The Foreign Office’s Foreign Policy Counsellor in Washington, awarded an OBE in a previous role for kidnap resolution, talks to John Garth.
Why did you apply to Oxford?
As a teenager at the City of London Freemen’s School I wanted to be a scientist, but while studying German in the Alps I realised I was more interested in how different cultures interact than what atoms get up to. So I decided to join the Foreign Office and thought history would be good training. The Oxford course offered the freedom to explore the history of many countries across the centuries. Fortunately the St John’s history tutors weren’t put off by the fact that I had only started teaching myself history A-level five months before. I’d taken myself off to Gladstone’s library at Hawarden in North Wales in the summer holiday and autumn half term to read voraciously.
What were your impressions of Oxford?
I’ve always found Oxford a very inspiring city. Dawn and dusk, Merton Street seemed the same as it could have been for centuries.
What kind of student were you?
I had my favourite desk in the Rad Cam – I was fairly studious! The lectures I remember most vividly are James Campbell on medieval history and Niall Ferguson on the two World Wars: opposite ends of the spectrum. I came up wanting to specialise in German history but migrated eastwards – early 19th-century Russian history.
What about your social life?
Dinner parties cooked on student cookers with only two rings: that was student life for me. My birthday is close to Bonfire Night, so I’d have a dinner party and insist everybody brought scarves and hats to watch the St John’s fireworks beforehand.
Did you take part in any extra-curricular activities?
I was president of the Oxford University European Affairs Society for a term, and organised the St Petersburg Ball. It was a great place to run a student society because so many politicians, religious leaders and statesmen wanted to come and explain their ideas. Christian Noyer – now Governor of the Bank of France but then at the European Central Bank – suddenly decided he wanted to stay over, so I was asked to help; and an hour later we were guests of the President of Magdalen, who had invited David Trimble for the evening. There aren’t many universities that have that draw. I also did some debating and acting.
Has your Oxford qualification helped your career?
The majority of successful applicants to the Foreign Office aren’t from Oxbridge, but having the freedom to explore the past for three years was a great grounding for a career in diplomacy, where the past still so often matters. Michelle Obama said when she visited, “If you can see yourself at Oxford you can see yourself anywhere.” That’s true and very empowering.
What else did you take away from Oxford?
Meeting my husband Nicholas at the Fresher’s Debating Competition at the Oxford Union is probably the most significant thing! He was a Fresher at Univ. We were opposite each other at the Freshers’ Debating Competition. We also made our maiden speeches in the Chamber opposite each other again and didn’t actually speak on the same side for at least a year. He’s now a junior research fellow in History at St Peter’s. We celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary this year.
Does Oxford have a role to play in your field?
Diplomacy is about influence, and Oxford is one of the world’s great institutions – something distinctive about Britain that contributes to our influence in the world.
How do you think of Oxford now?
In a sense I’ve never left: my husband’s still there. Whenever I’ve been abroad and come back to Oxford, at whatever hour, there’s always somebody who looks as if they’ve just discovered the meaning of life.