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Leigh Turner

Ambassador to Austria and UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other International Organisations in Vienna

Part of UK in Austria

15th December 2020 Vienna, Austria

Diplomatic lessons 3, 1987-91: go for the hard jobs

The day I started my job as Desk Officer for Budget and Finance in the European Community Department (Internal) of the Foreign Office on 2 November 1987 turned out to be a long one.

In the evening, I sat with my colleague Ralph Publicover[1], Desk Officer for the Common Agricultural Policy (including stabilisers and Monetary Compensatory Amounts[2]), in Room E121[3] of the FCO and watched the moon rise.  My predecessor, Mark Lyall-Grant, had become Private Secretary to Lynda Chalker, Minister for Europe.  The Head of ECD(I), Stephen Wall, had picked me to fill what he described as “one of the most crucial desks in the FCO during the autumn”.

At 7 p.m., the door opened and Lynda Chalker herself walked in.  ‘You must be Leigh Turner,’ she said.  She told me never to hesitate to seek advice or help from Mark in the difficult weeks and months ahead.

‘That shows,’ Ralph observed after she had left, ‘what you’ve let yourself in for.’

I kind of knew that.  A letter I wrote to my parents that weekend records that on arrival in ECD(I) that morning I was met with numerous expressions of sympathy and condolence at my having to assume such a fearsome range of tasks.

A male-dominated meeting of European leaders and foreign ministers in Brussels, 1987 (Bundesarkiv)

Those tasks included preparation for a European Council in December 1987 on the future financing of the European Economic Community, the outcome of which would affect UK contributions to the EEC by billions of pounds.  This was a subject to which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had negotiated the UK rebate at Fontainebleau three years earlier, attached some importance.  I also covered UK policy on the European Monetary System (predecessor to the Euro) – again a subject of political debate in the UK.

Call for briefs for December 1987 Copenhagen European Council

The job was so busy that I missed my own 30th birthday party when Heads of State and Government failed to agree in December 1987 and called an additional European Council for the date of my celebration in February 1988.

So why did I apply for the job?

The short answer was that I thought working on the EEC[4] would be central to UK interests; might be fun; and might help my career.  All were true:

(i) it was amongst the toughest jobs I ever did (although not necessarily the most interesting).  Returning from work at dawn was commonplace.  I learned how to work to the highest quality at the utmost speed on the most complex subjects.  I also learned how to negotiate – notably with HM Treasury, my old home.  They led on policy in my area; but Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and PM Margaret Thatcher were doing the negotiations.  Without wanting to be cheesy, all this showed me what I was capable of;

(ii) because the subject was important, I worked with stellar colleagues.  My line management chain – Nigel Sheinwald, Stephen Wall and John Kerr (see footnotes) – gave me a crash course in hard work and excellence.  Several of my talented fellow desk officers became lifelong friends.

Budapest, 1989 – this view hasn’t changed much

After two years in ECD(I), I joined “Security Co-ordination Department” (SCD), dealing with a range of classified tasks on counter-terrorism.  I was “Head of Ops”, leading on the British Government’s response to a terrorist incident overseas, or the FCO element of a domestic incident.  This involved regular exercises to test UK police forces; and some memorable trips to discuss CT co-operation with security services in former Warsaw Pact countries following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

SCD gave me added respect for, and familiarity with, UK agencies including the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service, the Metropolitan Police, the Home Office and the military.  I remember my then-boss Hilary Synott, a former naval officer, handing responsibility to me and going back to sleep one night during an incident at one of our missions in South America.  A more perfect lesson in “don’t do, delegate” would be hard to imagine.

The single lesson I would draw from these four years in London is that you learn most by doing the most difficult jobs with the best people.  Nothing teaches you more, quickly, than working hard with talented people.  Few things are more memorable or – especially with hindsight – enjoyable.

Did I know what I was letting myself in for when I joined ECD(I)?  Not really.  Did I regret it?  Not for a moment.


The previous posts in this series are:

Diplomatic lessons 1, 1979-83: Don’t judge a book by its cover

Diplomatic lessons 2, 1983-87: Languages change everything

 Coming up next: Diplomatic lessons 4, Moscow 1991-95: Have a plan; and break it.

[1] Later Ambassador to Angola.  Of others named in this piece, Mark Lyall Grant went on to be National Security Adviser, Stephen Wall to be UK Permanent Representative to the EU, Nigel Sheinwald and John Kerr UK Ambassadors to the US, the latter, now Baron Kerr of Kinlochard, also becoming FCO Permanent Secretary. Hilary Synott was later High Commissioner to Pakistan.

[2] Don’t ask

[3] Later converted into a gents’ lavatory

[4] It became the European Union in 1993

About Leigh Turner

I hope you find this blog interesting and, where appropriate, entertaining. My role in Vienna covers the relationship between Austria and the UK as well as the diverse work of…

I hope you find this blog interesting and, where appropriate, entertaining. My role in Vienna covers the relationship between Austria and the UK as well as the diverse work of the UN and other organisations; stories here will reflect that.

About me: I arrived in Vienna in August 2016 for my second posting in this wonderful city, having first served here in the mid-1980s. My previous job was as HM Consul-General and Director-General for Trade and Investment for Turkey, Central Asia and South Caucasus based in Istanbul.

Further back: I grew up in Nigeria, Exeter, Lesotho, Swaziland and Manchester before attending Cambridge University 1976-79. I worked in several government departments before joining the Foreign Office in 1983.

Keen to go to Africa and South America, I’ve had postings in Vienna (twice), Moscow, Bonn, Berlin, Kyiv and Istanbul, plus jobs in London ranging from the EU Budget to the British Overseas Territories.

2002-6 I was lucky enough to spend four years in Berlin running the house, looking after the children (born 1992 and 1994) and doing some writing and journalism.

To return to Vienna as ambassador is a privilege and a pleasure. I hope this blog reflects that.