Trinidad and Tobago is roughly the size of Surrey,
a county in England. This week, we look at our tiny islands from the
outside in, through the eyes of the youngest diplomat in this country.
Just 35, the new British High Commissioner to T&T, Arthur Snell, who
graduated with a first from Oxford University in History, completed his
Masters from the University of London, has had Foreign Office postings
in Zimbabwe and Nigeria, and learned Arabic before being posted to
Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan (where he managed a 60 million pound counter
radicalisation programme) represents the new face of diplomacy.
Married to a professional, working woman, Dr
Charlotte Bigland, he blogs, (http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/roller/snell/)
is a hands-on, sleep deprived dad to his newborn son and four-year-old
daughter, is adventurous, a keen sailor and mountaineer because he
ďlikes testing his limits with a challengeĒ and given his track record
at the British Foreign Office, is either a workaholic or ridiculously
Tell me about yourself?
I had a happy and privileged childhood in England. I was born in
Brighton, in the South East of England. My motherís family has produced
several liberal politicians (including the first female Labour MP, Susan
Lawrence in the 1920s), who, though born into privilege, had a social
conscience and wanted to make the then stratified Britain into a more
egalitarian place. The conversation around the kitchen table while I was
growing up was always on burning national and international issues,
apartheid, the cold war. My father is from a very practical family of
architects and engineers. Itís amazing what a building can tell you
about a society. As a history student, Oxford thrilled me because
wherever you looked you saw in the buildings, our national story over
the centuries. Both parents influenced me.
Although England is crowded it has pockets of real
beauty around which I grew up. I have a strong connection with its rural
landscape which is very unusual in that unlike much of continental
Europe, it hasnít seen conflict for over 500 years and has been
continually inhabited. No matter where I go, or what wonders I witness,
I will always love England and hope to die there. I am drawn to
mountains in remote areas and open seas, and in boarding school in
Winchester I met people who had international backgrounds which made me
curious about the world and led me to a career in the Foreign Office. I
play the violin and I am passionate about classical music, opera,
Gregorian chants, something you donít see much of in the Caribbean. Itís
a shame people talk about it as ďwhite peopleís cultureĒ. That makes no
sense to me as music in universal.
Until the early 1970s Trinidad and Tobago, along
with the rest of the English speaking Caribbean, had a post colonial
nostalgic hangover. Over the last 40 years there has been a steady swing
to the USA and Canada. T&T has clearly come into its own with a widening
range of connections with the region, North and Latin America which is
positive. But our historical connections remain strong. T&T has retained
a Westminster system of governance, every year hundreds of lawyers study
the British Legal System in England, we play the same football which is
a different game altogether in America, the Anglican church is strong
here, and, of course, the English language. The 50th anniversary of
T&Tís independence will be an opportunity to explore all our
Your blogs on the SoE and our so-called ďdevelopedĒ status have
already had strong responses by journos on social media. Is blogging
encouraged by the Foreign Office? How open are you going to be given the
British reputation for being somewhat stuffy, stiff upper lip and all
A blog is a way to get a wide reach beyond receptions and the diplomatic
bubble, a way to interact with the vast majority of the population. If
most people are on the Internet thatís where youíve got to be. The blog
is like steering a ship between obstacles. Itís not an email sent to my
family, nor a press release. Itís part of my job to represent the
British government while remaining authentic and relevant. I hope the
blog will get that line right. For instance, I have said on the blog
that a state of emergency has temporarily improved lives but canít be a
permanent thing. You canít pigeon hole a country. As a country of 60
million people, Britain is more than just the old fashioned Victorian
clichť. We have lots of different identities, like swinging London, and
pop groups, and global fashion leader.
Like the UK, the Trinidad and Tobago Government
is a coalition. Are coalitionís unnatural beasts in our Westminster
style of governance?
A coalition in the current economic and political climate is a good
thing. It gives you a huge mandate. If you add those people who voted
for conservatives and liberal democrats, itís a large majority of
British electorate. The last time the country had such a mandate was in
1945 for labour. Some people say itís disparate, unmanageable. The
British population has moved from voting for two big parties to voting
for a whole array (of parties). In the future, we will see more
coalitions as societies worldwide go through difficult change. The
numbers tell us that.
Journalists are always looking for cracks and that
at some point becomes the story rather than the actual performance of
the coalition in power. I will be genuinely surprised if our government
doesnít survive ítill 2015. Naturally, there will be disagreements as
they come from distinct traditions, liberal and conservative, but they
all agree on what they want to achieve. T&T has a lot of similar
challenges, but like ours, the mandate for this government is large.
We have just seen, in the UK, the case where a
senior MP, Liam Fox resigned despite not doing anything wrong personally
in a case of influence peddling. Here in Trinidad hardly anyone resigns
for anything. What are the forces acting on a politician in the UK that
may not be present here in Trinidad despite the similarities of our
In the UK we have a very aggressive, vibrant media. The story of Liam
Fox was front page news in all papers, from the Telegraph to the Daily
Mail on inappropriate activity by advisers. Some of these questions are
complicated. If you want to find out why a certain minister did not
adhere to a code of conduct you may not uncover the story in a day but
over several weeks, requiring prolonged, in-depth analyses. On the
parliamentary expenses issue, the Telegraph made it their campaign, ran
it for months and looked into it in great detail. What was printed was a
fraction of what went on their Web site.
The difference is that the media here do not run
campaigns. There is a huge banner headline and the next day you think
Ďwhat happened with that?í It disappears and another story appears. The
attention span of the media here is short. On the positive side, for a
small country you have three broadsheets, and spread representing the
variance of public opinion. Politicians are not there by right. The
public has entrusted them to account to their affairs on their behalf.
In a democratic society the media should act as a powerful watch dog,
take an issue, investigate, explain it, and push for accountability and
change on behalf of the people.
The British have always been crisis
divided over EU membership, Now with Europeís growing debt and currency
crisis is there pressure to break away from the EU?
The EU is not one of these opt in opt out, schemes. You only have to
think of Caricom and the difficulty of 15 countries achieving a common
position in one issue. It is undeniably a turbulent period now for the
EU. There are massive imbalances between the member states, and in the
Euro Zone. Issues of public debt, bailout, reform and austerity measures
have to be thrashed out. The sceptics among us who take pleasure by
seeing the Euro zone suffer should know that although we chose not to
join the Euro, 40 per cent of our trade is with Europe our citizens have
access to competitively priced European goods, the freedom to move,
work, live and get benefits in all member states. We have contributed to
bail out funds of Ireland, and remain committed and connected to the EU.
What is your abiding
impression of the Middle East?
I speak Arabic so the Middle East, Baghdad was an obvious choice for me.
It would have been crazy not to go there or Afghanistan. What I remember
most was the eternal rhythm of everyday life in thriving cities, colour
filled markets, people zipping around in scooters, construction,
sanctuary in quiet ancient Islamic palaces, unforgettable landscape,
beauty amidst the chaos and a people whose spirit always rose above the
limits that conflict had placed in their lives.