Denying our man in New York a £16m penthouse? That would be churlish | Oliver Miles | Opinion

Diplomacy is about communication. Diplomats, particularly senior ones, often have to deal with the rich and powerful. They cannot of course match the lifestyle of kings, presidents, feudal lords, business tycoons, press barons and so on. But all governments, except the most impoverished (and some of them as well), find it wise to have them deal with such people on something like equal terms. That requires a base with a bit of style, which can be expensive.

A “$16 million penthouse fit for a UK civil servant” is never going to be popular. But the role of such homes, provided at the taxpayers’ expense, is perhaps misunderstood. As well as allowing diplomats to do their jobs they also have to provide a decent, normal, family home. That may not always be achieved (I’m thinking of my own time in South Arabia, now Yemen), but it is vital. The Ferrero Rocher image of diplomacy is by no means the whole story, but if Mr Big keeps inviting you to his mansion and all you can do in return is take him out to a restaurant he will soon mark you down as a cheapskate, and that is not a good beginning. Diplomats are not unique in this; you don’t see many big business representatives living in shoeboxes.

Buying and renting property around the world is a tricky business. In Saudi Arabia in the 1970s all the embassies were obliged to be in Jeddah, although most of the government business was in Riyadh, 500 miles away. Some of us had to fly there every couple of weeks, and to cut the hassle and expense we got London’s approval to buy a pied-à-terre in Riyadh. We found a suitable house, but London said diplomats were not competent to deal in property, so an expert was sent out. He found a suitable house and paid a deposit to the “owner”, who took the next plane to Cairo and was not heard from again.

British diplomats in particular inherit many of their houses from the lottery of history. As ambassador in Libya, I lived in a house built by Mussolini for his admiral – spacious, elegant, but jerry-built. It had been owned by the queen of Libya, so Gaddafi nationalised it when he took power in 1969, and handed it over to a people’s committee. Later he abolished the committee, so we paid no rent (but couldn’t possibly afford to mend the ceiling, which was falling down). Now, alas, it is burnt down, and it isn’t safe for my successor to live in Tripoli anyway.

Bathtub in penthouse overlooking Manhattan skyline

‘Diplomats are not unique in this; you don’t see many big business representatives living in shoeboxes.’ Photograph: PR Image

The most charming British ambassador’s residence I have seen is an old palace in Tunis. But the garden is so big that it was said only an ambassador whose wife was a professional market gardener should be sent there. Of course a supply of home-produced food is a useful insurance in many countries.

In Greece we lived in possibly the finest house in Athens. It was built by a ship-owning heiress for her husband, Eleftherios Venizelos, Greece’s leading statesman a hundred years ago and a national hero to his supporters, but a devil to the royalists. She planned to give it to the state as a Greek 10 Downing Street, but when he died the royalists happened to be in power and refused him a state funeral. She was so incensed she rang the British ambassador and offered him the house at a knockdown price.

The apartment in New York that has captured attention is the home of the British consul general in New York and trade commissioner for North America, two very different jobs for the price of one. As consul general he looks after the many problems of British subjects. He has to be able to talk to, and perhaps lean on, the local authorities including the police. One effective consul I knew took all his entertainment allowance in malt whiskybecause that was what his police contacts liked, but I don’t think that would be enough in New York. As trade commissioner, he has to deal with and influence federal and state governments and business leaders across the US. We may not be able to afford Mar-a-Lago, but we have this instead.

Oliver Miles served in HM Diplomatic Service, 1960-96

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