The job description for Britain’s ambassadors is to be rewritten to include tough targets for trade promotion and a requirement for the country’s top diplomats to tour the UK’s regions to showcase commercial opportunities abroad.
As well as gliding through the corridors of foreign ministries and cultivating contacts with potential investors and sovereign wealth funds, ambassadors will now be expected to lead “road shows” in Britain, meeting entrepreneurs first hand to help them export.
As part of the biggest push in commercial diplomacy since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the Foreign Office will also create a team to co-ordinate strategy towards the emerging economic powers, including the so-called Bric nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China.
The shake-up reflects the determination of William Hague, foreign secretary, to broaden the Foreign Office’s commercial remit. It also forms part of Mr Hague’s pitch for resources to the Treasury, casting the embassy network as an important driver of Britain’s economic recovery.
“In the past the political section in a mission has been the premier league and the rest have been neglected,” said one senior Whitehall figure. “That will stop.”
Mr Hague’s reform plan follows a pledge to appoint businessmen to key ambassadorial posts, the selection of Simon Fraser, a trade expert, to lead the diplomatic service, and three high-profile trade missions to India, Turkey and Japan.
His plan to hire people with business experience will extend to the management boards of specific embassies, which will consider taking on local British business leaders as non-executive directors. However, veteran diplomats responded with some scepticism, arguing the new initiative underplays the commercial side of their current work and overplays the ability of businessmen to take on demanding ambassadorial positions.
“There is a bit of reinventing the wheel going on,” said one serving diplomat. “I’ll believe it when I see the extra resources.”
To overcome longstanding barriers to co-ordinating trade efforts, Mr Hague is also setting up a “joint commercial taskforce” in Whitehall with UK Trade and Investment, a body that jointly reports to the Foreign Office and department for business.
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