‘I loved the smell of tear gas in the morning’: Former Ukrainian Ambassador Gives Talk


Nouse reports on Leigh Turner's lessons in diplomacy

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Image by Tom Lindley

By Daisy Couture

On Tuesday 27 February, former British ambassador to Ukraine Leigh Turner delivered a talk. In light of his upcoming book, Lessons in Diplomacy, Turner’s speech was based around a number of central lessons learnt throughout his career as both a diplomat and an ambassador, interspersed with anecdotes and personal experiences.

Hosted by Tom Lindley, Turner delivered his talk to members of the University’s Ukrainian Society and the York Dialectic Union.

Turner grew up in Lesotho and regards this as one of the factors that inspired both his diplomatic ambitions and interest in foreign affairs from an early age. After graduating from the University of Cambridge with a degree in Geography, he began his first job in the Department for Environment in 1979. Here, Turner dealt with political issues including rent acts and freight transport regulations.

Our first lesson of the night was to not judge a book by its cover; the first four jobs Turner had in the civil service were “some of the most interesting jobs that [he] ever did.”

His first posting was in Vienna, where he attended the 1984 Occupation of the Hainburger Au - a protest against the construction of a hydropower plant on the wetlands. Following this, he returned to the UK to work in counter-terrorism before accepting a posting in Moscow in 1992.

Thus the idea that “languages change your whole experience of working” was revealed. Turner explained how he undertook a nine-month intensive Russian language course in preparation for his posting, and that this understandably benefitted his work greatly. In light of this, we were told to “have a plan and break it”. Turner never intended to travel to Moscow for work and learn Russian, but was ultimately grateful that he did.

Turner also advocated going for the “hard jobs” and “embrac[ing] responsibility” - for example, his roles in the EU Budget Department in the late 1980s and as Director of Overseas Territories in 2006 were highly satisfactory due to the intense pressure and responsibility that he faced in both.

Between 1998-2006, Turner and his family were posted in Berlin. For four years, he undertook the role of economic counsellor, helping to deal with the mad cow disease epidemic. His job included persuading German society to continue to buy British beef.

Between 2002-2004, Turner took a career break to look after his children. Career breaks, he said, are generally looked favourably upon for men in the diplomatic line of work, as more women are encouraged to enter into the field. During this time, he began writing for the Financial Times, as well as authoring thriller novels such as Blood Summit, set around a terrorist siege of the Reichstag.

Turner described this period as the “best four years of [his] working life”, and that we should not take work too seriously; it is not everything.

In 2008, Turner was posted in Kyiv and took on his first ambassadorial role. During this time he started a blog, and became the best-known blogger in the Foreign Office.

After returning to Vienna as the Brexit ambassador in 2016, Turner retired from the Foreign Office in 2021. His political career spanned 42 years.

Turner’s final lesson revolved around the idea of giving something back; he now lectures and gives talks to institutions around the country offering lessons and career guidance relating to diplomacy.

To round off the talk, we were left with six final tips - three on diplomacy and three on ambassadorship. The former were to specialise in a particular area, focus on people and be long-term in your ambitions. The latter were to live up to the job, have an opinion and do what you love.

Turner then invited questions from the floor.

In answer to, “Did you find it difficult to stay neutral on policies that you didn’t necessarily agree with?” Turner suggested that “There are always pretty good arguments for practically any policy.” He said that he found this issue most difficult to combat whilst working as a Home Civil Servant - dealing with British people and their basic living situations was tough, whereas there tends to be a more “general consensus” among people when it comes to Foreign Policy.

In response to why diplomats get moved around so much, Turner claimed that there can be advantages to keeping diplomats posted in the same area for prolonged periods, but this is atypical due to a desire to develop new opinions. “Fresh people [...] with fresh ideas” tend to be more useful than those with firm and potentially outdated ideas. Often, overseas diplomats can run the risk of developing something Turner called “post-itis” - a condition whereby you believe that everything your posted country is doing is correct.

Turner’s book, Lessons in Diplomacy, will be available on 24 September 2024.