The leak of the supposedly droll FCO email suggesting ‘far-fetched’ ideas for the programme of the Pope’s State Visit to the UK has prompted a flurry of comment.

Yesterday I had an exchange with an FCO colleague to ask who was responsible for the email and was told that the people concerned ‘did not deserve to have their names in the newspapers’.

Why? Is that not exactly what they ‘deserve’, pour encourager les autres?

And lo, it has happened. The guilty party is named by the Telegraph as Steven Mulvain:

Mr Mulvain, who was educated at the £9,279-a-year King’s School, Tynemouth, before studying English at Balliol College, Oxford, taught at a summer school in northern Germany in 2006, where he said in a podcast that his hobbies included “drinking a lot and reading more or less what I want”.

The commentariat sally forth.

Catherine Pepinster of the Tablet at the Independent:

… while the Prime Minister might welcome the Pope, lower down the Foreign Office pecking order there is a cultural contempt for Catholicism in this country. For the Foreign Office briefing was not down to one clownish junior: around six middle ranking officials were involved.

In politically correct Britain, people are normally careful not to offend – and rightly so. Yet being offensive about the Pope is OK. Catholics are the minority that it it acceptable to treat as whipping boys.

Sometimes this cultural contempt emerges from the shadows – a contempt you’ll never see allowed to be shown to a chief rabbi or a grand mufti.

On the other side, two former diplomats try to put a wry smile on the whole business.

First, Tim Collard (‘an active member of the Labour Party’) in the Telegraph tries to spin it all away:

Predictably, the usual suspects have blown it up into an international incident. I regret to say that our blogmeister Damian Thompson has made himself look a bit of a Charlie, heading his posting “The Foreign Office’s sick attack on the Pope: what did you expect?” No, the FCO is not institutionally secularist, Satanist or whatever: it just contains a lot of people who like taking the mickey. Chuck it, Thompson!

And Sir Tony Brenton, previously HM Ambassador in Moscow and no stranger to controversy himself, has a chuckle:

Nothing new. There is a long and splendid tradition of Foreign Office humour. This is unsurprising in an institution full of bright and (at least when they start) irreverent young people, rigorously constrained in what they can do and say publicly, and in constant contact with those most marvellous subjects for satire and mockery — senior politicians.

Tony correctly recalls another infamous leak:

Some stories do leak — such as the 2005 memorandum of our Ambassador in Poland, Charles Crawford, who suggested that Tony Blair, concerned about attacks from the “scary new teenage” Tory Opposition, should start a forthcoming EU negotiation by putting a “large naff children’s alarm clock” on the table to make it clear that time was running out on the egregious Common Agricultural Policy (the “most stupid immoral state-subsidised policy in human history, give or take communism”) …

The underground river of humour does much to feed the creativity and resilience of an institution that operates in an atmosphere of constant constraint and stress. When it surfaces — as in the Crawford and Pope’s visit cases — it does no long-term damage and indeed probably does more to bring home to those with whom we are dealing the reality of British society and policy than any number of official statements. And it reminds us that even the FCO is staffed by human beings.

I disagree with the underlying argument.

The examples of FCO humour (real enough) given in these articles show people mocking policies or being self-deprecating about our own people or institutions.

It is quite another thing to write a memo sneering in a sustained way at a particular person invited to the UK at the highest level of protocol we can offer.

So there is a legitimate question here. What is happening within the FCO’s culture that a senior new entrant diplomat, recruited from thousands of top graduates, is unable to grasp elementary good sense, professional responsibility and respect?

To show, in short, a startling lack of Judgement?

The answer is, in fact, simple. Labour astonishingly have removed Judgement as a ‘competence’ on which FCO people’s performance is measured!

As previously described – emphasis added:

Promotion in the FCO as in much of the real world turns these days on ‘competences’ – those qualities the organisation in question looks for in its people at each level and especially the higher levels.

In the FCO as elsewhere Competences change according to fashion and latest management theory. Thus in my own very final appraisal of 2007/08 I was assessed on:

  • Leadership
  • Getting the best from staff
  • Delivering results
  • Strategic thinking
  • Personal impact
  • Learning and development 

There used (as recently as 2002) to be a longer and better list covering such issues as Adaptability and Creativity, Communication (Written and Oral), Relating to Others and above all Analysis and Judgement.

And the greatest of these is Analysis and Judgement. (Memo to next government: bring that back on Day One.)


Because in foreign policy things are complicated. Long-term v short-term. Big v Small. Certainty v uncertainty. Principle v Politics v Practical v Possible.

Thus in a democracy what Ministers need is a team of skilled people able to help them steer through these operational and philosophical complexities for a few years.

People who simplify complexity but in a subtle, nuanced way. Who are good at bringing people of rival opinions together and explaining convincingly what might best be done. People who can juggle numerous balls but keep their eye on the Big Picture. People of unerring accuracy.

And ‘Judgement’ is the word for all that. Without Judgement a civil servant (like a Minister) is fairly useless.

So the point is that this sort of crass behaviour did not arise incidentally or through a fleeting engorging of poor Steven Mulvain’s post-adolescent imagination lobes.

It took place in a professional context deliberately engineered by New Labour in which professional standards – and the very idea of standards – are ‘relativised’. Where FCO new entrants are harangued about Climate Change and Outreach to Islam but not taught the basic professional values.

One in which Judgement is cast aside in favour of Delivering Results and Personal Impact.

The problem, see, is that if you emulate Mr Mulvain and Deliver Results and achieve Personal Impact without Judgement, you can screw up on a vast scale.

Memo to Next Government:  

Haul me quickly back to the FCO to sort all this out.

A dirty job, but someone has to do it.