'You don't mean to tell me,' said a Home civil servant, 'that you're going to say they don't live the life of Riley overseas? What's got into you? All their duty free?'
'Hah]' said one from the left. 'I always knew you had a soft spot for the Establishment. British diplomats are cynical, arrogant liars. Look at what's coming out of the Scott inquiry.'
'You think they're doing a good job in Europe?' asked one of my Irish compatriots. 'Now I realise you really have gone native.'
I cannot count the number of people who chortlingly repeated the oft-recycled joke about the Foreign Office being there to look after foreigners, or those who knitted their brows and said: 'Surely we don't really need diplomats any more what with fax machines / summits / the collapse of the Soviet Union.'
'The trouble with the Foreign Office,' sighed one of the more sophisticated critics, 'is that it believes all that rubbish about punching above our weight. It's time we realised we're a third-class nation, gave up our permanent seat on the Security Council, closed down most of our embassies and operated on the scale of the Dutch.'
Fortunately for my peace of mind, I had a handful of friends who spoke well of the Foreign Office and it was reassuring that they were the people who knew what they were talking about. Businessmen, foreign diplomats and the occasional unusually well-informed journalist agreed with my conclusion that our honest and effective diplomatic service is a priceless national asset under serious threat.
Mainly because of a combination of envy of perceived privilege and xenophobic resentment of those who are paid to understand foreigners, no country likes its diplomats. But rarely do they revile them as venomously as is common here. Yet the Foreign Office is recognised abroad as one of two best foreign services in the world - despite operating under handicaps that do not afflict its competitors.
Since the days of Cardinal Richelieu, the Quai d'Orsay has been primus inter pares in the French public service ('French Foreign Policy Rules: Au Quai?' is a famous piece of graffiti). Here, by contrast, the boss is the Treasury - tunnel-visioned, parochial and dominated by short-termism. French politicians raise few questions about the manner in which foreign policy is carried out: British MPs ask thousands of parliamentary questions which tie squads of officials to their desks producing elaborate briefs.
The Quai d'Orsay bins most letters from the public, while the Foreign Office responds to all of them within a tight time- scale and takes the Citizen's Charter deadly seriously. Most importantly, unlike their British counterparts, French Ministers do not question the need to pay what is necessary to maintain a first-class foreign service. At this time of global political upheaval, like the Germans and Italians, the French are expanding their diplomatic representation. The Foreign Office budget is being systematically cut. In Minsk our Ambassador and his wife (who deals part-time with consular and visa work) occupy one room in the 14-man German embassy.
The reason why Britain should be spending more, rather than less, on its foreign service is that it cannot afford not to: a trading nation has a vested interest in promoting a stable world, and an effective global presence is a tremendous help to exporters.
Critics of the performance of the United Nations forget that it is politicians who make policy; they might reflect on how much worse would be the present mess without the sheer competence and professionalism of British and French diplomats. Of their three permanent partners on the Security Council, China takes an interest only in what narrowly concerns itself, Russia is simply trying to survive, and the US suffers enormous vacillation and procrastination as a result of the tensions between the State Department and the National Security Agency.
Just as Sir David Hannay is recognised in New York as the most able Permanent Representative on the Security Council, Sir John Kerr is universally acknowledged in Brussels to be the outstanding Permanent Representative to the European Union. He and his team valiantly struggle to carry out the frequently unreasonable and contradictory instructions that come from home. What committed Europeans find frustrating is that the Rolls-Royce machine of the British foreign service is mainly employed to block rather than further policies - but they blame the Conservative Party, not the diplomats.
The increasing demands on the Foreign Office over the past few years, coupled with relentless financial cuts, have stretched the institution close to breaking point. Many of the staff are grossly overworked: in New York when I visited the UN mission last year, even quite junior desk officers were routinely putting in a 15-hour day.
Abroad there are compensations in the form of conditions and allowances: at home, diplomats are both over-worked and poorly paid. They put up with it because the Foreign Office has managed so far to maintain its esprit de corps (a by-product of its remarkable teamwork), because its people are for the most part industrious and fascinated by their work, and because they have a dedication to serving their country. The BBC producer who came up with the title for the television series, True Brits, did so because he, like me, was struck by the rather touching patriotism of the diplomatic service.
One of the interesting ironies to emerge from my time investigating this group of intelligent and decent people was to find that spending their lives talking up Britain abroad makes them even more unpopular at home. In our present mood of national self-disparagement, a patriot is at best a joke.
Ruth Dudley Edwards's 'True Brits' is published today by BBC Books at pounds 16.99. It accompanies a six-part television series of the same name, which starts tonight on BBC 2 at 9.30pm.
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