New Diplomat magazine contributor Simon McGee, who served as press secretary to two British foreign secretaries and is now executive director in the Global Solutions practice at APCO Worldwide, argues that there’s method in the menagerie


A gift to the Colonial Office from Guyanaat some point in the ninteenth century, history fails to record whether Albert ever met Viscount Palmerston, Britain’s greatest Foreign Secretary.

But we do know that the 20ft-long snake had led a quiet existence perched in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office library until 2012 when a Freedom of Information request revealed that essential snake maintenance had recently cost the taxpayer a not inconsiderable £10,000. The media had fun, special advisers were irate and my FCO predecessor dealing with the story tore his hair out. Animals and diplomacy don’t mix was the broad consensus.

Fast forward a few years and animals – whether it’s Palmerston the cat, endangered pangolins or penguins in the British Antarctic Territories – are the talk of the FCO like never before. It’s like the British Zoological Society has launched a quiet coup at the FCO. So, what’s going on?

The Palmerston (animal) story is pretty straight forward. He’s a rescue cat from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, bought by PUS Sir Simon McDonald to be Chief Mouser to the FCO and general FCO staff morale booster, and has proven himself to be as belligerent and effective with mice and Larry the No 10 cat as his Victorian namesake was with Chinaand Egypt.

Notably, his first day at the FCO sparked the kind of media frenzy usually reserved for the arrival of a new Foreign Secretary. FCO Media Office was inundated with requests to film the cat stepping out of its cage and one major international outlet even asked to interview it; we rolled our eyes and let them ask the questions.

I will also never forget the BBC News Channel interrupting a story to go live to a crestfallen reporter standing on the pavement outside the FCO who proceeded to tell the country that a Battersea van had indeed driven down King Charles Street but that he had not been able to catch sight of the cat. Such is the effect of animals on the British media.

Palmerston, or @DiploMog as he is known to his 65,000 Twitter followers, is arguably becoming a soft power asset in his own right. Not quite as influential as the British Council or Chevening Scholarships yet, but a spreader of goodwill nonetheless, known to ministries of foreign affairs around the world and adored by more than a few ambassadors to the Court of St James’s for whom no visit to the FCO is complete without a Palmerston selfie.

But the cat is really just the start of the menagerie. In the past few months, the Foreign Secretary has condemned the illicit trade in pangolin scales and worn ‘save the pangolin’ t-shirts while on his infamous morning jogs, he’s called for a renewed effort alongside Commonwealth partners in protecting the elephant, and he’s hailed a new ‘Blue Belt’ environmental protection zone in British Antarctic waters, which from 2020 should safeguard penguins and other sea life. All of this is designed to reach a deafening cacophony of animal conservation noises in October when the UK convenes an Illegal Wildlife Conference.

So is pangolin and penguin protection now the responsibility of the FCO and the aim of British foreign policy? The original Palmerston might reply grimly that there’s no diplomacy without a gunboat and if he’d seen a pangolin he’d probably have tried to shoot it. And yet he was known to be a careful observer of Victorian public opinion and had a knack for the media, so he might have seen that something else was afoot.

What the FCO has done is prioritised work in the areas where Britain can seek to get the most bang for its effort, tackling tough, knotty dilemmas that challenge the international rules-based system as well as areas where Britain can underline its instinctive internationalism and values. The new animal conservation push sits as one of the two pillars of the FCO’s values drive, alongside the girls’ education campaign on which Boris Johnson has been equally vocal.

Most of the FCO machine does and should remain focused on the big foreign policy challenges like preserving the IranDeal, regional rivalry between Saudi Arabiaand Iran, backing UN efforts to end chaos and death in Myanmar, Libyaand Syria, and so on.

There’s still very much a place for gunboats, or their modern Storm Shadow missile equivalents, and carefully crafted UN Security Council resolutions are still worth the paper they’re written on. I like to think that last year’s UNSC Resolution 2375, a severe stricture on North Korea’s income for weapons development, bears more responsibility for recent handshakes across the Korean DMZ than one man’s sabre-rattling tweets.

But the animal thing, however simplistic at first sight, is smart precisely because it cuts through the noise of so much disagreement, division and misery. The issue cuts through generational divides and across borders. The onslaught of plastic in the oceans, and its effect on sea life and the ecosystems, is perhaps the only issue that unites perfectly the editorial columns and readers of the Daily Mailand the young citizens of the world who care passionately about aid and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

And Britain is not only talking the talk but acting, by proposing a total ban on ivory sales and through her continuing commitment to the aid budget that is funding efforts to meet global environmental goals. The increasingly close alignment between the FCO and the Department for International Development, in recent times frosty to one another, suggests that there will be more issue-based campaigning by the FCO in the future rather than less, undoubtedly funded by the aid budget.

As with the drive for girls’ education it is a way for Britain to show, in spite of what Brexit might prompt others abroad to believe, that the UK remains selfless in tackling universal challenges, and keen to do everything humanly possible to prevent a downwards spiral of moat-digging, wall-building and drawbridge-raising. It proves the UK is a good Global Citizen.

Perhaps Viscount Palmerston wouldn’t be so sceptical after all.



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