The current BBC Radio 4 series “Parting Shots” which recounts the practice by British Ambassadors and High Commissioners of sending a valedictory despatch on completion of their posting overseas has raised a few eyebrows around Africa and beyond. Traditionally outgoing ambassadors had complete freedom to write whatever they wished in their final despatch home – about the post they were leaving, about the governments they had served and about the Diplomatic Service itself. Such reports were not for media or public consumption but they were usually circulated widely around the corridors of power in Whitehall and to posts overseas. But thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, the BBC has managed to obtain some of these often highly colourful reports and the broadcasting of them has ruffled a few feathers.
Sir David Hunt, the outgoing British High Commissioner in Nigeria, wrote in his valedictory despatch in 1969:
“Africans as a whole are not only not averse to cutting off their nose to spite their face, they regard such an operation as a triumph of cosmetic surgery.”
Sir Michael Weir, the outgoing ambassador in Egypt, wrote in 1985:
“I have not met any other Arabs who are capable of laughing at their own foibles; in Egypt making irreverent jokes about authority is a national sport.”
During my many years in the British Diplomatic Service I always looked forward to reading my colleagues’ valedictory despatches. They were invariably well written and often quite witty and thought provoking.
Roger Pinsent, the outgoing ambassador in Nicaragua, wrote in 1967:
“The approaches to the towns are squalid to a degree that shocks the visitor from Europe. On arrival we unwittingly caused offence by inquiring the name of the first village we passed through. It turned out to be the capital city, Managua.”
While Lord Moran, the High Commissioner to Canada, wrote on his departure from Ottawa in 1969:
“One does not encounter here the ferocious competition of talent that takes place in the United Kingdom….anyone who is even moderately good at whatever they do – in literature, the theatre, skiing or whatever- tends to become a national figure.”
For those ambassadors and high commissioners heading for retirement, they would often use their valedictories to fire a parting shot at our masters back in London, without the fear of a reprimand or threat of demotion or an unwanted posting. In my own case I criticised the burdensome bureaucracy imposed by the Foreign Office on small remote hard working posts and the attempts to micro manage them from thousands of miles away without any real appreciation of the difficulties faced on the ground. For example, at the start of this century all British diplomatic posts overseas were instructed to stand by their machines at one minute past midnight into the new year to ensure that “the millennium bug” had not paralysed our computers. I pointed out that as I was serving in a war-torn country without electricity, running water, working telephones, adequate medical facilities and limited food stocks, this did not seem to be a priority locally and therefore I did not see the point of disrupting our new year celebrations!
Those extracts quoted above, such as Sir David Hunt’s, are somewhat out of context with the usual flavour of these reports. Generally I found most of my colleagues, especially in Africa, not only wrote frankly and knowledgeably but also warmly and sympathetically about the countries in which they were serving. I certainly much admired the resilience and fortitude of the Ethiopians, the Ugandans and the Sierra Leoneans with whom I lived in the face of so many appalling tragedies. Indeed I questioned whether the average person in Britain would be prepared to sacrifice as much as the average Sierra Leonean for the cause of democracy?
Sadly the practice of sending valedictory despatches was stopped by the Labour government in 2006. Too many of them were being leaked to the media and thereby causing the government too much embarrassment. The final straw came in the leaked despatch of Sir Ivor Roberts, the outgoing ambassador in Rome, in which he said:
“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 all about.” How right he is!
The writer, Peter Penfold is a member of our Editorial Board and a former British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone (1997-2000)