Written by Kerry Brown.

It is unexpected, but it is not in John Le Carre’s celebrated work where you will find perhaps the most searching and accurate modern description of the soul of a diplomat but that of Lawrence Durrell. In `Mountolive’ the third volume of his great Alexandria Trilogy, set mostly in Egypt at the end of the second world war,  Durrell describes the elevation of his eponymous main character to ambassadorship in Cairo from a posting in Russia. Diplomacy, he states, is `a long Jesuitical training in self-deception which enabled [you] to present an ever more highly polished surface to the world without deepening [your] human experience.’ Later in the novel he writes of the `quotidian platitudes’ that wash over attendees at the endless receptions expected of embassies or consulates. Mountolive, Durrell writes, felt `his real life became a buried stream, flowing on underground, seldom emerging from the artificial world in which a diplomat lives.’ One of his colleagues makes heroic attempts to break free of this, engaging deeply with local activists, but he ends up committing suicide. Perhaps Durrell should be required reading for all those seduced by the glamorous surface of diplomacy. He catches its immense toughness realistically and well.

Of course diplomats now live in a different age, but much of the paraphernalia of the 1940s Durrell fills his novel with is surprisingly extant. Embassies still have chanceries to do the political analysis, and they continue to contain military and intelligence officers who have sometimes complex relations with their Foreign Office colleagues. Ambassadors are meant to chorale all this together, and somehow at the same time maintain relations with a London head office that comes across as remote, unheeding, and ominously anonymous.  Information technology has transformed many things, but as social organizations, places which are distinctly of their own country but set down in an alien terrain, little has changed.

There are some searching questions though that you could ask about what the purpose of these institutions are now. The visa and consular function are straight forward enough, until the era at least when no one anywhere will need prior authority to get into the UK, or British nationals abroad stop getting into trouble. Neither of these is likely to happen soon, so their future is secure. But the political reporting and advisory function of embassies, and their role in promoting national image and soft power are really where the problems start. And the challenges facing them are most severe and obvious when we come to look at how they operate in China.

Most major nations, if for no other reason than trade support, are bolstering their numbers in the People’s Republic. The UK is opening a consulate in the industrial central city of Wuhan. Australia has just opened up in Chengdu. Cities like Xian and Lanzhou might even follow. Numbers of people sent to embassies in China from the UK to work has gone up steadily. But there is this nagging question, something which came to the fore during the Heywood incident from 2012, of them being surprisingly detached and rather odd entities for a country that is becoming socially and politically messier and more diverse by the day. Journalists and business people can find their own way, most of the time, to contacts in the country, and to different sort of information there. They hardly need an embassy intermediary now. And as so many Chinese students and tourist come out, and British visitors go in, the people to people contact carries on just fine. 15 years ago, access in China was challenging, but now we live in a different age.  Why have these vast outposts of British officialdom?

There is also a different question that had nagged at me over the years since I left the Foreign Office myself in the mid 2000s. And that comes back to the point Durrell makes of how diplomacy, or at least the British style of diplomacy, seems to carve out specific qualities as privileged and regard others with suspicion. I am trying to address this in a book I am writing at the moment about diplomacy and China. The argument is straightforward. Traditionally, at least in the high era of sinology in King Charles Street from the 1970s onwards, the qualities that were really admired were a hard-nosed prosecution of narrow definitions of British national interests over everything else. Because of the focal point of Hong Kong, British diplomats got high level attention in Beijing from the small number of people they needed to influence there. Whatever else happened in the wider society was of limited, if any, interest.

The Embassy I worked in in Beijing was still haunted by the mindset of the Hong Kong negotiations and handover days.  If you were to discuss the emotional or inner lives of Chinese people and how they were changing over this time a decade ago with senior colleagues, the reaction would undoubtedly have been frosty. The `Jesuit training’ as Durrell called if, of being a diplomat meant you didn’t indulge in this.

The problem now is that the `inner lives’, the aspirations, the emotions of Chinese people evidently do matter more and more, and that the powers of intuition and of a diplomatic attitude that can make sense of these is becoming increasingly important. From foreign policy, to domestic unrest and the political priorities of the central and local governments, trying to factor and reach the feelings of Chinese people is evidenced everywhere. And yet, I suspect that any attempt by an official from Britain working in China to send a report on this back to London would be regarded as brave. There is little real scope for trying to factor it into the framework of engagement that we have had for the last half a century.

Like journalism, I get the sense that diplomacy is undergoing a period of profound transformation, and that we will need to radically rethink what we get our embassies and consulates to do, and the sort of people we send to them. The proposal in my book is a very simple one – that they become like think tanks, which are more open, more populated by diverse expertise and much more daring in their experimentation. They need to be much more vocal in the whole debate about what China is in the UK, and what the Chinese really think beyond the musings of an elite. This, at least, is the modest proposal for British official sinology for the 21st century.

Kerry Brown’s `Lying Abroad for One’s Country: China and Diplomacy in the 21st Century’ will be published by Penguin in late 2014.