU. He hates the Department for International Development, mainly because it has a budget several times the size of the Foreign Office, and seems to dismiss the consular side of the embassies' role as a distraction - not a view of those needy travellers abroad who actually pay the ambassador's salary.

Instead we have a very conventional, dull indeed, account of Britain's pursuit of the three central objectives of foreign policy: "security", "prosperity" and "values." Skipping lightly over the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Macartney's mission to China in 1793 , and Ottoman-Russian conflict in 1876, he ends each section with a recent example of the Foreign Office's cunning and guile: the Nassau summit of Kennedy and Macmillan, the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese, and the Bosnian crisis.

It is, to be blunt, pretty shallow stuff. The historical background is at schoolboy level. Recent episodes have little fresh anecdote or novel insight. Disappointingly from the author of DC Confidential, there is little revelation. The one thing this work is not is its subtitle: "the inside story of British diplomacy".

If Meyer's argument is that the good diplomat makes all the difference, his contemporary case studies rather suggest the opposite. It was Macmillan who made the Nassau summit work and got the agreement on Polaris, not Sir David Ormsby-Gore, our man in Washington; Chris Patten made great play of Hong Kong democracy as Governor but the measures he introduced were soon overturned once the Chinese took over; while the Bosnian crisis was an illustration of the pusillanimity of the British diplomatic approach. It was belated US action that changed the game.

There is a good book to be written about Britain's place in the world, how it can be developed, and whether diplomacy as we have understood it in the past is viable in the future. This is not that book. One can only hope the TV series comes soon, for the publication is too slight to stand on its own.