Leading Article: Let's be fair to our man over there

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The Independent Online
THE FOREIGN Office has just published a fresh version of its pamphlet The European Community: Facts and Fairytales. Here is a hitherto unpublished guide to The Foreign Office: Myths and Realities.

British diplomats are stuffy and pompous. This is partly because they all went to public schools and Oxbridge colleges. Unkind and only partly true: ambassadors too often develop inflated ideas of their importance, but lower down the pecking order more accurate self-assessments are not unusual. As to educational background, in the past three years between 66 and 78 per cent of fast- stream entrants came from independent schools. A similar proportion went to Oxbridge colleges, which cream off the talent from state as well as private schools.

They live in fancy houses and spend most of their time at cocktail parties. Some embassy residences are certainly splendid, notably those in Paris, Washington, Delhi and Tehran. But they are reckoned effective in raising Britain's prestige. As to entertainment, cocktail and dinner parties are good for making and developing contacts.

They tend to go native and see the foreigner's point of view. A favourite Thatcher accusation, and in many ways true. But it comes with the job: advising Whitehall of the policies and reactions of foreign governments is a large slice of a diplomat's task abroad. The tendency is especially marked in those who have mastered difficult languages: hence the 'pre-emptive cringe' of Sinologists towards Peking. Contrast the inability of most domestic politicians to see any point of view other than their own.

They're a bunch of Arabists and hate Israel. Given that there are 21 Arab states and only one Israel, Arabists are bound to be numerous. Consider also Britain's long involvement with the Arab world and the T E Lawrence factor.

They're no good at commercial representation. Not for lack of training. Effective commercial officers introduce incoming businessmen to key political and business contacts. They are backed up by permanent local staff. Surveys show high satisfaction rates.

They're redundant in this age of rapid communications. The cruellest myth of all. A good diplomat remains a valuable tool in many ways. But money spent on the less competent could arguably be better used by the BBC's World Service and the British Council.