Picking up the theme of the previous posting, I might add that after the St Albans School prize giving this week a smart young pupil asked me for a couple of lessons learned from my diplomatic career.
Gulp. Where to start?
I offered only this one.
Back in Belgrade in 1981/82 the Ambassador was Sir Edwin Bolland, who died last year. He was a small, wiry man from a Yorkshire working-class mining family who had a lot of sympathy for socialist principles.
He loved poring over communist newspapers and analysing all the dreary tripe in them. At our Embassy morning meetings he would sniff the Yugoslav papers Borba and Politika and say that they just did not smell like real communist newspapers from the USSR such as Pravda and Izvestia.
Anyway, one day he decided to draft a long Despatch about a passing Congress of Yugoslav Socialist Self-Managers, an absurd event at which people from all over the country had a few days off work to come to Belgrade to drink coffee and listen to meaningless ideological Yugo-communist pseudo-pep-talks. So in due course a long, turgid draft text emerged from his office, which was approved by the other senior Embassy officials. It then came to me for a final look.
The procedural point was that this was exactly the wrong way round.The junior Political Officer should have hammered out a first draft which would be cleared onwards and upwards through the Embassy, gaining polish and wisdom as it went, until the Ambassador himself loftily added some final insights and sent it to London.
I was summoned to the Ambassador’s office to give my views on this tract. I went in.
“I have shown this to you last”, said Sir Edwin, “because you are the only person in this Embassy who can write. Now, what do you think of it?”
I was lost for words. So I said nothing. It was a boring and unnecessary piece of work.
“I know what you’re thinking!” he said. “You think it’s pedestrian!”
“Well, as a matter of fact I do think that“, I said.
“Let me tell you something. You are also the only person in the Embassy who says what you really think. The others (gesturing down the corridor to his senior colleagues) are all Yes-men! Never give that up.”
That was the story I gave to the St Albans schoolboy.
And, in trying to strike the right professional balance between being right, being convincing and being effective in my FCO career for the following 25 years or so, I tried never to lose sight of Sir Edwin’s core advice.
Honesty is the best policy.