Bearded diplomacy

‘The illusion of control that dictatorships offer is just that. They promise their acolytes eternal life in exchange for silence. But silence is expensive’

Tom Tugendhat

About 15 years ago I was living in downtown Lashkar Gah with the governor of Helmand. I was helping him set up the first local government in 30 years not reliant on the Taliban or drug lords. I used to receive complaints from the Foreign Office that I wasn’t online during normal working hours. Accusations of idleness were misplaced. I was up from about 6am (there was no air conditioning in my room so sleep became impossible) but by about 10am, it was 40 degrees in my office and even the computer would stop working. The heat meant I had to give up on report writing to attend to the most important task of the day—drinking tea and talking to those who wanted to come in. Learning tales of past weddings and droughts and the feuds each caused was the only way to learn the living history that shaped the world in which we operated.

The long line of bearded and turbaned tribesmen discussing feuds and the finer points of the hadith are not outside my office anymore, and the tea-room is socially distanced so it’s hard to get the same oral history from colleagues. But one thing hasn’t changed. For the first time since then my laptop has started giving the same warnings. Neither Portcullis House, nor my home, have air conditioning so both leave me with an overheating computer.

Of course, now roles are reversed and I oversee the Foreign Office rather than reporting to it, they don’t seem so bothered that my missives aren’t as frequent. Perhaps they even wish I would write fewer.


Today, fewer Persian speakers attend to potentates and even fewer sit cross-legged with Pashtun warlords whose ancestors inflicted such defeats on our predecessors. The world has changed and my version of bearded diplomacy isn’t quite right for the besuited smoothies who walk the corridors of international organisations.

Our strategy is changing too but the mission has not. The aim of our envoys is to ensure the prosperity and happiness of the British people. So, should we be worried that bringing together DFID and the FCO will undermine the humanitarian powerhouse we have become?

Not if we get this right. We do not stand alone so turning the Foreign Secretary back into the leader of Britain’s global outreach is more than realpolitik. It’s about promoting the rule of law we’ve built up over generations as the living alternative to the rule of force.

Delivering aid along with political cooperation is essential to get countries out of the aid trap, or debt trap, others are offering.


The place to sit out the heat wave would have been, of course, the sea. But due to the biggest public policy failure ever, we were all locked up. The illusion of control that dictatorships offer is just that. They promise their acolytes eternal life in exchange for silence. But silence is expensive.

To date, the silencing of dissent and contrary positions in Wuhan, China, has cost the UK thousands of lives and billions of pounds. I dread to think what the cost is for the Chinese people.

Now we are seeing that silence flow over the one city in the People’s Republic which has free speech. By extending the Security Law to Hong Kong, Beijing may think it is gaining control but in reality it is losing. The freedom to criticise and challenge and change is going to be ever more essential as the nation’s demographics and economics cause many to question their place.

There’s a reason democracy is the most stable system of government, and it’s not ideological. We will see how well China’s prosperity holds up as the economic impact of coronavirus hits, but the chance of turbulence becoming a storm is high and without an outlet, that could see the ship overwhelmed.


Staying in touch with your base, and remembering who you work for is essential here at home. I’ve just come off a call with two women who run an online business selling bridesmaid dresses. They’ve struggled over the past months and have shown the adaptability and imagination to survive but found the bureaucracy of applying for grants and support tough.

Thank goodness I have a fantastic team in Tonbridge who have been working flat out for months to help as many as possible. After the initial surge in cases from Covid-19, we’re now back at a normal pace, but that is higher than ever. Over the past few years the number of folk contacting me has just increased. I’m lucky to have the best team of caseworkers to serve the people I work for.

I was reminded again why this matters, not just because these are my friends and neighbours we’re helping. My opposite number in the US House of Representatives, Congressman Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has just lost a primary to hold his seat. He’s not alone. Richard Lugar and Democrat J. William Fulbright, also both lost their seats while still in post as chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


Time at home hasn’t been all bad. I’ve had time to dig the vegetable patch for the first time in years and have got a crop of potatoes coming through. Along with the onions and raspberries, which seem impossible to kill, artichokes are beginning to appear. I’ve always loved them. Not just for their taste but their name which comes from the Arabic for “prickly earth”. It seems languages can be useful, even here at home in Kent.

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