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?