Trump cables or not, British diplomacy shouldn’t retreat to era of the gentleman’s club


In the storm stirred up by Donald Trump’s hissy fit about the British ambassador in Washington’s act of lese majeste, it’s extraordinary to hear erudite commentators suggest that British diplomacy should retreat to the era of the gentleman’s club.

They argue that British diplomats should reject the speed and ease of communication available in the digital age and be intensely suspicious of emails. More to the point, they should restrict their cabled opinions back to their home capitals to complex ones, not those found in the press. Was Sir Kim Darroch, the UK envoy in Washington, really saying anything very profound in describing the Trump administration as “inept” in his private messages to the Foreign Office?

The focus on Sir Kim’s opinions, the words he used to express them and the manner of despatch back to London is a distraction from the real issue.

Most diplomats – British, American or of any other country – are routinely meant to check out stories that are written about in newspapers. Diplomats are paid to evaluate the situation they find in the country to which they’re assigned and to interact with people of all sorts in order to construct an accurate picture of political, social, economic and cultural trends. Diplomats are meant to grade opinions according to reliability and so on. Finally, they are meant to offer a considered take on what they find to their own government.

As for the internet making it impossible to keep anything secret, the US State Department for instance, uses sophisticated encryption systems. Classified cables in their hundreds are sent everyday by overseas posts to Washington, D.C.

The real issue in the current row is not Sir Kim’s opinions and the fact he used email. It is the startling revelation of such deep divisions within the British government that national interest is being sacrificed for base political motives.

It’s clear there are factions at work within the British government now and that these are working against the national interest and only in pursuit of their own narrow goals. The Leave and Remain camps are trying to out-do each other and nothing – not even the private communications from British diplomats – are off-limits.

What it reminds me of is something every Indian schoolchild learns in history class. That the East India Company took advantage of divisions within princely states in India to gain dominance and ultimately establish Company Raj.