uk embassy paris

THEY TOIL NOT,
NEITHER DO THEY SPIN

THE MINISTER FULL OF POWERS


The web of embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions around the world has become such a part of life that we never pause to question it. Perhaps we should.

Visitors to Budapest can take the little Austrian-built rack railway up to the hills for a fine view over the city. Some elderly local residents had told us that the railway was originally built in the Socialist days to serve one of Budapest's finest hotels, then called the Red Star, and some fine houses of the Favoured Party Members. The hotel had gone, or rather this large and splendid ex-hotel had now become the Embassy of... Liberia. Liberia? This is a country with 54% of its people living below the poverty line, its GDP down to number 226 in world ranking, according to the CIA World Fact Book.

As we stood looking at this very splendid three-storey building with a tower at one corner and a surrounding balcony, a lady in what appeared to be a nightgown peered at us suspiciously from the balcony. 'What's going on? Who are these people spying on us? Has there been a revolution at home we haven't heard of yet?' Putting her out of her misery we strolled on along the street in which almost every one of the fairly palatial mansions housed the diplomatic representation of some country, many small whose citizens could barely afford a day's food.

A recent package trip to Australia included a coach tour of Canberra, their out-in-the-wilds capital city. After a visit to the parliament buildings the bus took us to the top of a hill, from which we could survey the whole city, small, compact, surrounded by unspoilt countryside. 'Note the complete lack of industry' the coach driver pointed out sardonically, in typical Aussie fashion. He then led his small party a short walk to the other end of the hill where he pointed out the Diplomatic Quarter, a treed estate of fine houses and manicured gardens. In an obvious bit of theatre probably performed several times a day, he stared out into the distance while quoting softly a passage from St Luke's Gospel: 'Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.'

"All they do is entertain one another," he added as a concluding note. "The Dinner Parties do the rounds. Britain on Monday, France on Tuesday, and so on. And guess who pays for it!"

So why do we do it? Our Aussie friend would probably have an answer. The British embassy in Bongoland provides a handy target for its citizens to throw stones at when the British Government displeases their President. Alternatively, when Bongoland's President displeases the British Government, we can... withdraw our ambassador. Serious stuff indeed. But that apart, do we really need them?

Much of the present diplomatic network was founded in the early 1900s. The Ottoman Empire was visibly crumbling and the vultures, British, Russian, French and Germans were gathering for the pickings. Russia was eyeing today's Bulgaria and Romania, while Germany was already building railways both in Turkey and Syria. There was hot competition for the spoils, and action often had to be taken swiftly. Yet communication between Istanbul and London consisted of little else but the faithful pigeon, which, even if it managed to get as far as France, would probably end up on the dinner table.

So the concept was born of the Minister Plenipotentiary, 'full of power'. These emissaries were 'fully seized' of HM government's policy in the area which could be summarized fairly simply as 'grab what you can'. They were also armed with Gladstone Bags containing money with which to purchase territory or to secure a loyalty.

The unreliability of carrier pigeons, and the crumbling of an empire with rich pickings to be had against hot competition... circumstances such as these gave birth to the Minister Full of Powers. But what of today? A world where none except the Chinese harbour any territorial claims, a world of instant communications, of teleconferencing, and if necessary jet planes to whisk government representatives around the globe, a world in which astute media correspondents can quickly and discretely gather news, a world indeed in which demonstrators can instantly publish their own pictures on numerous websites or national newscasts... in a world such as this the question is inevitable: do we really need our costly army of diplomats, exchanging mutual hospitality at endless dinner parties? And can we really afford it?

The Daily Telegraph, 19 September reports:
"European Union diplomats plan to dine in imperial style, by ordering a glittering dinner service that could cost as much as 2 million. There are also plans to buy hundreds of silver ice buckets, drinks trays and candelabras and thousands of glasses for whisky, brandy and champagne. The dinner service stands to be larger and nearly ten times the cost of one recently purchased for the White House. The tableware to cater for up to 3,360 officials in Brussels and 140 embassies around the world will come embellished with the Flag of Europe engraved on the drinking glasses and painted in gold on the 'top quality' crockery".

'They toil not, they spin not; yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.' Indeed.

Photo: British Embassy, Paris

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