Diplomacy as a front-line service

When we think of front-line services protecting and serving the British public, we rarely think of diplomats. But that is what they often are, scattered across over 120 countries, often in small embassies of just 1 or 2 UK staff, albeit supported by hardworking locals. From these far flung offices, British influence is still projected with far more impact than many imagine in support of our safety and prosperity back here in the UK, and indeed around the world. Much of this work takes place with little of the glamour or fanfare you might expect from popular depictions of diplomats riding in limousines to champagne receptions. Quite the reverse. Our new report on the impact of long term funding constraints on the Foreign Office reveals a department of committed but increasingly over stretched professionals struggling to meet the sky high expectations we place on them. Events around Kim Darroch’s resignation are a good illustration of this. In both the leaking of the internal reports, and some of the reaction to the fallout, including President Trump’s comments, influential people in the UK have demonstrated a casual disregard for the value and importance of diplomacy whilst at the same time taking for granted the global profile and access British diplomacy provides them.

How has this come about? Our report for the first time trawls back through government spending data, combined with in-depth interviews with experts and former diplomats. It reveals a department that for decades has been maintaining a façade of grandeur and even detachment from the rest of Whitehall, whilst behind the scenes trimming wafer thin budgets and digging ever deeper into long nurtured reserves of capital, influence and good will. Pay and conditions have failed to keep up with other departments, and additional demands expected of staff who are overwhelmingly committed to helping their country.

Its not all bad news. The UK as a whole retains unique assets and capabilities from which we derive considerable influence and benefit far beyond that of most if not all of our closest peers. And the Foreign Office is now so lean that the additional funding required to restore and enhance the UK’s diplomatic front line is not necessarily much.  Despite newspaper headlines to the contrary, the FCO as a whole is highly motivated to seize the opportunities and minimise the risks emerging for the UK as we leave the EU. Recent discussions with over 50 heads of mission with business occurred as part of ‘Leadership week’, when most UK Ambassadors & High Commissioners from around the UK come back to London annually for conferences and workshops. These discussions underscored the energy with which most diplomats are motivated to maximise our national influence and relationships in a changing world, and the real opportunities they see for us.  Yet as we prepare to leave the European Union and embrace a new and very different global role, our report finds we are under-equipped to seize these opportunities, or even in some cases maintain the capabilities we have assumed in the past. Perhaps most worryingly in the words of former head of the FCO Sir Simon Fraser, the report finds that whilst the UK appears to have used membership of the European Union as a ‘crutch’ to arrest declining influence, our German & French counterparts have used their membership as a ‘springboard’ and now threaten to surpass the UK in their global reach in some critical regions.


Diplomacy cannot and need not compete with the like of health or education for scarce taxpayers’ money. However we all need to recognise that diplomats, in their own way, are often as much front line staff as teachers or doctors in ensuring British citizens remain able to focus on our domestic concerns secure in the knowledge that the growing storm of international events around our small islands is being understood and influenced in our favour.  Diplomacy, short of violence, is the best tool we have to secure the friends and deter the foes we need to navigate such a world. Against the backdrop of the ongoing political uncertainty we face here at home as well as abroad,  investing just a little more in this under recognised front line service for the UK seems a good deal right now.

That includes valuing and respecting the role of diplomats themselves. The worrying spectacle of senior politicians failing to demonstrate support for Kim Darroch does a disservice not only to our political culture, but to the values the UK depends upon for its influence, prosperity and security. It is to be hoped that once the dust settles from the leadership campaign settles, a strong signal of support from the winner will be sent to the effect that these little recognised front line workers are both valued and respected in providing a unique and often highly challenging service on behalf of all of us across the UK.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Tom Cargill

Tom Cargill is Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group. He has worked in various roles in the public, private and NGO sectors, including at the charity for children in care Believe, as well as 10 years at Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) followed by 4 years at the engineering, procurement and construction multinational Bechtel. He is the author of numerous reports, chapters and articles on international and foreign policy issues.