The British Diplomatic Oral History programme
For several reasons British diplomats and other officials involved in international affairs are less prone to writing and publishing their memoirs after they retire than the politicians. Politicians are likelier than officials to be driven by the desire to vindicate themselves and to polish their reputations in the eyes of future historians: diplomats generally prefer anonymity. Retired diplomats tend to be cagier than their former political masters about potentially harmful breaches of the Official Secrets Act and other breaches of past confidences that might still damage the national interest. Most (but not all) politicians flaunt bigger egos than most (but not all) diplomats. So there's a danger that the vast reservoir of knowledge of what really happened in the lifetimes of retired diplomats will die with them, creating a serious gap in the material available to researchers and historians. Oral history is one way of preserving at least some of that treasure.
A few years ago one such retired diplomat, Malcolm McBain, on his own initiative but with the encouragement of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, launched a British diplomatic oral history programme designed to capture the recollections of a wide range of retired diplomats, from the grey knights who formerly commanded the mighty embassies in Paris, Washington, Bonn or Berlin and Rome, down to the (perhaps less discreet) smaller fry from the more obscure diplomatic missions in faraway countries of whose peoples and their problems we may know nothing but on which they once possessed precious expertise. Their recorded recollections and opinions not only provide often fascinating insights into the real background to great events as witnessed by people who played an active part in shaping them: they also frequently paint a unique and authentic picture of what diplomatic life at different levels is really like, something which historians yearn for — and which the BDOHP provides entirely free of charge.
Malcolm McBain is a former British ambassador to Madagascar who also saw service in Tripoli, New Delhi, Kenya, Thailand, Brunei and Texas — a splendidly varied background from which to oversee such a programme. He has been Director (originally Co-ordinator) of the British Diplomatic Oral History Programme since 1995. The programme was based at Leicester University from 1995 to '97, and in the Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge, since 1997. Malcolm has kindly contributed this note on the programme:
The British Diplomatic Oral History Programme creates an opportunity for former British diplomats to record their experience of of significant events, including the formulation and execution of UK foreign policy. Contributors to the programme are interviewed, the interviews are taped and transcribed, agreed with the interviewee, cleared with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and placed in the Churchill Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge. They can be read on and downloaded from the Churchill College website. Look at that website to see some of the existing contributions.
The British oral history programme is similar to a much bigger program in the United States which has generously shared its experience of oral history techniques, as well as giving much encouragement. British foreign policy is obviously less important in terms of shaping world events than it was in the 19th century. But it is still naturally very important to Britain as we come to assess the constantly changing kaleidoscope of events. The computer and email make current events more difficult for historians to unravel. The tendency of prime ministers to walk straight into 10 Downing Street at a young age with no previous experience of government office is another complication that tends to make oral history accounts by senior officials more valuable, rather than less. If oral history accounts show that a prime minister has taken decisions off the cuff without due diligence having been provided by officials in a position to give sound advice, then historians should know about it, if only with a view to avoiding such situtions in future.
The pendulum will no doubt swing back. Who knows what triumphs and disasters beckon before it does? The BDOHP seeks to chart the course of key negotiations and events before the collective memory is overtaken by a disorganised rabble of ephemeral trivia.
If you are a former diplomat or other official involved in international affairs, and have relevant recollections and views to contribute, please consider contributing them to the BDOHP. The programme is voluntary and needs charitable donations. We also need more interviewers and transcribers. Please contact the director of the programme, Malcolm McBain, at email@example.com or by telephone to 01722 417314.
To those properly suspicious readers who might fear that prior clearance of these oral history transcripts by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office means the excision by heavy-handed censors of most of their more interesting revelations, I would only say that I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of controversial and sensitive material — both factual and by way of opinion — that have been cleared for placing in the archives and made publicly available to historians and researchers. My own contribution, for what it's worth, escaped any censors' blue pencilling at all, although I didn't try to pull my punches. More and more of this material is being provided on the Churchill archives website and it makes for fascinating and often surprising reading. We, and future historians, owe a large debt to Malcolm McBain, as well as to Churchill College Cambridge. Keep up the good work, Malcolm!
PS: I should declare an indirect interest: my wife was one of the early interviewers, and in my wholly prejudiced and predictable opinion, one of the best of them. (But someone else more personally impartial conducted the interview with me: the distinguished Director of the programme himself, no less.)
 "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." Neville Chamberlain, September 27, 1938, Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons (London: HMSO, 1938) vol. 339, 12th vol. of session 1937-1938, pp. 361-369, 373. [Quoted at http://www.historyguide.org/europe/munich.html.] Notice that, contrary to the common misquotation, Chamberlain did not refer to the country itself (Czechoslovakia) as one "of which we know nothing", but to the quarrelling people of it. Unfortunately Mr Chamberlain was not among the contributors to the Diplomatic Oral History Programme.