On the fringes with Elizabeth Stewart, editor
What a drag…
So what does happen behind the fortress gates of the US Embassy, you ask? A lot, especially in that basement pub of theirs, the Regal Eagle… I was titillated when an invitation popped in my inbox to attend what was intriguingly named, a ‘Cabaret Night’.
Now, this was a diplomatic party with a difference. Local staff from embassies across London shimmied with US embassy staff adorned with feather boas, while the self-styled Drag Performer Extraordinaire ‘Miss’ Tiffany Wells belted out Liza Minnelli show-stoppers. Oh, the stuffed shirts may call it an abomination – but for those who partied until the marines had to throw them out, it was the Obama-nation at its best.
What do charming British Ambassadors really think of your country? Broadcaster Matthew Parris has delved into FCO files to read their ‘Valedictory Despatches’, the final – very frank – telegrams of departing Ambassadors.
These undiplomatic ‘parting shots’, made under the cover of confidentiality, are likely to offend half the diplomatic corps, but they also give a telling insight into the culture of the FCO in the distant – and not so distant – past.
And I am sure there is many a diplomat who, at their third cocktail party in one evening, has some secret sympathy with the views of the late Sir David Gore Booth, former High Commissioner to India, who said in his final despatch: “Whoever it was who suggested an international treaty banning National Day receptions should be canonized.”
But it all came to an end with the leaking to the press of former British Ambassador to Rome, Sir Ivor Roberts’s searing critique of the management culture at the FCO, when he asked: “Can it be that in wading through the plethora of business plans, capability reviews, skills audits, zero-based reviews and other excrescences of the management age, we have indeed forgotten what diplomacy is about?”
That struck a nerve and the tradition was banned. Or perhaps in the Freedom-of-Information age, such candour is just too risky?
Parting Shots is broadcast on Tuesdays at 09.30 on Radio 4