Tim Collard was one of our men in Peking for many years before becoming HM Consul-General in Hamburg until his retirement. He is fluent in both German and Mandarin and now forms a part of the Oxford Union in exile which meets up every Wednesday evening in an Edinburgh swill shop to discuss matters of great weight and drink beer. He has resolved to enjoy a long retirement at the expense of the hard working family taxpayers of Nuneaton.
In 1998 the annual convention of the Universal Postal Union was held in Beijing. (When writing a story, always draw the reader in with a real zinger of a first sentence.) At the time I was working in the British Embassy, analysing and reporting on China’s international relations. But, at such conferences, it was always essential for the EU – only 15 members at the time – to arrive at a common position to set before the delegates. This, of course, would need to be co-ordinated, and it was agreed to hold a meeting on the first day of the convention to assess the papers and arrive at a unified response. We all had advance instructions from our capitals, and there seemed to be no important points of difference between us.
Now, EU liaison was part of my portfolio. In theory a small part, consisting of attending one monthly coordination meeting. But there was no escape; this one was clearly a job for Muggins. So I sallied forth from my ‘safe space’ in the Embassy and hied me to the venue, a hotel ten miles away on the edge of town, where I met up with my regular muckers from the monthly coordination sessions.
Several hours later I reported back to base.
"Hello, Tim, how did the meeting go?"
"You will be back with us tomorrow, won’t you? It’s pretty busy…."
"Um……well, we haven’t actually started yet."
"You see, we took about three hours to collect and collate all the papers from one secretariat or other."
(My head of section slapped his forehead, but had enough experience to know that I wasn’t kidding and hadn’t been skiving.)
"And then – I’m afraid there’s been a complication."
"Well, there’s been a row over the designation of the Palestinian delegation…."
(Head of section repeated his action, and his thoughts, from the last parenthesis.)
"And we all have to go back to capitals to agree the wording."
(Great sigh of resignation.)
I should point out that there is virtually no overlap between working hours in China and Europe. We’d only get the new instructions overnight, and next morning it would be once more unto the breach. In a further complication, all the telegram traffic would be classified, and we couldn’t use the convention centre’s fax machines. So it was all haring around in the car with shedloads of paper between two places ten miles apart, with Beijing traffic well on the way to becoming the gently undulating car park it is today.
You can guess where this is going. Were the fifteen sets of instructions sent by the fifteen capitals to the fifteen delegates identical, by any chance? Were they……. So there was nothing for it except to spend hours trying to agree new forms of words, and then send the new draft back to capitals for overnight consideration. And the next day the process would resume. And the next, and the next. I should add that at no point were we ever in contact with, let alone under pressure from, either the Israelis or the Palestinians to slant the wording in their direction. It was an entirely internal circle-jerk.
Meanwhile my Embassy colleagues were going up the wall, as we were a small team – seven I think – and the 99% of my job which I was prevented from doing was either not getting done at all, or having to be covered by colleagues who were quite sufficiently occupied with their own jobs. (I was discovering that they don’t call it the Universal Postal Union for nothing.) I asked my boss whether it might not be better to pull me out and let it go on without the UK (a proto-Brexit, in other words). No, he said, EU etiquette wouldn’t allow that. I remembered that many member states had much smaller Embassies than we did, and they weren’t pulling out either. We’d just have to keep right on to the end of the road.
And every day the bulging briefcase in the back of the car racing against the clock through Beijing rush-hour traffic. To my eternal shame I once caused a minor accident when just for a moment haste drove out due care and concern. My bosses had resigned themselves to losing my services (expensive if not necessarily valuable) for a day; they lost them for two whole weeks. When I say ‘expensive’, I don’t just mean my pay, which was generous if hardly bankeresque; but you, O taxpayer, were also paying for my 4-bedroom city flat and my children’s education in international schools which – I swear – cost more than Eton. To do a job which I wasn’t able to do because I was fossicking around in a spanking new Chinese hotel arguing about Middle Eastern semantics and knocking people off bikes for two weeks.
And still they are no nearer to solving the dispute over the postal problems between Israel and Palestine, or any others for that matter. And no-one writes letters anyway these days except to dun people for money. And the poor bastard who is my successor has now got 28 sets of slightly-differently-worded instructions to deal with. (For a little while, anyway.) Friends – the EU isn’t all shiny happy people holding hands and singing Ode to Joy. Britain has been a member for 43 years. The total time wasted by highly-paid civil servants in this sort of palaver runs to a hell of a lot more than 43 years. As for the cost, it would make your calculator go all squiggly.
This tale could have been a great deal more Chaucerian. I discovered, just too late, that a young lady in whom I maintained a strategic minority interest had been attending a week-long residential convention at an adjacent hotel. That might have, er, changed the character of the narrative considerably. But heigh-ho.
I assure you, dear Remainer friends – and relatives – that my Leave vote contained not the slightest trace of racism or xenophobia. But enough is enough.