You cant pigeon hole a country


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Category: International 07 Nov 11


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, ( 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 clever.

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 commonalities.

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 that? 
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 system?
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.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur