Diplomacy: Just another day of sex and drugs at the Foreign Office

A famous building in Whitehall. On the pavement outside, a milling throng of youngsters and students. Inside, intriguing decor, the odd celebrity, driving music and and a copious array of drugs on open display. But, as Rupert Cornwell discovered, all was not as it seemed. This wasn't the hottest spot on the London club scene, but the cool new face of the venerable Foreign Office.
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From the moment he became Foreign Secretary in May, Robin Cook showed that he meant business. Within a fortnight he had produced a "mission statement", setting out the Foreign Office's role on the eve of a new millennium. Then came public hearings to launch a review of Britain's strategic security and defence requirements, outlines of a new "ethical foreign policy", followed by stricter guidelines for British arms exports.

But for sheer spectacle nothing matched yesterday's "Open Day", as 1,000 invited guests from around the country - sixth formers, school careers advisers and community groups - made some of Whitehall's most discreet and stately corridors their own.

They were not there for fun; nor was the preponderance of darker skins and female voices accidental. Mr Cook had a double purpose: to attract more women and ethnic minorities into the service, and show that the Foreign Office was free of its starchy past.

At times the juxtaposition of old and new was jarring. The setting was the splendid Durbar Court, encrusted with marble and mosaics, physical heart of the vanished India Office, and named after the durbar, or formal reception, held by maharajas or British governors to mark a great occasion of state. Yesterday, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office set out stalls promoting its thoroughly modern wares: immigration and human rights, export promotion, even its Internet site.

A few shrinking violets stayed away. But the presentable face of British foreign policy was out in force - from the European Union presidency specialists to the environment, science and energy department to the division for drugs and international crime. "Yes, it's all real," assured Clare Fallon, currently assigned to the department but hoping for a posting to the Caribbean, as she displayed a selection of seized illicit substances, cannabis resin, ecstasy pills, a bag of crack cocaine, and a tiny brick of diamorphine base used for heroin, displayed like dead butterflies in small black plastic boxes.

Next door, the ghosts of British India past - a Marquess Dalhousie, Governor General from 1848 and 1856, and a jewelled and sabred Eckbal-ud-Dowlah, unsuccessful pretender to the Oudh throne in the 1830s - gazed down as the hi-tech rites of the late 20th century unfolded before them.

Two live satellite video conferences had been laid on for the packed roomful of guests; the first with the High Commissioner and his staff in Singapore, the second with Ekaterinburg to mark the formal reopening of a British consulate in the west Siberian city after nearly 80 years. A remarkable occasion - so remarkable, indeed, that Mr Cook ventured some carefully practised words of Russian.

That done, the Foreign Secretary invited a fortunate few into his office, to make his point in person. "We need more women and minorities, and a Foreign Office that is really representative of modern Britain, in which merit is the only criterion," he said.

And the problem is real enough. Women account for only 35 per cent of Foreign Office's 6,000 staff, compared with a general Civil Service average of more than 50 per cent. At the most senior grades, the disparity is worse. Of Britain's 154 ambassadors and heads of mission, only nine are women. Ethnic minorities are even less in evidence, just 3.3 per cent of United Kingdom-based staff. Not one has made the rank of head of department or ambassador.

Were the setting Washington instead of London, the solution would be affirmative action, even the dreaded "Q-word", quotas. Britain vows it will not indulge in such gerrymandering. "What we want is more women and minorities applying, so that more stand a chance of selection," one official said. And some old barriers are crumbling. In 1997, for the first time, Oxbridge did not supply a majority at the "policy entry point", as the fast stream for high fliers is now known.

After three hours the Foreign Office's most extraordinary morning of modern times was over. "This is not a stuffy, hidebound place, full of men in pinstripe suits sitting as if with umbrellas up their spines," Mr Cook said in parting. "I hope we shook some of your stereotypes, and that some of you will apply to work here."

And some may, albeit for different reasons. "I really love the interiors" said one girl, as she surveyed the panelling and chandeliers of Mr Cook's own vast office. For Anthea Bright, a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Wembley, "the travel and the work abroad would be great".

Everyone seemed to have had a great time, not least the diplomats who threw the bash. Is the FO stuffy ? Not a bit of it.