Leading article: Excellent ambassadors

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William Hague has riled diplomats by suggesting that they take courses in "excellence" that will enable them, among other things, to drive harder bargains and secure greater commercial advantages for the country. A disciple of Adam Smith, the Foreign Secretary is known to believe that more than anything else, trade will determine Britain's future ranking in the world.

Diplomats of the old school must be turning in their grave. All-round gifted amateurism, not excellence, was once the defining feature of the successful diplomat, along with possession of fine features, a public school education, a charming wife and an ability to play cards and tennis.

Diplomats' lives back then were often far from arduous. In 1852, the British ambassador to France, Lord Cowley, complained that none of his attachés could be got out bed before noon. Maurice Baring's memoir of embassy life in Paris, published in 1922, contained a memorable description of an ink fight that engaged the junior diplomats for an entire day until "all the inkpots of the Chancery were emptied. We were drenched with ink, red and black, but still more so was the Chancery carpet." Such fun, but clearly not the kind of excellence that Mr Hague is seeking – or that Britain requires – in future.

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