19 October 2009

Farewell(,) diplomacy

This centuries-old tradition survived in the Foreign Office through countless changes of government, upheaval and wars - before coming to an abrupt end under Labour in 2006.

An outgoing British ambassador had absolute freedom to write whatever they wished in their final telegram home: about the post they were leaving, about the governments they had served, about the Diplomatic Service itself. Diplomats finally had an opportunity to be indiscreet, without fear of reprisal, and many seized it with both hands.

They knew that whatever they chose to say - serious foreign policy advice, funny anecdote, or bitter tirade - it would find the widest audience.

The tradition was that valedictory despatches would be widely circulated, with hundreds of copies printed and avidly read across government. Lord Moran wrote his final telegram from Canada in 1984:

"One does not encounter here the ferocious competition of talent that takes place in the United Kingdom. Canadians still seek wider opportunities elsewhere. Anyone who is even moderately good at what they do - in literature, the theatre, skiing or whatever - tends to become a national figure, and anyone who stands out at all from the crowd tends to be praised to the skies and given the Order of Canada at once"

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