Our Man at the Vatican

Both the (London) Times and, with more irony, Le Monde ("L’ambassadeur Campbell choque le Vatican"), both well worth reading, have commented on the two interesting and novel features of the appointment of Britain’s new ambassador to the Holy See (the Vatican). 

First, breaking with hallowed tradition, Francis Campbell, 35, is the first Roman Catholic since the Reformation to be appointed to represent Britain at the Holy See — not, incidentally, to be ambassador to Italy, as the headline of the Times report might suggest.  Secondly, his arrival there coincides with the closure of the former residence and embassy of the British ambassador at the Vatican and their effective merger, at any rate physically, with the larger and more prestigious British Embassy in Rome, headed by the much more senior British ambassador to Italy. 

The former convention whereby the ambassador (formerly Minister) to the Holy See has always been a practising Anglican, and his senior deputy a practising Roman Catholic, made a great deal of sense, for obvious reasons, and there seems to have been no obvious reason for breaking with it.  The purely physical merger of the two Rome embassies, principally in order to save quite a lot of the taxpayers’ money but also in the interests of security post-9/11, comes perilously close to a breach of the formal agreement that countries will always have a representative to the Holy See, if any, who is separate from the ambassador to Italy, even though both will (normally) necessarily be resident in Rome.  The Vatican is understandably anxious to prevent a situation where countries give their ambassadors to Italy dual accreditation also to the Holy See, which would obviously lead to the Holy See getting second-class attention from ambassadors whose main focus and interest lie elsewhere.  Hence the formal protests by the Vatican’s equivalent of a Foreign Minister at Britain’s new arrangement.  

I have been following this mini-saga with amused curiosity ever since the announcement of the appointment and of the new cost-cutting residential and office arrangements.  I have the impression, possibly false, from some reports that the two ambassadors now have a joint staff, i.e. that Ambassador Campbell will not only have his official residence in the grounds of the Rome embassy, but that he will also in effect have to rely on the existing staff of the British embassy to Rome for his political, diplomatic, and logistical support (probably in practice much more advantageous for him than having a tiny and inadequate staff of his own).  That, if so, does look very much like a merger of the two embassies, but I suppose that as long as there are two discrete ambassadors, the proprieties are formally observed.

The fact that H E Ambassador Campbell was formerly a first secretary in the Rome Embassy adds to the somewhat surreal character of the arrangement.  In effect we have closed down our embassy to the Holy See, and appointed a 35-year-old first secretary in the embassy to Italy as a rather notional ambassador to the Vatican.  No wonder the cardinals are peeved.  If we get away with it — and because of the financial savings involved I guess we’ll be difficult to shift — it will be surprising if others don’t follow suit.  Having an ambassador resident in Berlin or Paris and accredited to the Holy See  (as some other countries do — see the Le Monde article) must in practice be even more inconvenient and humiliating for the Vatican diplomats than the new British arrangement, under which they can at least claim to have a separate ambassador within easy reach.

Personally I think it’s a mistake to appoint a Roman Catholic as British ambassador to the Holy See, since there’s bound to be a conflict of interest, loyalty and obligation sooner or later, given the degree of obedience to the Roman Catholic Church and to the person of the Pope required by his Church.  But this obvious consideration is evidently outweighed by the fact that the youthful envoy once worked in No. 10 and Mr Tony presumably liked him.  He’s obviously a very talented and well qualified person (Campbell, not Blair) who will no doubt go places in due course, i.e. go real places.  I doubt if the ambassador to the Holy See has a serious and demanding job to do, nor enough genuine work to occupy him for more than two or three days a week, so there seems to be no obligation to take all this terribly seriously, any more than the splendidly-named M. Tincq of Le Monde appears to do.

Sir Ivor Roberts, British ambassador to Italy, is a splendidly robust character.  I can imagine him pressing for this sensible ‘reform’ of the physical and staff arrangements and dismissing with peals of laughter the likely objections of the cardinals. But that’s pure speculation on my part: for all I know (i.e. nothing), he might have been opposing it tooth and nail.

[Hat-tip:  Peter Harvey, who reminded me of all this when he sent me the article from Le Monde.]

After-thought, 17 January:  Could it be that the prime minister, asked to approve the appointment as ambassador to the Holy See of a Mr Campbell who had previously been on the staff of No. 10 Downing Street, assumed that this must be Alastair of that name and instantly gave his enthusiastic approval?


6 Responses

  1. Ronnie says:

    I don’t worry about the amalgamation of the embassies or the suggestion that our man to the Holy See is not exactly the equal of our ambassador to Italy.  Surely that is how things are and is well known.  But starting to send a RC, instead of (Isuspect) a High Anglican, seems a compensatory crawl.  Let’s send a Jew.

  2. Michael says:

    The third interesting and novel feature of the appointment was that the position was advertised in the press.The Church probably viewed this as a lack of seriousness on our part, confirmed by the merger of the two missions. Incidentally I don’t see how HM Queen can describe a successful advertisement applicant as My Trusty and Well-beloved when signing his/her commission.
    I am sure you are right that these new procedures are all about saving money. Perhaps the time has come when our embassies could be sponsored by the private sector. Our ambassador to the Vatican could be sponsored by for example Candles-R-Us, based in Bexhill on Sea.

    Brian adds:  Actually, there seem to be no particular implications for our seriousness or otherwise about the position of British ambassador to the Holy See being publicly advertised:  this is increasingly common practice now with many — even all? — senior FCO and Diplomatic Service appointments, even including the recent case of the impending vacancy for Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Head of the Diplomatic Service!  (Although a recent Times report said that all the candidates on the current short-list were in fact serving senior members of the Service — not very surprisingly, considering the extent of familiarity with the workings of the Service and of the Office that the job manifestly requires.)  Personally I think it’s ludicrous to try to recruit outsiders to significant positions as heads of British diplomatic missions overseas, as the unenviable experience of the Americans in this regard demonstrates.  But there seems to have been no novelty or special implication attached to the advertising of the Holy See job.  I am much attracted, however, by the idea of commercial sponsorship of our heads of mission abroad.  The British ambassador to Switzerland could be sponsored by Nestlé, for example, and Our Man in Washington jointly by Halliburton and the Carlyle Group

  3. Patrick says:

    Why do we need an ambassador to the Holy See?  (I know I am thick — sorry for the idiotic question) 

    Brian replies:  It’s not an idiotic question at all.  Indeed it’s a very good one.  There are times (the Biafra rebellion in Nigeria is an example) when the Vatican does play a relatively influential role in some aspect of international affairs, and it may be useful then to have a British diplomatic mission accredited to it in order to try to ensure that any Vatican influence is exercised in a helpful rather than a negative way, as very nearly happened over Biafra.  But I strongly suspect that such circumstances are exceedingly rare, and that the main reason for our having an ambassador to the Holy See is that most other comparable countries have one and we don’t want to be conspicuously different.  ("It would risk sending the wrong message", I can imagine the FCO officials saying.)  As I said in my original post, I don’t see our — or rather Her Majesty’s — ambassador to the Holy See as having particularly onerous or significant duties, except very occasionally.  And if we didn’t have one at all, I doubt very much if anyone in Whitehall would even notice, apart from those hearing the cries of protest and outrage from the relevant cardinal in Rome, and perhaps also from the Roman Catholic establishment in Britain. 

  4. Michael says:

    I think the answer to Patrick’s question is that the Vatican is a sovereign state in the heart of Europe. Its diplomatic service is extensive and apparently well informed. Clergy and missionaries work throughout the world and try to visit Rome at regular intervals. These men are a source of well founded information on the countries they live in, as they often spend a lifetime en poste. I expect an ambassador to the Holy See would find it rewarding to get alongside them and would obtain insights not apparent to diplomats and other expatriates who are tranferred after a very few years.

    Brian adds:  I can certainly confirm from my own experience the truth of Michael’s comments here about the general excellence of much of the Vatican’s diplomatic service.  At the time of the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s, for example, the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio  was probably the best informed of all the diplomats in Addis Ababa about the famine and relief situations all round the country, not only because he was (and happily still is) a highly experienced and shrewd observer and analyst, but also mainly because the nuns and priests and other RC workers at RC missions all over Ethiopia used to come in to Addis every few weeks to get their regular funding from the Nuncio and, while they were there, to tell him what was going on in their local areas. This was at a time when travel in Ethiopia outside Addis Ababa was very difficult for diplomats and information about what was happening in the country was very hard to come by. I’m sure that Michael is right in guessing that our own diplomats accredited to the Holy See must benefit from rubbing shoulders with Vatican diplomats on home postings and learning from their experience and stock of information.  But of course we don’t post our people to the Holy See mainly as a kind of training course.  At least, I assume we don’t!

  5. Patrick says:

    Thanks for the education. Patrick 

  6. Peter Harvey says:

    A couple of points. You may perhaps be interested to know that the Spanish diplomatic service is undergoing a major reform and enlargement; one measure that has been mooted is that diplomatic appointments, at least senior ones, should be approved by the Parliament as is done in the USA. I do not know whether don Juan Carlos expects his ambassadors to be trusty and well-beloved; excelentísimo is probably enough (though such pompous honorific titles have now disappeared here in general use).

    The other point is that if diplomatic posts are to be sponsored commercially, then the obvious sponsor for Our Man in Havana must be Mr Dyson. <gdr>

    Brian comments:  Interesting!  I can’t imagine what it would feel like to serve in a diplomatic service actually undergoing enlargement:  the only enlargement that occurred in my time in our own diplomatic service was of the duties and functions imposed on the service, invariably accompanied by swingeing cuts in the money and staff available to perform them.  The suggestion for Havana is of course inspired…   

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