I am in favour of biographies of relatively obscure individuals like Jack Garnett because there are plenty of them on the famous; moreover, studies of this kind often turn up interesting details (including how the famous were seen from the foothills) and stimulate thought on bigger questions. John Fisher’s well written and thoroughly researched study of this early twentieth century British diplomat, into which contextual detail is expertly woven, is no exception. (The contents list of the book can be seen on the publisher’s website here.)
Garnett was inclined to be moody, headstrong, quickly bored, and indiscreet in gossiping about his chiefs and their wives. As a result, although able, adventurous, not shy of hard work, deeply patriotic and ambitious, this rather enigmatic man was never promoted beyond first secretary and left the diplomatic service under a cloud when only in his early forties. Perhaps the first general point which John Fisher’s book usefully underlines, therefore, is that either persons like this should not be admitted to the diplomatic profession in the first place or, if they are, should be handled better by those responsible for career development – heads of mission as well as the foreign ministry at home: in particular, they should not be sent to missions where they would have little to do, the fate of Garnett when posted in late 1916 to Tangier, where he idled away days as well as nights playing bridge, and later to Buenos Aires. (This shows that the Foreign Office’s mid-nineteenth century attempt to make a head of mission’s deputy something more than a chargé d’affaires in waiting had not been a complete success.) In the event, on resigning from the diplomatic service three years later, Garnett spent the following decade doing an amazing variety of social work in the East End of London and drifted to the political left; then, on inheriting his substantial family property in Lancashire in 1929, he abandoned the metropolis and became a provincial Tory magnate.
Another point that struck me as particularly interesting was the account of worries over the physical security of the Legation Quarter in Peking, in which Garnett found himself as third (later second) secretary at the British legation in 1905. This was just five years after the siege of this arrogant diplomatic enclave by the Boxers, and the need for precautions against another such assault was still very much in the minds of most diplomats, although Garnett had few concerns about his own safety and was soon fed up with the ‘semi-imprisonment’ of legation life. Among other less known details we learn from John Fisher that in February 1906 the German legation acquired a howitzer and that British ministers were inclined to play down security threats for fear of being withdrawn. (The last point, however, is left a little vague.)
Garnett might have had a relatively short diplomatic career but it was varied, taking him to Constantinople, Bucharest, St. Petersburg, Tehran, Sofia, and Athens, as well as the places already mentioned. (In addition, he served for some time in the Foreign Office’s Parliamentary and Contraband Departments during the First World War.) At most of these postings, in part because he often had little else to do, he found himself involved – socially and otherwise – with their expatriate British communities. In the war these became of more than usual concern to London and afterwards the Foreign Office established a Committee on British Communities Abroad. ‘Diaspora diplomacy’, as my colleague Kishan Rana has called it, has become much more important since, and those interested in its origins would do well to look at John Fisher’s work, including his previously published articles on the subject. The same might be said for those interested in the development of commercial diplomacy, for Garnett was one of its early supporters and this overlapped with attentiveness to the diaspora.
There is much else besides of interest to students of diplomacy as well as diplomatic history in this valuable book. Unlike some I could mention, it also has a good index. I commend it most warmly.