|Relations between the BRA and the new British Ambassador, David Moran, got off to a flying start on 29 January when he received Nigel Coombs, BRA Chairman, and Max Bishop, the BRA Council Member now responsible for relations with the British Embassy in Berne. The Ambassador listened carefully to what was said and was very open to establishing and maintaining good links with the resident British community. He also had a good understanding of how the BRA can help foster good relations with our Swiss host community.
Even with the best of intentions, the Ambassador is labouring under severe time and money constraints. The first round of cuts implemented by the Coalition government has led to substantial staff reductions and he fears that there are even more severe cuts to come. As a result, UK-based staff numbers have been cut to the bare minimum and most people working in the Embassy are locally engaged staff.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) no longer posts Third Secretaries (the entry grade in an FCO career) abroad. They all stay in London and can only be posted abroad on promotion to Second Secretary. This means that young diplomats can no longer absorb the diplomatic trade by observing their elders in post in foreign lands. So they have to do a “diplomacy course” in London to try and teach them how to act before they are let loose abroad – of course at a more senior level than would have been the case previously.
An embassy like Switzerland now has to share some functions with embassies in neighbouring countries. So, for example, the British Defence Attaché for Switzerland is based in Vienna and also looks after Austria and Slovakia.
The role of diplomats these days is heavily biased towards trade and commerce. Ministers see the Diplomatic Service essentially as a tool for improving the success of “UK plc”. Second-order functions are: the promotion of an international framework for trade and commerce based on the rule of law; the promotion of human rights, respect for the environment and similar ethical principles; and consular activities (passports, visas, aid for British nationals travelling abroad etc.). In other words, today’s diplomats have little time left for simply cultivating friendly or at least cordial relations with the host country – it seems that what counts most is the “bottom line”. This is evident in the culture of league tables and constant evaluation of performance. Ambassadors are rated in comparison with others on how well they manage their budgets. Just like the “waiting-list” league tables in the NHS, consular and other services are permanently monitored to make sure they are as efficient as possible. As we all know, an emphasis on efficiency of delivery can sometimes translate into deterioration in the service offered to the public. However, the Ambassador was firmly of the view that many of the recent changes have been beneficial.
As the BRA representatives, we explained issues that might concern Britons resident in Switzerland, for example how independence for Scotland or British withdrawal from the European Union might affect us. The Ambassador noted that voting rights were withdrawn from British citizens after 15 years’ residence abroad, leaving people who could be severely affected by such decisions disenfranchised. Mr Moran said he hoped to attend future BRA events (having already attended the Winter Lunch in Berne on 25 January), notably of course Queen’s Birthday Parties, and looked forward to meeting as many BRA members as possible. Finally, he very kindly agreed to accept the traditional post of BRA Patron. For those of you who saw David Mitchell’s recent portrayal on BBC TV of a British Ambassador in a Central Asian country, you’ll be interested to know that the model for this portrayal was none other than our new Ambassador. He won’t be offered so much vodka in his new post but he will certainly serve our interests well. (See their web page)