My latest piece for DIPLOMAT (now in groovy online format) looks at Consular work. Thus:

The world is a big place, replete with unexpected problems. Tsunamis, earthquakes, avalanches, terrorist or criminal attacks, robberies, lost passports, aircraft/train/car accidents, sex-traps, arrests, illness, poisonous spiders, unrest at football matches, kidnappings, coups d’état, drug-smuggling, aircraft hijackings, alcohol, lots more alcohol, far too much alcohol. And so on.

Lots of people on foreign travel find themselves caught up in these or many other problems. Sometimes they themselves have created their particular problem, either deliberately or carelessly or by sheer stupidity. Nonetheless, people usually have the ingenuity or insurance policy to sort things out and return home, poorer but wiser.

Those who don’t or can’t sort themselves out ask friends or relatives to help. If that doesn’t work, demand that the government ‘do something’. That something is called diplomatic consular work.

Some official help is available overnight. Call the FCO at an unholy hour and someone will be on hand to deal with any footling question you may pose:

Decades ago I was part of the then Foreign Office Resident Clerk group, intrepid First Secretaries perched overnight high above St James’s Park tasked with answering calls from anyone on the planet with enough tenacity to find the FCO’s telephone number and then dial it …

When I joined the team in 1985, FCO Residents Clerks would do their normal diplomatic work during the day then stroll up to the Clerkery and its faded wallpaper for their rostered nocturnal responsibility. There was only one rule, borne of bitter experience: NEVER LEAVE THE CLERKERY.

Long before mobile phones were invented, the telephones had scarcely rung throughout one hot August bank holiday weekend. The senior Resident Clerk was bored witless and repaired to a nearby hostelry, leaving a junior colleague to mind the shop.

Imagine his surprise on returning a few hours later to find the junior Clerk besieged by frantic phone-calls between Buckingham Palace, Number 10 and Ireland. A consular case of horrendous dimensions: the IRA had murdered Lord Mountbatten.

So, question. What can or will or may the FCO do to help Brits in difficulties in stronds afar remote?

The UK public broadly grasp what the British Government can and can’t (and shouldn’t and won’t) do if you do get into trouble, as per three guiding principles

  • Astounding as it may seem, foreign rules may be different from UK rules. If the locals have (say) the death penalty for drug smuggling, it’s wise not to smuggle drugs into that country
  • Other countries are unimpressed when UK diplomats politely opine that local justice procedures might, perhaps, just maybe not meet current best human rights practice: “In our country we do what we damn well please. Oh, and we saw on BBC World all those miscarriages of so-called British justice”
  • There are strict limits on what the Foreign Office will do to help a UK citizen in foreign difficulties. The FCO website uses bold font:

There is no legal right to consular assistance. All assistance provided is at our discretion.

It follows that while distraught relatives may be clamouring for the FCO to ‘do more’, it really can be counter-productive for the hapless citizen concerned overseas if the Embassy team in that country strive too officiously to help.

This is an important operational point. The more the luckless traveller’s family whip up a storm of MPs and media moaning about the FCO ‘doing nothing’, the scope for the FCO on the spot in fact doing something quietly to help may be much reduced.

That said, even when the Embassy is fully engaged and at the highest level, things can still go awry. Anyway here old enough to remember this one?

In 1979 during an ex-patriates’ party in Jeddah, British nurse Helen Smith and a Dutch sailor fell to their death from a balcony in circumstances suggesting that intimate activities had been taking place. Helen’s father was a retired police officer and launched his own investigation. The case dragged on sensationally for years.

At one point long pages of autopsy reports written by an Indian doctor in halting medical Arabic had to be translated into English. The Ambassador himself as one of the UK’s most distinguished living Arab language experts took on this sensitive task personally, and sent the translated text back to London.

It transpired that even the Ambassador had not spotted that a page had been inadvertently left out. SHOCK FOREIGN OFFICE/SAUDI COVER-UP!

The Embassy junior consular officer called to the scene on the night of the deaths was absurdly accused by UK magazine Private Eye of masterminding this evil conspiracy: he sued for libel (with little support from the FCO) and won substantial damages.


In today’s ‘globalised world’ and all the new uncertainties created by the COVID19 epidemic, two things are clear.

First, that citizens everywhere demand that their governments act fast and well and say all the right things when consular problems arise.

Second, that the media will ignore hundreds if not thousands of good, efficient consular cases run by diplomats, and instead focus on the one or two cases where something may or may not have gone wrong.

#FakeNews sells.