So long, Mr Ambassador

Click to follow
OUTSIDE Winfield House, the elegant home of United States ambassadors in Regent's Park, north London, two removal lorries are standing. Inside, a trio of boisterous dogs are weaving back and forth, clearly confused, aware that something is wrong. Finally, after months of speculation, Ray Seitz, one of the most popular and influential post-war ambassadors to the Court of St James, is leaving the job and quitting the American foreign service.

The parties and farewell speeches galore cannot quite erase a sense of melancholy. Mr Seitz, the first career diplomat to have this job, was appointed ambassador in 1991, but has spent a total of 13 years in London, on and off, since the mid-Seventies. His friends think he has been shabbily treated by the Clinton administration, though he is far too diplomatic to discuss his feelings. Leading British politicians from all parties would have much preferred to see him stay on.

He is, certainly, a shrewd and experienced observer of British life. He was close to the heart of the British-American relationship from the heyday of Thatcherism, knows more members of the British establishment than most members of the British establishment do, and throws a mean party. But he is also, in private, a pretty direct commentator and I used the chance of his last interview as ambassador to get him talking frankly about the current mood of political malaise.

He recognised that mood, all right, speaking of 'a sort of fin de siecle mentality around, that nothing works, that no one's got answers, and that the institutions that were meant to provide the answers and which promised the answers haven't delivered.' That was a tougher problem for the Europeans than for Americans: the sense of choice was much less here, and the centralism of the state was much greater.

Mr Seitz argued strongly that European reliance on the state meant that the failure of the old promises of endless growth and security was a much more serious problem here than back home. The global market threatened the Old World's prized welfare statist social cohesion. Half the unemployed Europeans had been without a job for more than a year; in the United States the figure was just 4 per cent. For every private-sector job Europe had created in the past decade, two had been created in the public sector. But in America, for every one job in the public sector there had been four or five private-sector jobs. 'The question of whether you can have the resources for the state to be adequately generous may no longer be in one's national control,' he said.

Mr Seitz clearly saw the failures of statism as being a key to our depression in Britain. When he first left this country in 1979, 'fond though I was of the place, I was also struck by the fact that it was very hard to find a Brit who had anything good to say about the place. It was very hangdog.' When he came back in 1984, this had changed. There was more optimism, more self-confidence. Though he was not endorsing Thatcherism, she had been a 'refreshing blast' after the 'late Seventies nervous breakdown'. And now? A small smile. 'Some of the things I observed in the late Seventies have come back.'

Why? Swing of the pendulum? Post-Cold War tristesse? A bit of that. It was also about Britain's place in the world. The European question was looming more starkly as other options, whether post-imperial or Cold War Atlanticist, dropped away. 'Britain is, I think, going to have a hard time getting a fix on its future.'

But he came back repeatedly to the philosophical problems caused by the role of the state in Britain. Lighting a politically incorrect cigarette, the ambassador argued that the United States escaped some of the political malaise by being far less enthusiastic about state provision in the first place.

'There is this wonderful phrase in America, which is that the best government is the least government.' His wife, Caroline's, home town, Union, South Carolina, was reliant on textiles. On the main street, every second store was empty and it was said to be the only town in the US where a McDonald's had closed. 'But if you are there, Washington DC is on the other side of the moon.'

If they wanted a school building or a hospital, Americans did not blame the government, they raised a bond issue or campaigned for higher local taxes to get one. 'For all the problems, America has an incredible resilience and seems less susceptible to getting dragged down . . . the sun also rises.'

Having said all that, Mr Seitz is no starry optimist about America's world role. When we were discussing the North American Free Trade Agreement battle, he said, revealingly: 'It was on that issue that I had the sense that the President had finally become presidential . . . he decided what he believed was right . . .' Did that suggest Mr Seitz agreed with those who thought President Clinton's foreign policy had not been exactly triumphant? Another guarded smile and a pause. 'I think many observers agree that it has not been the strong suit.'

Mr Seitz has good reason to be rueful. He had a rough time over the Gerry Adams visa row, during which diplomatic colleagues thought he had been badly let down by Washington after giving assurances to Downing Street. He has also been deeply distressed by the Bosnian debacle.

But he remains a professional diplomat for a few days yet and he quickly changed tack to give me an exhilarating tour d'horizon: 'We Americans have been around for a couple of hundred years. The first 150 or so were almost wholly isolationist - and delightfully so.'

Europeans, he noted, wrinkled their noses at the word isolationist. 'Actually, if you were an American, it was really quite nice. . . . That was why most of us went there in the first place.'

The next period, from Pearl Harbour to the end of the Cold War, was 'exactly the reverse, there was no place in the world in which we did not see our interests involved or challenged. We went from isolationism to total global struggle.' So it was hardly surprising if there was some confusion now. 'It's like a big dance in a darkened room . . . Now and then I scratch my head and say, are we Americans up to it?'

Despite Mr Seitz's patriotic enthusiasm, he sees his country's faults clearly, too. And here comes the twist for depressive Brits to muse on: the ambassador, his family and dogs are not high-tailing it back to the United States. He has rented a house in this country and will, as he puts it, 'go subterranean' over the summer, catching up on films, reading, going for country walks. 'We don't want to foreclose anything here.'

The key problem is the beloved hounds and the horror of ever again having to subject them to British quarantine regulations. Or, as Mr Seitz puts it rather bleakly: 'Once we take our dogs off the island, we can't come back.'

So, for all Britain's gloomy statism, does it seem to have a certain magnetism after all? That produces a eulogy to the British talent for civility, for a sense of community and responsibility passed intact from one generation to another. I put it to the ambassador that this was rather a Merchant Ivory view of Britain. And I get a broad grin: 'Britain is our house in the country? Well, I suppose there is something to it. But it has an appeal and that's not something to be lightly tossed away.' Perhaps it won't be goodbye after all.

(Photograph omitted)