Stubborn Stereotypes

Seeing Lord John Marbury, the ridiculous parody of a British Ambassador, at No 18 in a survey of West Wing characters (http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2014/09/a-definitive-ranking-of-every-character-on-the-west-wing/380098/) reminded me that there are four stereotypes of diplomats that have proved hard to dislodge. 

First, Francis Ferrero. 73 calories of chocolate covered hazelnut in a gold wrapper has dogged a generation of British diplomats: “why Ambassador, with these Ferrero Rocher you really are spoiling us”. “I bet you hear that all the time”, we are told, as it is repeated again. “Yes”, we respond through gritted teeth, wondering about the aggressive potential of a small, dark, nut-crusted chocolate. 

Many ambassadors may have a secret desire to be the suave hosts of the cocktail party captured in the advert. Just occasionally a diplomatic reception might come close. But it is very rare indeed. With diplomatic services under significant resource pressure, we tend to be more Prosecco and Pringles than champagne and canapés. I’ve written more on this here (https://nakeddiplomat.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/farewell-ferrero-rocher/).

A second stereotype is Sebastian Smug, the aristocratic amateur. Think of the diplomats in ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, self-styled decent chaps, exclusively male and pale. They glide between diplomatic encounters, never without a withering put down, independent of political control and occasionally in the national dress of whichever country they are serving in. Lawrence of Arabia with fewer principles. Most are insufferably pompous and grand. While retaining a sense of his own superiority, Smug has decided that foreigners are far more interesting than Brits.

This stereotype is not new. The story goes that a Whitehall policeman was asked in 1939 for directions to the Foreign Office. “Which side is the Foreign Office on?”. He responded, “I don’t know sir, but they claim to have been on our side in the last war”. A number of world leaders have commented that the trouble with their foreign ministries is that they believe that their role is to represent foreigners.

A third stereotype of literary folklore is Archibald Assassin. After all, doesn’t the British national anthem talk of the need to ”confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks”? The unscrupulous Lord John falls into this category, as do any number of louche but despicable diplomats in John Le Carre’s novels. This is a stereotype that persists in parts of the Middle East, most notably Iran.

Those who see a dastardly British hand behind every twist and turn must often be disappointed. If we were half that cunning, we would still be running the world.

A fourth stereotype is Hapless Henry, the well meaning chump who tends to arrive after the key decision has been taken, and invariably lets down any fellow countryman needing help. He is frequently drunk, usually inept and sometimes inappropriate. PG Wodehouse captured this character very effectively. Rowan Atkinson played him as Nigel Smith-Fawcett in the Bond pastiche ‘Never Say Never Again’.  More recently, he was brilliantly portrayed by David Mitchell in BBC series “Ambassadors” – dishevelled, tired, only just about holding it together, trying to do his best but overwhelmed by his job, indeed by the modern world.

The reality of course is that these stereotypes have been replaced by very different types of diplomats. Our ambassador in Yemen, Jane Marriot (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-politics/11046299/British-female-diplomat-in-Yemen-Jane-Marriot-writes-on-life-in-a-conflict-zone.html) is just one example. Of the British diplomats in Beirut, there have been periods when I have been the only white man. 

We’re junking the diplomatic baggage (https://nakeddiplomat.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/diplomatic-baggage/). You are far more likely to meet a Foreign Office Director dashing to reach the nursery on time as sipping a sherry in his elegant club. Ferrero, Smug, Assassin and Hapless are increasingly weeded out by recruitment and promotion procedures. Diplomats are becoming more representative of the populations from which they are drawn.

That’s probably less amusing, but a good thing for diplomacy.

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