On the fringes with Elizabeth Stewart

The post with the most

With the grand transition well under way, we ask London’s diplomats to give a their views on diplomatic life in the capital. Elizabeth Stewart reports

Rating London
Asked to rank London on a scale of zero to ten, the majority of respondents (44%) gave London a glowing nine out of ten. In fact, a small but very enthusiastic minority (12.5%) even gave the capital a perfect ten.

Some diplomats (31%) were more measured, giving the capital an above average seven or eight out of a possible ten. Only a few (10%) were clearly miserable in the city, giving the capital a below-par score of five or less.

Why do you love London?
Living in the world’s most multicultural capital is the biggest bonus for London’s diplomats. When asked to name what aspect they liked most about the capital, nearly 70% said they enjoyed the city’s multiculturalism.

A fifth of diplomats also said they enjoyed the freedom of living in an open society and tolerant society.

What Diplomats like most about London?
Cultural life 53.1%
London’s parks 62.5%
Being in a diplomatic hub 43.8%
Being in a multicultural centre 68.8%
Being in an open society21.9%
British pomp and ceremony 19.4%

Two-thirds listed London’s parks as one of their favourite things about London life, even more than the 53% who said they enjoyed the capital’s cultural riches. Meanwhile 44% said working in a diplomatic hub – the biggest bilateral capital in the world – was the most rewarding aspect of their posting.

And they just can’t get enough of pomp and ceremony: a fifth listed British traditions as an aspect that sets London apart from other postings.

One football-mad diplomat even listed the Premier League as the best thing about being posted to the UK.

And what do you dislike?
It’s no surprise that the aspect diplomats complain most about is how expensive the capital is. An overwhelming majority (87%) said London’s exorbitant cost of living was a constant struggle, especially since the exchange rate is rarely in a diplomat’s favour.

Compounding the spiralling cost of living is the FCO’s relatively narrow interpretation of privileges and immunities.

Nearly two in five said lack of diplomatic immunities made their lives harder, from VIP lounge price hikes, to requiring diplomats to pay VAT for most things and, of course, the unpopular congestion charge.

On the subject of the charge, the city’s traffic ranked high in the diplomatic list of bêtes noires. More than a quarter of diplomats listed transport issues as a problem, from traffic jams to speed traps and insufficient parking.

The weather also makes one fifth of diplomats glum, 16% find living conditions cramped and 13% feel insecure due to crime or the terrorist threat.

But CCTVs are not the solution to making people safe, for one diplomat, at least, who said it was unsettling living in a ‘Big Brother’ society.

What do diplomats dislike most?
Crime/insecurity 12.9%
Cost of living 87%
Unfriendly locals 3.2%
Lack of space 16.1%
Weather 21.9%
Transport 25.8%

Getting the job done
When it comes to their professional lives, most diplomats (63%) said it was easy to operate as a diplomat in the city.

The remaining third that found it hard getting the job done said the lack of privileges was an impediment to their work.

Almost 30% said getting access to British officials or organisations was a headache and ignorance of ones country by the British media was a frustration for almost one fifth of envoys.

The FCO could also do more to support diplomats in London, with 16% saying lack of assistance had made it more difficult to get the job done. In particular, diplomats said they needed help understanding the finer points of protocol.

And then, for many small missions, it is the sheer volume of work in such a busy diplomatic capital, as one diplomat commented: “There is a huge variety of tasks – the UK is a demanding posting in terms of active UK policies and involvement worldwide.”

Was it easy or difficult carrying out your diplomatic tasks?
Difficulty getting the job done
Lack of access to officials 29%
Ignorance by the media 18.8%
Ignorance by officials 12.5%
Lack of privileges 37.5%
Lack of support by FCO 16.1%

Family affairs
A happy family makes for a happy posting. Three quarters of diplomatic families found settling in either very easy or fairly easy, but there are nevertheless a few hurdles to overcome.

Finding affordable accommodation was difficult for over 45% of respondents. Banking and personal finance are also frustrating. As one diplomat put it: “Banking services are very restricted, limited and expensive.”

Finding a good school for the children was a struggle for one quarter of diplomats. Lastly, 10% of respondents said their family struggled to make friends because there were no facilities to meet people and to socialise.

How easy was it for your family to settle in?
Very easy 16.1%
Fairly easy 58.1%
Not easy 12.9%
Difficult 0%
N/A 9.7%

Difficulties for families
Finding a school 25.8%
Finding accommodation 45.2%
Arranging finance 41.9%
Isolation 9.7%

On your hols
Many of you will have just been on your summer break, or are about to head off somewhere nice – and judging by the survey, two-thirds will be exploring the British countryside and staying in that British staple – the B&B.

Topping the list of the most popular destinations is Scotland, particularly Edinburgh and the Highlands.

The Lake District comes a close second, with Cornwall and Wales tied in third as places diplomats most like to visit.

Will you miss London?
Clearly diplomats are not tired of London or of life. A resounding 97% of diplomats answered they would miss life in the capital – in spite of grumbles over the weather, traffic or the cost of living.

They will miss the capital’s culture most – and three quarters said they’d miss the famous British sense of humour. Being such an intense diplomatic hub, envoys also make good friends whom they will miss.

But there are things they won’t miss: more than half will be glad to see the back of the unreliable British weather. About half will not miss British stodge and just under half of respondents will not miss waking up to the headlines of the British media, although quite a few (34%) did admit a begrudging respect for the institution.

Diplomats were divided over the British way of life – 34% said they wouldn’t miss the long hours work culture and famous British reserve; but 32% said they liked the way Brits did things.

Advice to newcomers
One diplomat encourages colleagues to explore far and wide – from this Island’s myriad regional accents to its distinctive regional cuisines. Another came up with perhaps the most succint, yet appropriate advice of all: get involved.