The Rt Hon Paul Boateng MP embarks on a career in diplomacy – he hopes

There’s more than one worrying aspect of Paul Boateng’s announcement on 14 March 2005 that he is to be British high commissioner in Pretoria if Labour wins the forthcoming election.

Paul Boateng MP has been in the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury since May 2002, having been Financial Secretary to the Treasury (2001-2002), a junior minister in the home office (1998-2001) and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health (1997-1998), the first black person to hold ministerial office in Britain and the first black cabinet minister. He was born in 1951 to a Ghanaian father (himself later a minister in the Ghana government) and a Scottish mother. There seems to be a broad consensus among political commentators that his ministerial and parliamentary career has stalled and that his prospective appointment to one of the three or four most demanding diplomatic posts in Africa reflects the reality that, in the words of the song, ‘he’s gone about as far as he can go’ at Westminster. According to the gossip, he has not enjoyed his time at the Treasury, and his notably confrontational, even aggressive, performances during his increasingly rare appearances in current affairs programmes on television and radio seem to bear that out. His combination of apparent smugness and partisan assertiveness has done him few favours. The Financial Times commented on 15 March 2005 that ‘Mr Boateng’s four-year Treasury stint has been relatively low profile. His media appearances tailed off after a string of combative TV performances, such as his claim that Michael Howard made him "want to puke". Speculation about his career heightened during the chancellor’s trip to China last month, when Labour’s attack on Tory spending plans in Gordon Brown’s absence was led by Alistair Darling, the transport secretary.’

Any criticism by a former or serving British diplomat of Boateng’s prospective appointment is liable to be dismissed as pique at the loss to our diplomatic service of one of its more demanding (although not necessarily most comfortable) posts. Political appointments like this have been very rare in recent times, not because of the success of our diplomats in keeping the plum jobs for themselves, but rather because appointments to senior diplomatic posts of former politicians with no diplomatic experience, training or obviously relevant skills have, with few exceptions, not proved a roaring success – as the American experience confirms. US ambassadorships in agreeable capitals (although very rarely in hardship posts) almost invariably go to political buddies, fund-raisers and lavish contributors to party funds of the incumbent President: but few of the ambassadors so appointed bear comparison as effective practitioners with the often outstanding professional American diplomats heading their embassies in less congenial places, and indeed some prove a serious embarrassment. So our own diplomatic service has little to complain of in this area.

The Rt Hon Paul Boateng, MP

But Mr Boateng’s announcement does prompt other questions. Since his diplomatic appointment is contingent on the result of an election probably still two months off, it seems unlikely that his name has already been submitted to the South African government for its (necessary) agreement, or that the government in Pretoria will already have given its agreement, either to the appointment or to its apparently premature announcement. The convention that the appointment of a high commissioner or ambassador is not made public until the receiving country’s government has formally agreed to it serves an obvious purpose: if the nominee’s identity is made known in advance of agreement by the receiving government, it becomes much more difficult for that government to withhold its agreement and ask the sending government to think again: the embarrassment all round, not least to the nominee himself, if agreement is not granted, can be very great in such circumstances. It’s of course unlikely that the South African government would refuse agreement to Paul Boateng’s appointment, if they have not already informally given it; but if they have not, the breach of protocol (and of the rules of common courtesy) implicit in taking their agreement for granted in this way amounts to a clumsy gaffe, and one that would justify a strong complaint from President Mbeki. Let’s hope that it will soon be confirmed that South African agreement to the Boateng appointment has indeed already been given, presumably informally, before yesterday’s announcement.

There’s another questionable feature of this decision. In the heyday of British and French decolonisation in Africa, with newly independent African countries joining the international concert of nations every few months, successive US governments sometimes sought to win the favours of the new governments by appointing Afro-Americans as the first American ambassadors to the countries concerned. Few of these appointments prospered, and after a while Washington began to receive the message from some of the African governments concerned that they were more interested in the calibre, reliability and diplomatic experience of the Americans sent to them as US ambassadors than in the colour of their skins: and indeed that the apparent priority being given by Washington to skin colour over diplomatic competence risked being regarded locally as patronising or worse. It would be highly regrettable if the appointment of Mr Boateng, should it materialise, were to prompt similar reactions among South Africans in their attitudes towards Britain. If it does, this may rank as the latest in a growing series of misjudgements by our present government: probably once again attributable to some ministers’ odd reluctance to listen to experienced and savvy civil servants whose job it is, when they are allowed to do so, to help save ministers from themselves. I hope these fears will turn out to be unfounded: that South Africans will feel complimented by the appointment to their country of Britain’s first ever black cabinet minister: and that Mr Boateng, doubtless soon to become His Excellency Sir Paul, will exhibit in his new role qualities of diplomatic courtesy, and ability to see more than one side of an argument, that have been kept largely under wraps in his public career so far. The staff of the British high commission in Pretoria will no doubt be sharing that hope with almost religious fervour.

Postscript: According to Colin Brown in today’s Independent, “Mr Boateng, a Christian socialist with five children, emphasised that he needed no persuading to take the South Africa job, which used to carry with it the governorship of the Cape.” Shurely shome mishtake? The title ‘high commissioner’ is that of the senior diplomatic representative of one Commonwealth country in another Commonwealth country, and equates exactly to that of ‘ambassador’ in a non-Commonwealth country. It has absolutely nothing to do with the same title occasionally used in colonial times for a colonial governor.


Some more UK press comment from The Times:

Philip Webster, Times political editor, said: "Paul Boateng will always have a place in history as the the first black person in cabinet but he never seemed to engage with core Labour supporters and was slow-handclapped at the Party conference in 2002 for making a typically long-winded and pompous speech.
"Now he’s 54, he’s at the lower end of the cabinet as chief secretary and there’s been a feeling that he was never destined for a higher office than that. He’s perfectly able but not considered a high-flier – I think he recognised that, which is why he’s off."
The Times, 14 Mar 05

The appointment of Paul Boateng as Britain’s High Commissioner to South Africa means that he can finally fulfil the prophecy that he made on becoming an MP in 1987: “Today Brent South. Tomorrow Soweto!” Although his new official residence in Pretoria is almost an hour’s drive from the black township established under apartheid, Soweto undoubtedly will be on the itinerary for the first Afro-Caribbean to head a British diplomatic mission.
The Treasury Chief Secretary has now completed a hat-trick of smashing his way through glass ceilings, having previously become Britain’s first black minister in 1997 and the first black member of the Cabinet in 2002. It is therefore strange that, after 18 years in Parliament and almost three decades on the political frontline, Mr Boateng’s most memorable remarks remain those he made in his extraordinarily gauche Brent South victory speech. Few people who were present at his election in 1987 would have expected him to end up with a relatively low profile and a career that, colleagues acknowledge, has been “going nowhere”. For all the warm words that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown lavished on him yesterday, the Treasury Chief Secretary was widely regarded as a poor Cabinet performer. For instance, his failure to deal properly with questions in the Commons last week about capital gains tax on house sales allowed the Tories to plant scare stories with the right-wing press over the weekend, which were both inaccurate and unnecessary. Although it cannot be easy being Mr Brown’s deputy, many previous holders of the post have been promoted nonetheless. Mr Boateng, by contrast, as recently as last month was being tipped by The Times for the sack in a post-election reshuffle. Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community has been similarly disappointed with him. “Why get involved if black MPs are all like Boateng?” one activist asked after the appointment of the Treasury Chief Secretary three years ago.
Tom Baldwin, The Times, Profile, 15 March 2005

Paul Boateng, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is to leave Parliament at the election to become High Commissioner to South Africa. His political appointment was greeted with dismay by the FDA, the union representing the Diplomatic Service, which has been campaigning for such jobs to be awarded on merit after a process of open competition.
Philip Webster, The Times, 15 March 2005

Ivor Jenkins, Director of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, said. “It is something to which South Africans will react positively.” Mr Jenkins said that Mr Boateng’s African origin would play well with the black majority. “But I think whites will welcome his arrival also. A lot has changed . . . (since the first all-race general election in 1994) and whites are fully ready to understand that we’re all now part of a global game. His financial background at the Treasury is all the more significant because our country is beginning to move on the high road economically,” he added.
The Times, 15 March 2005