Karachi: Loyalty is a 19th-century construct. In the 20th century, it was replaced by discretion, and most recently by disclosure.
Politicians (more so their aides) can hardly wait for the ink to dry in their official inkwells before they scribble their memoirs and rush to the press. If television provides its audience with instant coverage of events, published memoirs serve as replays of contemporary history.
Most retirees rely upon their memory, some on official documents, others on letters to friends and family. A few — most notably Alistair Campbell (Tony Blair’s communications director) — have written their memoirs while still in office. He accumulated a cache of two million words. Later, he published a selection titled The Blair Years (2007), and then had enough left over to fill three more volumes — Prelude to Power 1994-1997 (2010), Power and the People 1997-1999 (2011), and Power and Responsibility 1999-2001 (2012).
By contrast, diplomats are expected to be reticent. They are trained to be their country’s watchdogs, observant and obedient. That collar drops off on retirement. Freed of that constriction, many unburden themselves, not always exactly as their governments expect. Two books by former US ambassadors have revealing titles: Rogue Ambassador — An African Memoir by Smith Hempstone (Kenya, 1989–1993), and The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies That Put the White House on Trial and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity: A Diplomat’s Memoir by J.C. Wilson IV, (ambassador to Gabon, 1992-1995).
Their British counterparts prefer the cloak to the dagger. Sir Alan Munro (British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 1989-93), feeling that he had to exculpate his country’s conduct during the First Gulf War, gave his book the jingoistic title: Keep the Flag Flying: A Diplomatic Memoir (2013). His colleague Sir Christopher Meyer (British ambassador to the US, 1997-2003) gave his an American twist: DC Confidential (2005). That did not prevent it from attracting a thunderbolt from the then head of the Foreign Service Sir Michael Jay.
Writing to senior members of the foreign office, Jay cautioned: “Let me stress that we cannot serve ministers effectively unless they trust and confide in us, which they will only do if we respect that confidence, not just when we’re doing our jobs, but afterwards, too. If we don’t have ministers’ trust, they will not consult us, involve us or take our advice — and we will all lose, ministers, the (diplomatic) service, and the conduct of foreign policy, under no matter what administration.”
Of the 18 British ambassadors/high commissioners to Pakistan since 1947, only two have published their memoirs. Michael Jay’s admonition came too late for the first, and went unheeded by the second.
The first memoir — Pakistan Chronicle (1992) by Sir Morrice James (high commissioner, 1961-1966) — covers the period of the 1965 war with India. The most incendiary part of the book is a recollection of his meeting with a beleaguered President Ayub Khan as Pakistan’s Operation Gibraltar foundered ignominiously.
Addressing him “with complete frankness, discarding all diplomatic flannel”, Morrice James warned Ayub Khan that “if the Chinese would involve themselves there would be a risk of massive escalation. It might well involve the superpowers and lead to a nuclear confrontation with incalculable consequences for the peace of the world.” Scanning Ayub Khan’s “grim” face, James wondered whether he had perhaps gone too far.
In such situations, diplomats rely on Benjamin Franklin’s timeless advice that the attributes of a diplomat are “sleepless tact, unmovable calmness, and a patience that no folly, no provocation, no blunders may shake”.
No provocation, no blunders shake the second set of memoirs. Sir Nicholas Barrington (ambassador 1987-89, high commissioner 1989-94) has just published Envoy: A Diplomatic Journey (2014), which covers his 37-year career. Sir Nicholas saw (and remembered) the foibles of princes and the follies of politicians. At a pool party for Prince Andrew, Barrington held off his pursuers until he could change into his swimming trunks before being tossed into the water. His gallantry remained water-proof: “Not everyone has been thrown into a pool by a royal prince!”
His middle-class prudery though found the follies of politicians harder to forgive.
He recounts a meal at the grand British embassy in Paris. “Afterwards class was revealed when the aristocrats, Home (foreign secretary) and Soames [ambassador] went into the garden to relieve themselves on the grass.”
Sir Nicholas’ pervasive ubiquity and immeasurable popularity during his postings in Pakistan led people to suspect that he might be an MI5 agent.
Certainly the KGB thought so; even more so after he facilitated the defection of their official Kuzichkin.
Nicholas Barrington (despite the KGB’s sinister attentions) is now in his eighties. He and the late Morrice James shared an unusual bond. The love that they shared the longest, their first and their last love, in and after service, was Pakistan.
By arrangement with Dawn