Page last updated at 16:16 GMT, Friday, 16 October 2009 17:16 UK

Ambassadors going out with a bang

By Andrew Bryson
Producer, BBC Radio 4's Parting Shots

Foreign Office
The tone of diplomatic despatches has changed over the years

What killed the British ambassador's valedictory despatch?

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.

Perhaps the remarkable thing was that it lasted so long.

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.

Roger Pinsent's missive from Nicaragua is a classic example.

There is, I fear, no question but that the average Nicaraguan is one of the most dishonest, unreliable, violent and alcoholic of the Latin Americans

Roger Pinsent, Managua, 1967

Especially candid were final valedictories, written by ambassadors quitting their last posting before retirement.

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

Lord Moran, Ottawa, 1984

The problem was that with the advent of email, confidentiality became harder to keep.

"I was worried at the time of the growing tendency of these valedictories to leak," admits Sir Peter Ricketts, Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and head of the Diplomatic Service.

"They were doing real damage to the confidence and trust that has to exist between ministers and officials.

"That's a two-way thing: confidence on the part of officials that if they send frank and hard-hitting and objective advice ministers will take that seriously and welcome it, and trust on the part of ministers that if that advice is sent, it stays confidential.

"And I felt that that trust was breaking down."

The final straw was a 2006 valedictory from Sir Ivor Roberts, the outgoing British ambassador to Italy.

It was fitting that his parting shot, the last of the genre, should also be a classic.

He told of a Foreign Office under siege by management consultants, efficiency drives and Wall Street business-speak mumbo-jumbo.

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?

Sir Ivor Roberts, Rome, 2006

Hours after this telegram was sent, ambassadors received word from Whitehall that the practise of distributing valedictories widely around the service was to be discontinued.

"That seemed to me a shame" Sir Ivor says.

"It seemed to me that the accumulated wisdom of someone who has served for almost 40 years, in my case, in diplomacy ought to be shared as widely as possible, and not limited to a handful of people in London who might or might not have a particular axe to grind in burying that criticism or those reflections if they were felt to be politically inconvenient."

Reading Sir David Gore-Booth's 1999 despatch from India, the likely embarrassment within the Foreign Office can only be imagined.

One of the great failures of the Diplomatic Service has been its inability to cast off its image as bowler hatted, pin striped and chinless with a fondness for champagne… Indeed cocktail parties are death as I am sure 99% of diplomatic service colleagues would agree. Whoever it was who suggested an international treaty banning National Day receptions should be canonized

Sir David Gore-Booth, Delhi, 1999

Perhaps the valedictory despatch did indeed fall victim, in an age of media management, to an overriding need to bury criticism.

The risk was clear. When Roberts' valedictory did eventually leak to the newspapers, the headlines inevitably focussed on his criticisms.

Would despatches have survived the Freedom of Information era?

Other hard-hitting valedictories remained confidential - until now.

Sir Andrew Green retired from the Diplomatic Service in 2000, after the unveiling of the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's ethical foreign policy.

In a wide-ranging and highly personal despatch, Sir Andrew attacked the assumption that the British were in any position to preach.

The bulk of the Saudi population reject many of our concepts on both religious and social grounds. They are aware of the rate of divorce, abortion, fatherless children, drug abuse and crime in Western societies and do not accept that we can give them lessons in how to organize a society. But even more important to them, they see us as a Godless society. The fact is the West's secular approach to life is deeply offensive to many here

Sir Andrew Green, Riyadh, 2000

Many serving diplomats had serious reservations over the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Dame Glynne-Evans, who worked for years in multilateral diplomacy at the EU and UN before becoming an ambassador, wrote from Portugal in 2004.

The more we stand by principle the better. Expediency does not pay. Departing from international humanitarian law even just a little bit is like being just a little bit pregnant… The Americans may hate our legalism but that is not to say they are right and we are wrong. I believe we need to fight back, and hard, for our principles. We should not be "gentlemen" any more, but warriors - and Amazons

Dame Glynne-Evans, Lisbon, 2004

Labour ministers may have been right to fear leaks given the content of these modern parting shots, but at least their blushes were spared the excesses of some earlier despatches.

Ambassadors' telegrams in the 1960s and 1970s could contain some rather old-fashioned views - and foreigners were often the butt of the jokes.

Take as an example, this from Sir Anthony Rumbold, ambassador to Thailand, in 1967.

One would have to be very insensitive or puritanical to take the view that the Thais had nothing to offer. It is true that they have no literature, no painting and only a very odd kind of music, that their sculpture, their ceramics and their dancing are borrowed from others and that their architecture is monotonous and their interior decoration hideous. Nobody can deny that gambling and golf are the chief pleasures of the rich and that licentiousness is the main pleasure of them all

Sir Anthony Rumbold, Bangkok, 1967

You would be unlikely to find such views expressed in the modern Foreign Office.

Political correctness too has played its part in killing off the valedictory despatch, by watering down the language that made them so unusual.

Nicaragua is a land of contrasts. The approaches to the towns are squalid to a degree that shocks the visitor from Europe. On arrival we unwittingly caused some offence by enquiring the name of the first village we passed through on leaving the airport, which turned out to be the capital city of Managua

Roger Pinsent, Managua, 1967

The institution was struck another mortal blow by the Freedom of Information Act.

The legislation gives the public permission to read a vast range of official documents - including Foreign Office files.

Diplomats used to bask behind a wall of confidentiality. Now they operate in the knowledge that their frankest report or email is just one Freedom of Information request away from being public property.

Some fear this modern spirit of openness could have unintended consequences.

They say it is possible that Freedom of Information could harm the quality of advice that civil servants give to ministers in documents like despatches. It is certainly likely to make them less entertaining.

Parting Shots is on BBC Radio 4 at 0930 on Tuesday mornings beginning on 20 October. The extracts in this article are edited highlights from the original despatches, many of which can be read in full on the programme website.

Print Sponsor


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific