BBC dispels 'chinless' image of Diplomatic Service: The former Foreign Office minister Tristan Garel-Jones describes being put under scrutiny for the TV documentary 'True Brits'
Saturday 30 April 1994
But perhaps I was guilty of falling victim to yet another stereotype - 'BBC: full of anti-establishment Commies, trouble-makers, certain to trivialise'.
When I was designated as one of the subjects of the six-part series, I was not overjoyed. Ministerial life is hectic enough without having a band of TV wallahs hanging around one the whole time. Was Douglas Hurd's famous judgement faltering?
Now that the chickens are coming home to roost (the first of the series was shown on BBC 2 on Thursday night), I think he may have been right. I confess that when I saw the first unedited version a wave of anxiety swept over me. Complaints from the anti-smoking lobby? Would the Foreign Secretary be inundated with formal protests from ambassadors offended by my disrespectful banter? General political incorrectness? What would my constituents think?
However, the purpose was never to promote an individual minister, ambassador or consul, but to try to give the public an insight into the people who make up the Foreign Office; what motivates them; what they actually do; and what they actually cost. It just might succeed in laying to rest the know-nothing sneers which have been heaped on the Foreign Office for too long.
Who decides? Ministers do. When I arrived at King Charles Street, the British Government was putting the final touches to winding down our presence in Latin America. I was determined to stop and reverse this process, so my private secretary pointed me in the direction of the planners - people paid to think the unthinkable, to question even the most sacred cows of our foreign policy. They took up the task with relish. A paper was produced within a few months; a submission went to the Secretary of State, who agreed with it. Resources were re-directed. Britain, I hope rightly, began to take this continent seriously again for the first time in nearly 100 years.
Some, perhaps all of my officials may have thought I was dotty, but the policy was carried out. My own feeling was that all those who had elected me in Watford, perhaps unwittingly, had prevailed.
The sheer thoroughness, I hope, comes across: Tim Hitchens, my private secretary, preparing meticulous minutes and telegrams, out of which emerges the famous 'line to take' - a line then vigorously pursued by every third secretary in every embassy across the globe.
About 60 per cent of the Foreign Office's effort is now devoted to selling British goods abroad. A few months ago, a company which I now advise was shortlisted for a contract on the other side of the world. Within a week, the chairman had received an unprompted letter from our ambassador, placing the embassy at the firm's disposal to support its bid to win that contract for Britain. A country with the second-largest investment portfolio outside its shores in the world, that exports more per capita than the Japanese, can surely make no better investment than to expand this great asset. I hope that, when people have seen the series, they will think the cost of the Diplomatic Service at pounds 832m a year (less than Virginia Bottomley spends in a week) is good value and that now, more than ever, is the time for modest expansion.
The Cold War, which dominated our lives for so long, has given way to what Professor Sir Michael Howard has described as 'a Chill Peace'. We should ask ourselves whether the training and the weapons that our armed forces need to face the new threats are the right ones. It must also mean that diplomacy and overseas aid - another soft target for the unthinking - become another tool in our armoury for the advancement of Britain's interests.
I was especially pleased about the title of the series - True Brits. It is the intelligent, outward-looking, unselfconcious patriotism of Foreign Office officials that struck me most. Not the kind of patriotism that is vainglorious or presumptious, but the patriotism that takes a quiet pride in the values and achievements of our country.
Fitzroy Maclean, a 'true Brit' of an earlier generation, in his marvellous book Eastern Approaches, described his life as a young secretary at the British Embassy in Paris before the War. 'There were those pin- striped suits from Schlote; those blue and white shirts from Beale and Inman . . . a brief walk under the trees in the Champs Elysees . . . Then the daily, not disagreeable task of drafting telegrams and dispatches, on thick, blue laid paper in a style and a handwriting which, I flattered myself, both discreetly reflected a classical education.'
Timothy Hitchens, the grandson of a carpenter from Plymouth and the son of an admiral, a fluent Japanese speaker who is now writing speeches for Douglas Hurd and about to be posted to Pakistan, may be a tiny bit less sartorial than Fitzroy Maclean, but he is no less a True Brit and so are all who sail with him.
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