The Unmoving Embassy

In Britain we have been trying for years to move much of the machinery of government away from London.  We haven’t been trying terribly hard, because most senior people in government like being in or near London; but living, working and commuting in the capital can be expensive and inconvenient.

There’s no law that says that government offices have to be in the centre of the capital, and I’ve worked with civil servants who seem very happy to earn the same salary in Sheffield as their colleagues earn in London.  Why, after all, should you live in a cupboard in London when for the same money you can live in a palace in Sheffield?

Picture of the vast Department of Work and Pensions offices in Newcastle
Vast Department of Work and Pensions Offices in Newcastle, far from London

The last British Government used to hold cabinet meetings around the country, which was possibly good publicity but appallingly inefficient for people who otherwise spent all their time working in the government district of Westminster or commuting to their constituencies around the country.

Canny government departments forced to move across the River Thames or even north of the River Trent always keep an office in Westminster, if they know what’s good for them.  The capital is the capital however inconvenient.  This gives us the enjoyable sight of the Cabinet Secretary or the Permanent Undersecretary of Her Majesty’s Treasury, the most powerful people in government, fighting through crowds of tourists to get from one Whitehall meeting to another.

Artist's conception of the new US Embassy, Nine Elms, Wandsworth
Yes, that’s a moat. The new US Embassy in Nine Elms, Wandsworth, has a moat.

It is not only government departments which have decided to leave the hurly-burly of Westminster.  The American Embassy is going to move out of the centre of London some time in the next few years.  They’re building a new fortress across the Thames in the Borough of Wandsworth that will enable them to process passport applications quietly, away from the distractions of theatre and the arts.  Their fleet of armoured Chevy Suburbans will ferry them the two miles over the river and across town to meetings at the Cabinet Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Of course this won’t be the only American embassy that isn’t in the same place as the hosting government.  The American embassy in Israel is also a little way away from the Foreign Ministry, 66.9 miles as we measure distance in England.  There have been various attempts to move it closer, but the State Department doesn’t seem keen on losing their seafront view and convenient city centre location in Tel Aviv.

The British Embassy isn’t any closer, and we failed miserably in our last attempt to move it to someplace less grubby and with decent parking.  The best we can do is move to Ben Yehuda St while the dump on Hayarkon is renovated.

Picture of Kirya Tower, Tel Aviv
So near, and yet so far. The perfect British Embassy site, ruined.

There’s no law that says that government offices have to be in the capital, and there’s also no law that says that foreign embassies have to be in the capital.   I’m sure that the foreign ministries of impoverished developing countries lie about this to their head offices:

“We have to keep renting the huge embassy in Belgravia! If we don’t, the British will punish us by not inviting us to royal garden parties!”

I’m sure they also write home about laws forcing them to eat at Scott’s Restaurant in Mayfair and drive only the very largest German cars.

There are some countries which are daring enough to have their embassies in outer London, like the Salvadorans who not only dared to have an embassy in Jerusalem for a while but who also have their embassy to the Court of St James in Marylebone.  Guinea is in Maida Vale, and the Papal nuncio is in Wimbledon.  North Korea is in Gunnersbury.

Photo of the Benin Embassy, Paris
Benin Embassy to the Court of St James … in Paris

Ten countries have their Ambassador to the Court of St James in Paris which is a long way from London, but closer to a greater concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants.  Seven countries have their embassies to Britain in Brussels, which can’t be because of the food, but might be because of the London Congestion Charge.

Of course we don’t especially care where the embassies are.  Israelis seem to care a lot, and some people in America think Floridians will care even more.

Israel, I’m told, has a right to say where its capital is.  Based on the location of every branch of the Israeli government with the exception of the Ministry of Defence that’s a pretty accurate statement.  Every other country in the world has the right to put their embassies where they like, and the rest of the world seems to like the commute down Route 2 from Herzliya Pituach. Every country in the world, except Bolivia, Paraguay and the occasional Central American state, pretends that the distance between Tel Aviv (or Herzliya Pituach or Ramat Gan) and Jerusalem is no greater than the 3 miles between the Israeli Embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens and the Foreign Office in Whitehall.  And there, since the Israeli Foreign Ministry moved to Jerusalem in 1953, it has rested.

Sketch of the American Embassy in Tel Aviv
What this place really needs is a moat.

And then the Romney Campaign noticed that the Democrats dropped a platform plank.  The Democrats, already being painted by the Republicans as Hassan Nasrallah’s lobby in Washington, had for reasons unknown dropped their customary reference to moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

So the Democratic Party in the US has hastily revised its campaign platform to once again insist that the American Embassy to Israel move to the former British Army camp in Talpiyot, something no Secretary of State will implement.  The pledge to move the embassy, meaningless though it is, has become a touchstone of pro-Israel sentiment.

The Republican Party, which had also left out the usual plank about moving the embassy, made the mistake of pointing out the Democrats’ change of meaningless pledge after their own convention had ended.

This means that the Democrats, party of Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, Jack Kennedy and Harry Truman (who didn’t move the embassy) and Barack Obama (who didn’t move the embassy) are now promising to move the embassy.  Which they won’t.

The Republicans, party of Dubya Bush, Old Man Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerry Ford, Dick Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower (who didn’t move the embassy) and Willard “Mitt” Romney (who, if elected, wouldn’t move the embassy), are not promising to move the embassy, which they wouldn’t anyway.

American-Israelis were shocked to discover before the Olympics that the world doesn’t recognise Jerusalem (no, not even “West Jerusalem”) as the capital of Israel (never mind the undivided capital of Israel).  This semantically-null voice vote at the Democratic convention in Charlotte is meant to be important to them, but it’s much more important in Florida.  The people Jack Lew is attempting to convert from their devotion to Governor Romney may not be sturdy Zionist pioneers, but everybody seems to be betting they care about where the American embassy … isn’t.


About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is Principal at Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy consultancy. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.