Mary Dejevsky: Britain's role is shrinking on the diplomatic stage

At international gatherings, the absence of senior UK figures is conspicuous
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The Independent Online

British contenders came away disappointed from the Baftas. The England football team will watch Euro 2008 from the sidelines. But it is not only at the glitzier end of international life that the British have been relegated. Cast an eye over the holders of key international jobs, hang around at an international conference or two, and you could be forgiven for wondering where the Brits have gone.

There was a time, long after the sun had set on the Empire, when the British still strutted the world stage. If they had the grace not actually to monopolise the very topmost jobs, they commanded respect as the policy-makers, drafters and negotiators who helped the world go round. They could be apposite and witty at the same time, and they knew how to get things done. Even a decade ago, Britons seemed to pop up all over the place in influential positions, keeping the country truly on the global map.

It is hard to date the beginning, or the end, of our retreat, but the return of Mark Malloch Brown, then Deputy Secretary General, from the United Nations to join Gordon Brown's "government of all the talents" might be seen as a moment when we pulled up one of the last drawbridges linking us to the outside world. Similarly, the retirement of Sir John, now Lord, Kerr, after serving as Secretary General of the Convention drafting the European Constitutional Treaty.

But the absence of senior Britons from international gatherings is becoming conspicuous. At the Munich security conference last weekend – perhaps Europe's premier defence gathering – it was noted that this was the first time in 40-plus years that no Briton spoke from the platform. What was that about our diplomacy "punching above its weight"?

There may be a host of reasons why Britons are putting themselves about less abroad. The proliferation of international talking-shops is surely one. A-list dignitaries can be choosy. The World Economic Forum in Davos, held at the height of the winter sports season, has a particular cachet. Americans, with their paucity of paid holidays, are expert at combining work and pleasure. Some of the most exclusive get-togethers go to great lengths to keep themselves out of the news. Perhaps it is with this super-elite that the British are hiding?

A more prosaic explanation could be social change. In today's British Cabinet an unusual number of senior ministers have young children. Now that dual-income couples and shared parenting are the norm – more so in Britain than in many other countries – perhaps working weekends are being sacrificed to "quality time" at home.

Such factors should not be underestimated. But they can be only part of the explanation. For it is not just in the regular talking shops that Britons are fewer and further between. They are also less in evidence in the upper echelons of international organisations, such as the UN and Nato.

Most striking, though, is the ascendancy of the French. The European Central Bank, the European bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund are all headed by members of the French technocratic elite. Britons are nowhere to be found at the apex of these organisations, which have at least as much clout as the more hidebound diplomatic and security groupings.

Of course, there is some irony, and perhaps satisfaction, to be found in the coincidence of the British retreat with the rise of English – in its many forms – as the global language. Russians and Chinese – yes, and even the French – know that to convey a global message, they will be more persuasive in English. And you could argue that – also thanks to globalisation – Britain's lower international visibility does not matter. In a world with English as the universal means of communication, a world linked by the internet and mobile phones, does the nationality of international civil servants and conference speakers really matter?

An idealist or an optimist might answer No. After all, are we not all citizens of one world? Yet all governments worth their tax revenue believe that, for the time being at least, it does matter. They see competition between countries to attract the best entrepreneurs, the best managers and the highest earners. They see competition to notch up the best educational standards and give the next generation an advantage in the global market. National placings in all manner of league tables are keenly studied.

This is why it matters that no Briton is even deputy head of a major international institution and no Briton speaks from the platform at an international forum. It shows an aloofness, and perhaps a diffidence, presaging a future in which we British will punch well below our weight.