By Mark Fairlie.
For the first time ever, business leaders from across the UK have been invited to become British ambassadors. The Foreign Secretary’s diplomatic shake-up will go to create 335 new diplomatic positions and a further 657 posts in London and around the world.
Harnessing the “talent, experience and knowledge of business leaders”
With the likes of Sir Richard Branson and Lord Sugar rumoured to be among the business chiefs eligible to apply, this will also be the first time many of these diplomatic roles have been made available to non-civil servants.
While some non-civil servants have been made ambassadors before, these were typically exclusively made by political appointment only, such as the UK ambassador to France, Lord Llewelyn. Llewelyn had previously served as David Cameron’s chief of staff before being selected.
In the United States, some successful business leaders are already serving as ambassadors in various countries. Just last year, the billionaire owner of American football team the New York Jets, Woody Johnson, was selected by Donald Trump as the ambassador within the UK.
Following Hunt’s speech, thousands of new ambassadors will be carefully selected from the private sector to represent the UK in other countries across the globe.
The move has been welcomed by employers’ group the CBI. The organisation’s head of international trade, James Aston-Bell, stated that, with the UK forging new trading relationships post-Brexit,
“it is absolutely the right moment for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to harness the talent, experience and knowledge of business leaders by bringing them into diplomatic roles.”
“Diplomats are made, not born”
The Foreign Secretary’s decision has received criticism for taking jobs from active civil servants.
Former chief civil servant at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Lord Ricketts, warned on Sky News that any external candidate chosen to serve as ambassador must only be recruited after competing fairly against career diplomats.
“No-one will object to this being done in a small way, more than that and it will send a very bad signal,” he added.
Other concerns have been raised about the suitability of business leaders from various sectors within a diplomatic environment.
Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union for senior civil servants, has said that the
“role of a diplomat in representing the UK’s interests abroad is much broader than simply trade, which is why they go through years of training and develop such a range of skills.”
Penman noted that these qualified civil servants already have an extensive understanding of international trade, making the decision to fill roles with business leaders somewhat redundant. By focussing solely on this skill, he believes the UK’s interests and influence could be undermined.
He noted: “Diplomats are made, not born, and the UK’s interests are best served by a professional diplomatic service.”
“The strength of our network is its professionalism”
In an effort to onboard new talent to champion British interests overseas and secure future trade deals after Brexit takes effect next year, Jeremy Hunt has unveiled plans to establish twelve new British embassies and missions in the Commonwealth.
Mr Hunt said that the UK must “become an invisible chain linking the world’s democracies”.
In the government’s drive to re-engage Britain’s former colonies and expand overseas operations, there are plans to open a new mission for the 27-members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) in Jakarta, Indonesia.
In addition to this, a new embassy will be established within East Africa in Djibouti, and the existing mission in Chad will be upgraded into a full embassy next year.
The Foreign Office has also announced it will invest in language skills within its departments worldwide. Hunt pledged to double the number of diplomats working abroad that speak the local language from 500 to 1,000; with Gujarati, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz amongst the 20 new courses available.
Mr Hunt has said that the
“strength of our network is its professionalism, which has given us what I believe is the finest diplomatic service in the world. But we must never close our eyes to the approaches and skills of other industries.”