on 14 November 2012
After a lifetime career in the Foreign Office, one can hardly expect anything else. And it would have been nice to know what was taken out before publication at the request of all that checked it first
However, there is among these pages much of the common sense and logic that for some reason always escapes our politicians (and a fair few of the civil servants that advise them)
As a lifetime student of politics (and still learning) the venerable Foreign Office has always seemed to me to be in a world of its own, invoking the wrath of virtually every Prime Minister I can remember. Of those who are appointed or re-shuffled into the Secretary of State's room many are accused of "going native" and this book does give an inkling of why that happens
The incisive lessons of British Foreign policy are laid out for all who are prepared to think about how not to repeat history. Palestine. Iraq. But most of all, Afghanistan
Certainly worth a read
on 19 August 2014
Cowper-Coles has the happy knack of being able to write a funny anecdote. The book is packed with them, but he also gives a real insight into what life is actually like for Foreign Office diplomats at all levels. We join him as a junior diplomat running errands in the Middle East, then follow him up the greasy pole as he works for the Foreign Secretary, and still higher as he becomes Ambassador to Israel and Saudi Arabia. We learn of the office intrigues, the shadowy MI6 figures who operate on the fringes of diplomatic life, the occasionally comical encounters with locals, and the whims and differing personalities of the key political figures diplomats work to. Cowper-Coles worked for Robin Cook. We learn of Cook's qualities but also of his frailties; his power but also the limitations of that power. This really is a tremendous book for anyone interested in diplomacy or geopolitics generally.
This book is based on the author's experience, spanning some 32 years, working as a diplomat in Egypt, the USA, Hong Kong, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan and the intermittent spells in the Foreign Office in London. He disregarded advice he was given early in his career to `spend as little time as possible in distant or dangerous postings'. Cowper-Coles worked, as he puts it, `at the interface between domestic politics and international relations' and he provides a fascinating picture of the mysterious world of the Diplomatic Service. In this role, he witnessed at first hand some truly momentous events which have shaped the course of world history.
Although this is a very serious book, it is written with commendable good humour and lack of cynicism. Cowper-Coles seems to me to write with a smile on his face. He comes across not just as extremely able - diplomats are, after all, tested on their ability to learn Kurdish in an afternoon - but immensely likeable, good-natured and as a man of real integrity. When he offers his own views on political strategy (e.g. in relation to Afghanistan or the Middle East), they seem often much more sensible than those of the politicians he was advising. The politicians must nonetheless have hugely benefited from having someone so balanced, enthusiastic and dependable on their side.
Cowper-Coles was appointed as Britain's ambassador to Israel in 2001 (and subsequently in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan) yet . he rarely claims much credit for himself in this book. His profound love of his work, the Foreign Office and his colleagues is striking, and he writes with unfailing generosity about politicians, the royals, the military, the intelligence services, Heads of State, local dignitaries and a host of the other (often tiresome) people with whom he came into contact. The revealing and rather poignant chapter about the two years Cowper-Coles spent as private secretary to Robin Cook (`a profoundly disorganised' Foreign Secretary) is a joy to read. That chapter, like the book as a whole, is full of hilarious stories, including a particularly good one about Tony Blair.
on 10 July 2013
Since my years living abroad, I have had an aversion to supercilious diplomats.
Initially Sherard Cowper-Coles confirmed my prejudices. He came across as an intellectual snob, full of his own importance and constantly referring to the "brilliance" of the public school, Oxbridge civil servants he worked with.
I did not expect to persevere with the book. But I did and the more I read, the more I was impressed by him and the foreign office. For example the lengths that he went to learn Arabic and Hebrew before his postings. Not just language training, but his learning about and understanding the culture spoke very well of his (and the Foreign Office's) respect for the people with whom they were dealing. On his posting to Egypt Cowper-Coles lived with an Egyptian family and totally immersed himself in their lifestyle. The attention to detail in the Foreign Office's preparations sometimes seemed excessive, particularly when applied to the pecking order of state visits, but is nevertheless impressive especially in their curbing of their politicians' generalisations.
His attitude to the importance of diplomacy comes across very thoughtfully, although sometimes it seems excessive. His belief "that in the world of multilateral diplomacy, form often matters almost as much as substance, and where the table of round speakers can be more important than what is actually on the table" is the kind of statement I would have taken exception to before I read his book. But when you see the effects of not meeting minds then you think twice.
The fascination of the book is the insights into Cowper-Coles', and the civil service's attitudes to events you normally attribute to politicians, because that is the way they are reported. I never understood why Chris Patten had such a burst of enthusiasm for democracy in Hong Kong in the months before handover to the Chinese, considering Britain's colonial rule for the previous 100 years. Neither could Cowper-Cole and the Foreign Office.
His firm views on the need for a two state solution to Palestine and Israel where he was Ambassador are sound. And his assertion that most western politicians do not understand Saudi Arabia, where he was also ambassador, rings true. British ministers preferred to visit other, easier to digest countries in the region rather than Saudi Arabia.. Only a few understood that just as Saudi Arabia was a swing producer of oil, so too was it a swing producer of moderate thinking on Middle East peace and , given its experience of Al Qaeda, on tackling militant extremist Islam. Al Saud are the leaders in understanding that successful counter terrorist policy needs to address the political, economic and social sources of terrorism. Tough action against its symptoms - violence - is the least difficult part.
But it is his short chapter about Afghanistan where he is most devastating on how misguided the whole western strategy in Afghanistan really was.
From a grating start it turned into a fascinating book.
on 1 July 2015
Ever the Diplomat fascinated, frustrated and infuriated me in equal measures.
First of all, I should state that although I didn't know Sherard personally, I did work in the FCO at the same time as him and our paths would have crossed occasionally (I was in the press office when he was in Private Office as Robin Cook's Private Secretary). He was obviously a figure who loomed large in the office at the time, but I was a relatively junior diplomat so he wouldn't have had a clue who I was. However, his book is peppered with references to people who I knew or knew of - starting with his early years when a couple of the fathers of my classmates at boarding school in the UK are namechecked; later on are mentions of people my own father worked with; and finally people I knew personally from my time in the office. From a personal viewpoint, this certainly helped make the book an entertaining read.
However, I am not sure how this translates for people who aren't diplomats, former-diplomats or the children of diplomats. Is there just too much in-house information to make it interesting?
Hopefully not, although you may need to have a rudimentary knowledge of British foreign affairs to truely enjoy much of the book. But in many other ways I think it's a really good portrayal of what life is like in the upper rankings of the Foreign Office. It didn't much resemble what I experienced, but that doesn't mean it isn't true.
Sherard's career was certainly a glittering one: Cairo (he was one of the famous Arabists of the office, otherwise known as the "camel corps"), Paris, Washington. Plum jobs in the UK. Later, ambassadorships in Israel and Saudi Arabia - apparently, the pinnacle of a career for an Arabist. He ended up as the UK's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is where it all seemed to go wrong for him. Whether because he wasn't going to get the job at the end of his career he felt he deserved (there are only three or four really top jobs in the FCO and usually quite a few very senior diplomats vying for them) or for personal reasons (he split up from his wife during his time in Kabul, more of which below), he apparently took "extended leave" at the end of his posting and never returned....
Anyway, apart from that, Ever the Diplomat is certainly a well-written and largely entertaining book. Sherard is undoubtedly a very intelligent man and just the sort of person who would do well in the Foreign Office: he had the right background, he was the right gender, he went to the right university. The fact that he barely mentions women in the office until right at the end of the book (as if someone had read it and pointed out he really should mention that women do work in the office too) tells me a lot about him, and resonates with the sort of people I came across while working there. At one point he uses the term "the Private Office girls" to describe some of his female coworkers (see page 207).
As for his poor wife, Bridget, she gets barely more of a mention than his female colleagues. As many of us know, following (accompanying - you chose the terminology!) your partner to another country is no easy task. Upping sticks and doing it every two to four years, as the Cowper-Coles family did, can be downright distressful. Especially when you have five children. And yet, rarely does he talk about his wife positively, never does he discuss her immense role in his success. He may have wanted to leave family life out of his book as he believed he was writing about foreign policy and his career rather than anything personal. But for me, FCO life and family life go hand-in-hand. Personally, by ignoring his wife and what life was like for her and his children, I think he missed a huge trick. He might have left her out because of their subsequent divorce - or perhaps it was the other way round?
I also feel that whilst the account of his career gives us an excellent insight into the workings of the top echelons of the offce, it does rather ignore much of the rest of it: visa work, consular work, trade and investment, management...There is an awful lot more to the work of the FCO and our embassies and high commissions abroad than just the political side of things that Sherard shows us.
Other than this, Ever the Diplomat IS a good read and does contain a fair amount of interesting information and entertaining anecdotes. Sherard seems to have had an excellent window on the world throughout his career - Hong Kong department during the handover, Paris when Princess Diana was killed in the car crash, Saudi Arabia during the appalling Al Qaeda terrorist targeting of Westerners. He shows us this world from his own perspective and in an easy-going style that had me staying up late, turning pages ( in particular, for me, the chapter about Robin Cook - which coincided with my time in the press office, was fascinating). Other parts of the book I skimmed over - I couldn't get excited about NATO or any of the defence policy sections. But overall, I would say this was a good read. As well as infuriating...
on 27 December 2012
Excellent read...highly recommended. Good insight into the workings of the diplomatic service from a career diplomat’s perspective; humorous in parts; serious in parts; illuminating throughout.
on 25 November 2013
Forsaking ideas of British Leyland, merchant banking, or the Bar, the author became a diplomat embarking on a distinguished 30-year career in the Foreign Office in London and our embassies in Dublin, Cairo, Washington, Paris (when the Princess of Wales died), Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Kabul; the last three as ambassador. He was involved in the handover of Hong Kong where he was dubbed Ku Poi Kau. He's bright, energetic, enthusiastic and forthright, and, understandably in an autobiography, not afraid to talk-up his own successes as he did those of his country. Engaging insights into Margaret Thatcher, Robin Cook and Chris Patten are tempered with anecdotes such as a tale of the Queen scaring a nervous Crown Prince in her Land Rover in Scotland. We learn of the smooth extroverts of MI6 and the frighteningly clever introverts of GCHQ, while his confessions include the drawback of working with ministers who are "here today, gone not long afterwards". He concludes with our strategic mistakes in Hong Kong, Iraq and Helmand.
on 3 June 2015
I have read the hardback version of this book and really enjoyed it so decided I would buy the paperback for an elderly relative but was very disappointed as the print was so small I couldn't give it to him.
As a top-rank career diplomat and Arabist, Cowper-Coles has had postings in many of the British embassies in the middle-east, as well as in the US and Paris, ending his career in Afghanistan. I had hoped that the book would give some insights on the behind the scenes politics of the Foreign Office, particularly of the period before and since the Iraq and Afghan wars. However, the book is in fact much more of a tale of how the diplomatic service works and of Cowper-Coles' personal reminiscences. This makes it an entertaining read more than an informative one.
Fast-tracked on graduating from Oxford, Cowper-Coles is in many ways the stereotypical diplomat - a silver-spooned 'toff' with a privileged background and education. In his last chapter he points out that, at the time he joined the service, most entrants were from a similar background and the rules had only just been changed to allow women to stay on once they had married. He claims that recruitment policies have now changed and that entrants are drawn from a wider field. Whether that is the case, this book often seems to be a tale of the adventures of a toff abroad. We are regaled with tales of clothes and restaurants, exotic travel, elite hotels, private swimming pools, parties and receptions. I felt sure that there must be much more to it all than just being a social co-ordinator for visiting VIPs but I didn't get a real feel for the serious work that one hopes that diplomats are carrying out, though Cowper-Coles often hinted at it. Perhaps official secrets make it difficult for a memoir to be frank about these things?
So for me the book was mostly a light entertainment, well written with some funny anecdotes but often more of a travelogue than a political book. When the author did let us see his real feelings, over Afghanistan for instance, the book became much more interesting to me, but sadly these parts were few and far between. Overall then, this is an enjoyable read but as an entry in the field of political memoirs I found it rather lightweight.
on 4 July 2013
Good to read as a former colleague, with understanding between the lines too; but thoroughly good for the general reader with its telling insights.