Our not so glorious days of Empire … how little has changed

A 19th century painting of diplomats, sitting and standing round a table.
How diplomats of the day liked to see themselves in this painting of the Congress of Paris in 1856 by Édouard Dubufe. The ranks of British diplomats were rather less distinguished, according to an insider’s view at the time

At the height of the British Empire, honour and integrity were paramount … well, not quite, according to Hugh Mitford Raymond, as he looks back to the writings of a distinguished diplomatic forbear, his great-great grandfather Edward Ledwich Mitford (1811v1912). 

What follows, written in 1839, neatly mirrors our recent article Our dismal foreign secretaries: how Britain trashed its global reputation.

For a commercial and commonwealth nation like England, the Foreign Office is the political frontier and the integrity of individuals is of the greatest importance as regards our relations with foreign powers. Through them intelligence is transmitted affecting the safety of our political and commercial interests, and through them, as the representatives of the nation, are negotiations transacted and differences settled.

This needs the employment of individuals with talent and experience in situations of such consequence, and yet the neglect of this frontline of the British Foreign Office is notorious, to the great injury of our commercial and political interests.

A sepia photograph of a Victorian gentleman, and author of the article's memoir
Edward Ledwich Mitford was a diplomat in the Colonial Service in Ceylon and the founder of British policy in Palestine

Any man who has a claim either private or public, without respect to fitness or qualification, is considered good enough, and this carelessness, added to the common practice of appointing friends and acquaintances, who seldom do us much honour, has gone far towards causing a negative opinion of the English abroad. Again, with our men in office at home so much engrossed in party politics and struggles for power, that they can spare little time to attend to the details of our foreign relations or inclination to support their agents in maintaining the dignity of the nation abroad, or the privileges of their countrymen.

Foreign Office officials are instructed to compromise insults, hush up complaints, and give the government as little trouble as possible, which orders they transmit to their subordinates; the consequence of which is, that the British name is no longer respected, and our flag, in many instances, insulted, as foreigners have discovered that it can be done with impunity.

What is the cause of the success of Russia in her aggressive diplomacy? She employs clever men as agents, who are to be met with in every quarter of the globe, and who are expected to forward, instead of to conceal, the intelligence they may obtain. What is the cause of the fast rising name of the United States? They watch over their growing influence, are jealous of the violation of their national rights, assert reparation for insult with firmness, and are respected.

A map of the British Empire, with the countries of Empire picked out in pink, including India, Australia, Canada and South Africa. The map is surrounded by pictorial representations of 'colonials' with in the centre, the figure of Britania with Trident and Union Flag shield.
A 19th century map of the British Empire “on which the sun never set”

The instance of two brothers holding the position of chief translator to the English and Russian embassies at Constantinople/Istanbul, needs no comment. By monopoly and graft, British agents are entirely controlled by unprincipled interpreters, who have obtained an ascendancy over them by making themselves indispensable. As such, individuals become afraid to cause offence, dreading vengeful response and the British name is made to screen crime, readily offset with generous hospitality.

Few individuals have succeeded in overcoming the many difficulties thrown their way. Very few have managed to establish themselves on a secure footing by asserting their rights with firmness, integrity and supporting the honour of the country.

Take the French Foreign Office for example; like any other service, it is run on a grading system of merit. Every person who enters is obliged to begin at the lowest grade of fonctionnaire or civil servant, from which their promotion continues in course of time, and they rise according to their talents.

Since writing the above I would like to quote a paragraph from a recent British Military Policy document: “If anything can be lamented or reprobated within the British system of foreign affairs, it is that we have too frequently seen, acting in the capacity of British agents abroad, men either without knowledge of any kind; or who, if they have possessed any knowledge of commerce, have confined it merely to speculations for their own private advantage.” 

Up to date photo of the smiling, bespectacled author, Hugh Mitford Raymond

The above was lightly edited by Hugh Mitford Raymond (above) who is the author of several books, including The Mitford Family and British Policy in the Middle East and the Creation of Israel.

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