Mission statement: the importance of a fine British embassy

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

At first blush this looks like one of those run-of-the-mill coffee-table books published just for the Christmas market — expensively produced, replete with beautiful photographs, a text as undemanding as the tinkling notes of a cocktail-bar pianist, and the whole thing massively heavy. It is a beautiful — and heavy — book, with fine photographs by Luke White. But what distinguishes it is the skill and acuity with which James Stourton has written the commentary, making it a serious and engrossing work of history.

His text takes the form of an introductory essay on the changing nature of diplomacy over the centuries, a model of elegant concision, followed by the histories of 26 embassies and ambassadorial residences scattered around the globe. The architectural details are fascinating; and, in the descriptions of the heads of mission and the issues they had to face, you get a lively diplomatic history of Britain over the last 200 years, rich in anecdote.

The buildings are striking in their diversity. The final selection, he says, was between those ‘without which the book could not be written’ and those that were ‘desirable but which could be substituted if unavailable’.They are for the most part highly photogenic, rather opulent and acquired or built when Britain was an imperial power. The jewels in Stourton’s crown are Washington, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the 1920s, and Paris, purchased in 1814 by the Duke of Wellington from Princess Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s sister. But, to underline that not all diplomatic existence takes place in such gracious surroundings, he has included the Kabul embassy, as drab, utilitarian and dangerous a mission as you could hope to find.

Stourton quite rightly has no truck with those who argue, like an MP did with me in Washington, that in the modern age Britain would be more appropriately represented by ‘a large flat in Bethesda than the Lutyens house on Massachusetts Avenue’. An ambassador must always look outwards at the country where he or she represents the British interest, seeking to win friends and influence people at the highest levels of government, politics, culture, business and the media. A fine embassy, I soon found in Washington, is an indispensable tool of the trade or, in today’s parlance, of ‘soft power’.

A red tin roof and white shutters characterise the Residence in Addis AbabaA red tin roof and white shutters characterise the Residence in Addis Ababa

Sir Ronald Lindsay was the first ambassador to inhabit, in the summer of 1930, the new Lutyens embassy in Washington, lavishly photographed in Stourton’s book. (The portrait of Field Marshal Montgomery in the library was painted by General, later President, Eisenhower.) He did not enjoy the experience, lamenting in his diary:

Not a door has a fly screen… The house is already filled with flies, mosquitoes, moths and June bugs. Sleep is impossible… rats run about behind the wainscoating [sic] when they are not actually galloping through the ballroom…After a sleepless night, when I tried to leave my bedroom, I could not get out, as the door had jammed during the damp night.

Another star of this fine book is the ambassador’s residence in Russia, a 19th-century mansion facing the Kremlin across the Moscow river. In my day, which embraced two postings to Moscow in the Soviet era, most of the embassy offices were housed in the same building, so that the ambassador lived above the shop. Until, as Stourton recounts, Margaret Thatcher extracted security of tenure from Mikhail Gorbachev, we lived a somewhat precarious existence on annually renewed leases. This was a relic of Stalin’s wish to have us moved out of the mansion since, so the story went, it irritated him to look out of the window and see the Union Jack first thing in the morning.

The Soviet authorities made one last push to get us out in the 1980s. We told them that if they did that, we would do likewise to their embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens, in a fine example of the importance of reciprocity in any negotiation. Our team even walked out of the talks and, as they were waiting for their flight to London, the Russian team suddenly appeared in the VIP lounge and a deal was struck. David Davis, please note.

The white-and-gold room of the Moscow residence, again beautifully photographed in the book, is haunted by the ghost of a young officer of the Tsar’s army who, on receiving the news during an elegant soirée that his mistress had left him, shot himself on the spot.

Looking at the photographs, it is tempting to think how dated this kind of diplomacy has become. But when we leave the EU and reach out to the world beyond, we shall need these tools of the diplomatic trade as never before. The Foreign Office did well to help Stourton in the writing of his book.

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