Tom Fletcher on the Israeli crisis, avoiding assassination and the art of diplomacy
October 13, 2023. Series 7. Episode 74
Our guest this week is Tom Fletcher, former Ambassador to Lebanon, Downing Street Private Secretary for Foreign Affairs to three successive Prime Ministers and author. Given Tom’s experience at the sharp end of geopolitics, the timing of our conversation could not have been more useful.
Tom, who is now Principal of Oxford University’s Hertford College, has first-hand, visceral experience of managing conflict in a region now beset with tragedy and terror. Experience that included facing the regular threat of assassination as well as the complex management of an Embassy at a time of extreme challenge.
As a diplomat, Tom has a tried and tested operational formula when it comes to crisis. But he is also a man with strong and useful views across the range of other risks and threats we face across politics, education and other areas. A former diplomat (or recovering Ambassador as he puts it) who is not afraid to have opinions.
Tom is also someone who believes in the strategic power of a sense of humour, even when you’re in a room full of world leaders. Stand by for a cracking anecdote about Silvio Burlesconi and his budgie smugglers.
Hope you enjoy this episode and find it as useful as I did. My thanks to Tom.
Tom’s Crisis Comforts
1. A small piece of land – to put my hands in the soil and sit under my fig tree with a Negroni
2. A good Spotify playlist – Music is always a good place to put my head.
3. The basics – air, water and sleep – simply remembering to breathe, stay hydrated and always get your seven hours sleep.
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream: https://open.spotify.com/track/5OX9XgJufFz9g63o2Dv2i5?si=b2f9397c92084682
Books By Tom:
Host: Andy Coulson
CWC production team: Louise Difford and Jane Sankey
With special thanks to Global.
Tom Fletcher: [0:00:00] I would worry that things would have escalated. There was a real danger of other regional powers getting involved in different ways. For sure, and with great sadness, one thing that we can predict with some certainty is that there will be hundreds more deaths this week and that the vast, vast majority of those will be civilians.
Andy Coulson: [0:00:24] Welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to guide you towards a more resilient life and whatever it might throw at you. If this is your first time with us, then please hit subscribe wherever you’re watching or listening, it really does help make sure that these, I hope useful, conversations are shared as widely as possible.
Now, we book our guests for this podcast some time in advance, but just occasionally fate or events play a part. And today is one of those days. The appalling attacks in Israel over the weekend have created, in the words of our former guest Jeremy Bowen, the most serious crisis for that region in a generation.
How, in the face of so much death and brutality, will this situation not develop into a true, long‑term catastrophe? That’s the question; how amongst such anger and desire for retribution can some kind of pause or even peace be achieved?
Well today we have the perfect guest to help us navigate this seemingly impossible challenge. Tom Fletcher describes himself as a recovering ambassador, aged just 36 he became our man in Beirut from 2011 to 2015; a job which put him at the centre of the region’s political challenges. A job in which it was easy to make enemies, and death threats were part of his day to day life.
Prior to that, Tom was David Cameron’s private secretary for Foreign Affairs in Downing Street, where we worked together for a while. He did the same job for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they were in office.
In his current role as Principal of Hertford, the Oxford College he attended himself after leaving his Kent Grammar School, Tom now spends his time thinking hard about the challenges that will face the next generation of leaders.
He has also been a visiting Professor at New York University, the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, and founded the Foundation for Opportunity, a charitable organisation which supports those future leaders.
And in amongst all this, Tom has also published three books. The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age, Ten Survival Skills for a World in Flux and The Ambassador, a novel about a murder in the British Embassy in Paris.
In his memoirs, Gordon Brown described Tom as “indispensable.” David Cameron wrote of him in his autobiography, “There was one man who would prove essential, and that was Tom Fletcher.”
So in this episode we will talk to Tom about the attacks on Israel, about how those now tasked with managing this crisis should approach it, and we’ll also discuss what it is to work on the frontline of diplomacy as he did for twenty-five years. What it is to be tasked with finding solutions, a way forward in the midst of so much anger and so much bloodshed.
Tom Fletcher, welcome to Crisis What Crisis. It’s great to see you.
Tom Fletcher: [0:03:13] And you, Andy, thank you very much and thank you for such a kind introduction. I have major imposter syndrome right now.
Andy Coulson: [0:03:21] Tom, I want to start with Israel, if I may? When you saw the news break at the weekend, just tell me what your first reaction was?
Tom Fletcher: [0:03:33] I’ve long hated diplomatic platitudes, and often you hear people in my old world say they’re concerned or they’re gravely concerned, and you kind of ratchet that up depending on how bad the situation was. I saw that and I was terrified. I was angry and I was very worried for many friends. I mean, you can’t watch that footage and not be alarmed, terrified.
And then the adrenaline starts kicking in because I remember being in that situation so often before as the news breaks and you start to think, “What are the implications, what are the implications for the Brits in the area, what does this mean for civilians on both sides?” in this case who will be under the bombs, under attack, but also anger and fear because how does this end, how do we get out of this cycle of horrific violence and start to try to heal these wounds of history?
Andy Coulson: [0:04:23] We’re talking as a full siege of Gaza has been announced, Israeli leaders describing this as the nation’s 9/11. Crisis doesn’t quite do it justice, does it?
Tom Fletcher: [0:04:37] It’s a full blown crisis for sure, and I think this episode will go out in a few days from when we’re recording it now, four or five days, who knows where we’ll be by then? I would worry that things will have escalated, there is a real danger of other regional powers getting involved in different ways. For sure, and with great sadness, one thing that we can predict with some certainty is that there will be hundreds more deaths this week. And that the vast, vast majority of those will be civilians. And that’s a real crisis.
Andy Coulson: [0:05:09] We talk a lot on this pod about trying to find opportunity in crisis. How do you begin to find opportunity in this crisis?
Tom Fletcher: [0:05:23] It’s very, very hard. And often when you’re dealing with a peace-making, peace-keeping situation, the first thing you’re trying to do is just get everyone to calm down, to cool things down, to de-escalate in diplomatic language. And clearly that de‑escalation isn’t going to come soon.
We know from history that in previous crises like this with Israel, there’s normally a period where Israel extracts retaliation against those neighbouring communities, whether in Lebanon or in Palestine. And that does get pretty brutal. And then there’s a period while the international community tries to get restraint back into the situation, tries to get that respect for international law back into the situation, and that will take some time.
So the immediate challenge is not about finding the opportunity I’m afraid, it’s about just trying to stabilise the situation, trying to de-escalate, trying to deal with that immediate threat, trying to get those people to safety.
But then when these sorts of crises hit in Lebanon, when the bomb went off, or there was cross-border activity between Hezbollah and Israel, I’d always say, I’d always try to Tweet, I was trying to use social media a lot, and it was the great days of Twitter. I’d always try that quote, “Look for the helpers.” There will be people in there driving those fire engines back towards those 9/11 buildings. There will be people in there, the first responders, trying to get people to safety, on both sides.
There will be people who have in common the fact that they want their kids to go to school, they want fresh water, they want nutritional food, they want to basically live their lives peacefully. And they don’t want to be defined by these labels, they don’t want to be defined by this conflict. And so the challenge will be to find those people.
We worked out by the way, we did some research at the Foundation on the role of women in peace-making, in peace-keeping, and we found that the more women who are involved in peace-keeping at an early stage, and building those negotiations, building a peace process, the more likely it is to be sustainable, to be durable.
Andy Coulson: [0:07:27] So we are- in practical terms, the things that you’re identifying there are a way down the road, aren’t they? But if you were in the job, when you think about the Ambassadors now in Tel Aviv and in Beirut, what will be happening in the room? What are the priorities for those guys who now find themselves in the midst of this crisis, in practical terms? So the early stages, what are the priorities? How did you operate, I suppose, when those moments came?
Tom Fletcher: [0:08:00] So it’s very hard, because you’re getting hit by information and by change all around you all the time. So one of the first things you do is to actually define it as a crisis. There’s a moment when you signal to London, as an Ambassador, and to your team that, “Okay, we’re in crisis mode.” And things change at that point.
Andy Coulson: [0:08:17] And you’d use that word, would you?
Tom Fletcher: [0:08:19] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:08:19] Because it’s a word that is massively overused.
Tom Fletcher: [0:08:21] Exactly, so you have to be very sparing. And you can imagine, if you’re in- I was in Beirut, we were in sort of pretty much permacrisis.
Andy Coulson: [0:08:28] Yes.
Tom Fletcher: [0:08:29] So you had to be very, very careful not to call a crisis unless you were certain that you were in one.
Andy Coulson: [0:08:33] So what was your criteria, Tom?
Tom Fletcher: [0:08:35] So for me it was, “Are we going to need to evacuate Brits within 48 hours?” And we had the most tested crisis plan of any Embassy. Because history suggested that every few years we had to evacuate all the Brits. Either there would be a conflagration in Syria, as there was during my time, or cross‑border Israel Hezbollah, and things would kick off. Or Lebanon itself would slip back towards civil war and the horrific violence that defined Beirut, Lebanon for a decade through the ‘70s and ‘80s.
So there’s a moment when you say to everyone, “Right, we’re in crisis now.” Often the first thing that you have to do as an Ambassador, and we completely reviewed, overhauled our crisis work after the attack in Bali, remember the terrorist attack in Bali?”
Tom Fletcher: [0:09:21] When the media judged and the political class parliament judged that we hadn’t done a good enough job as the Foreign Office. There was a big effort to improve the response. 24/7 Crisis Centre for example, new protocols for Ambassadors. Often the first thing you do as an Ambassador at that point is get in front of a camera. And you say more or less three things. You show sympathy for the people involved; very, very important, upfront, you know, this is a human situation.
You show solidarity with the first responders, so you want to get behind the people who are going in. And then you say, “We have a plan.” And probably below the surface you’re tapping your feet thinking, “Do we really have a plan?” In Beirut fortunately we did; we had plans for maritime evacuations by sea. Initially we had plans to get people out through Damascus, through the airport, obviously not very possible during the Syrian Civil War.
Andy Coulson: [0:10:15] Yes.
Tom Fletcher: [0:10:16] But you want to project that sense of confidence, that you have got a way of responding. And then you’re trying to combine different needs. You’re trying to give London an up-to-date assessment of what’s really happening, competing of course with 24/7 news and the fact that your ministers, your colleagues in the Foreign Office are getting most of this on their smartphones already.
You’re trying to give reassurance to your team who are probably worried; they’re worried about their families, they’re worried about their own safety. You’re trying to give reassurance to the Brits in the country that you can get them out. And then you’re also trying, and I guess this applies to personal crises too, you’re trying to think round the next corner the whole time. And think, “Where does this go? What happens next?” Trying to anticipate what comes next.
Andy Coulson: [0:11:02] Maybe we’ll get on to this a bit later on, but you’ve also got your family?
Tom Fletcher: [0:11:07] You’ve also got your family and there are lots of-
Andy Coulson: [0:11:09] Family with you, family at home, who are watching this play out on the news.
Tom Fletcher: [0:11:13] Exactly.
Andy Coulson: [0:11:14] Let’s discuss that later. Number Ten, so we talked about the perspective as an Ambassador, but you’ve also been at the centre of these things back in London, back in Downing Street, trying to make sense, trying to- well, not trying. Your job was to go into the room with the Prime Minister and give a very clear summary of the situation and clear advice on what should happen next.
Between those two roles, tell me the sort of key differences, if you like. Because of course you’ve got the planning piece, but how do you communicate with the Prime Minister when there’s a crisis erupting that they have no control over?
Tom Fletcher: [0:11:53] It’s very tough. Because of course they’re getting lots of different bits of information coming in as well, and lots of different pieces of advice. And as you said, I was the Foreign Policy Adviser to those three Prime Ministers. In those days that lasted four or five years, I mean now I think it’s three or four weeks, isn’t it?
Andy Coulson: [0:12:07] It is.
Tom Fletcher: [0:12:08] And the job was one Private Secretary for Foreign Affairs, for the Prime Minister. It was once mistranslated as the Intimate Typist for the Prime Minister’s Affairs Overseas. And this was obviously before Boris Johnson’s time.
Andy Coulson: [0:12:20] Good to clarify.
Tom Fletcher: [0:12:22] And it involved many things. Obviously it didn’t involve any intimate typing. It involved being a punchbag, a therapist, a policy adviser, a speechwriter, but also those moments of crisis when you are the last person in the room. And you know those rooms; they’re small, stuffy, airless, hot, tense rooms. I mean, if you want to make a crisis feel worse, put people in Number Ten to experience it.
And often without getting too West Wing, the conversations with the boss, the conversations with the PM, are while you’re walking along a corridor. It might literally be that, what is it, twenty-five metres from the PM’s office to the black door as you’re walking out to meet the leader or walk out to give a press conference. So most important, you’ve got to be really clear and really succinct.
I used to basically think that three things were all that I could hold in my head and all that I could reasonably hope that a PM, in the midst of everything else they’re dealing with, could really take in. And one of those things would basically be what’s the key message they’ve got to get out there? How do they reassure the public?
I think the difference between doing that job and doing the job as Ambassador, you get off the plane as Ambassador and you suddenly realise that you’re the frontman. You’re not standing behind the camera as we used to do in Number Ten and critiquing the PM for getting the language wrong or right. You’re suddenly in the midst of it, and one wrong word and it can all go wrong.
Andy Coulson: [0:13:53] How did you adjust to that?
Tom Fletcher: [0:13:56] Well, it’s funny actually. One of the best bits of advice I got, going out to Lebanon, as you said aged thirty-six, so I was our youngest ever Senior Ambassador, with all the pressures that meant, and all the baggage that you had going out as a young person to do that job, with people- I’m over it now, but The Guardian slightly questioned at one point why we were sending such a young character to do such a key job, sensitive job.
And of course I was Tweeting a lot, I was doing a lot of social media, that was high-risk stuff. High-risk in reputational terms, but also high-risk in that if I Tweeted the wrong thing and the situation escalated, but also high-risk in that the smartphone I was Tweeting on, it was that opportunity of connecting with people across the Middle East, but it was also the device that terrorists were using to track my movements.
Andy Coulson: [0:14:46] Of course, of course.
Tom Fletcher: [0:14:47] So it was literally a metaphor. It was a risk and an opportunity.
And in the midst of all that- so I was preparing to go to Beirut and thinking, “Well, how do I do this as a younger person?” And actually you Andy, you won’t remember this, you said to me, having been a young editor, you said, “Don’t try and pretend not to be young. The first thing everyone will say about you is that you’re too young for the job, that you’re young. And you can’t get away with that. It won’t help that if you just change the register of your voice or wear a tweed suit or start telling everyone with great authority that things are too complicated for them to understand.” You said, “Just kind of price that in, but just make sure the second thing that they say is the thing you want them to say.” And so I’d always think about “What’s the second thing?”
And for me it was, you know, “He really cares about Lebanon’s stability and he’s bringing energy and ideas to this role.”
Andy Coulson: [0:15:42] Yes.
Tom Fletcher: [0:15:42] But not to try and pretend that I wasn’t young.
Andy Coulson: [0:15:46] Well you did a brilliant job out there in a very trying time, to put it mildly. Let’s talk about 2013 actually, before we move on, possibly the most difficult year for you out there, I think?
Tom Fletcher: [0:16:01] Definitely the most difficult year for me. So just to give you the context, 2013, the Syria crisis had escalated. That kind of period when I first got there, the excitement of the Arab Spring, everyone on Twitter, this sense that liberal democracy would sweep across the region, that we’re moving in one direction, had gone.
And the Syrian crisis, Bashar al-Assad had hit back incredibly brutally against his own people, a million refugees into Lebanon, with all the danger of things escalating within the Lebanon, and then of course Obama set the red line on Assad’s use of chemical weapons. And said basically, “If he uses the chemical weapons, we’re going to go in. That’s the red line, he cannot cross that line.” He uses the chemical weapons, there’s no doubt that it’s him.
And that had huge implications for us in Lebanon, partly because I was the closest Ambassador to Syria. We obviously had no Embassy in Damascus, so the Syria Team were in with me in Beirut. So partly we knew that the retaliation could be against me directly and against my Embassy. We were a pretty soft target, if I’m honest.
Andy Coulson: [0:17:05] You’re being told that, aren’t you?
Tom Fletcher: [0:17:08] I’m reading that in the intelligence every day. The first two things I do in the morning are to go to Twitter, see what’s happening, see if anything’s exploded, and to read the intelligence files that are basically saying-
Andy Coulson: [0:17:17] Are they grading the risk?
Tom Fletcher: [0:17:18] Yes, but they’re also quite specific. Obviously in a way I can’t discuss here, but they’re telling me which organisations are going to come after me and how they might do it. And so you have that moment when you’re driving past parked cars and you’re thinking, “Is that the car? Is that the car? Would they do it in a Pajero? Would they have a beaten-up car?” You’re asking yourself that question.
Andy Coulson: [0:17:41] So what’s your approach Tom, sorry to cut in, but what’s your approach there? Are you obsessing about the detail or are you saying, “That’s for someone else. Someone’s job is to keep me safe. That’s for you, and I’m just going to keep my mind fully focused on the job of Ambassador.”
Tom Fletcher: [0:17:57] Completely. I love the conversations you’ve had where you talk about the need to control the things that you can control. I’m not an SAS guy, I don’t have the skills to protect myself from a car bomb, but I had a whole team in three great cars with me all the time of tooled-up, highly skilled people whose job it was, whose only job was to keep me alive. Now, I knew I had to look them in the eye every morning and reassure them that they had all the support they needed, the kit they needed. I knew that I would have to look their partners in the eye, their families in the eye if they took the bullet for me, and we came pretty close. But I also knew that they were the professionals and I had to trust them.
Andy Coulson: [0:18:41] Tell me about coming close.
Tom Fletcher: [0:18:45] We had a couple of moments with potential car bombs that came close. We had a mortar that landed in- this sounds like a first-world problem, landed in my swimming pool at the embassy, fired across the valley.
Andy Coulson: [0:19:00] While you’re in the embassy?
Tom Fletcher: [0:19:01] While me and the family were in the kind of embassy residence. And we had one situation, I have to put this quite carefully, but the one thing that everyone knew I did every year was to go to the Remembrance Day, 11th November I’d go to the three Commonwealth graves cemeteries, and that was the one moment that whatever happened, I was always going to do. There was no way that I was not going to stand there in those three cemeteries, and so everyone knew I was coming. And we had a moment there when a single attack had got pretty close and it was the courage of my team that prevented the motorbike actually reaching me. Luckily everyone was safe, amidst immense courage from that team.
So you know that you’ve got those professionals with you and you know you’ve got to focus on the stuff that you can control and that is within your circle. And you’d be letting everyone down if you were agonising too much.
It did mean some difficult decisions though. I mean, for example there were birthday parties that I couldn’t go to; my son’s birthday parties, because I didn’t want to turn up there with twelve guys armed to the teeth. It tends to kill the mood at a seven-year-old’s birthday party.
Andy Coulson: [0:20:15] So you are, wherever you go, you’re bringing a threat?
Tom Fletcher: [0:20:17] Yes. And so we knew as well that the kids couldn’t travel with me in the car in certain periods. And that’s really, really hard. And you know, 2013 was one of those periods when the kids weren’t with me in the car, but they were with me in Beirut. Young kids. My second son was born during that posting in Lebanon.
And so you’ve got this situation where the red line’s been crossed. Assad’s waiting. He knows we’re going to hit him hard, starting to make the preparations, starting to move civilians into those areas we’re going to hit. So a great dilemma. And we as a democracy, and David Cameron had been clear after Iraq, “We’re going to have a Parliamentary vote. We’re not just going to go charging in. There has to be a legitimate conversation.”
As a democracy, all your cards are out in the open. We were playing Poker with Putin and Assad, and they could see our cards. We didn’t know what they were going to do, they knew what we were considering doing.
So I got the call on Sunday night from the brilliant John Casson who’d taken over from me in Number Ten, saying, “It’s going to happen. You’ve got a few days, do what you need to do.” Which for me was the trigger for starting to prepare the evacuation. The evacuation took about forty-eight hours to get ready, and I knew I had to get out probably two thousand Brits and all of our families before things went up in the air. Retaliations, the potential for the war to come into Lebanon, but escalation across the region once we hit Syria.
And then as we know, in that week parliamentary debates in the UK, Obama thought twice, and in the end he went out and announced that we wouldn’t escalate, that actually the red line turned out to be a fairly pink faint line and there was to be no reprisal against Bashar al-Assad for those chemical attacks.
But by that stage, I’d already started evacuating the families, they were already at the airport in fact, many of them. They’d driven through Hezbollah-
Andy Coulson: [0:22:13] Can I ask, how did you feel about that decision at the time? And how do you feel about it retrospectively?
Tom Fletcher: [0:22:20] Awful, I still feel awful now, I can feel that sense of foreboding and kind of weariness. It was really tough, because as a dad all your instincts are to put your arms around your family and your kids and hold them close and protect them. And yet the most important thing I could do to protect my family was to send them away. But it’s not a cut and dry decision, it’s like those decisions we had to take in Number Ten, it’s always 48/52. I’ve probably used the wrong number, let’s say 49/51. It’s just judgment. Is it the right moment at ten o’clock in the morning? Is it the right moment at three o’clock in the afternoon? What’s changed in that period? When is the moment when you say, “Now we’ve crossed the line, it’s now not safe for the families to stay here.”
Andy Coulson: [0:23:12] And not safe for your family. How does that conversation happen?
Tom Fletcher: [0:23:13] And not safe for my family. And that’s very, very difficult. Very, very difficult. And of course you had that conversation as an Ambassador with the whole team, and you’re thinking, “Right, we need to effectively-” like in The Godfather “Go to the mattresses here. We need to be lean, we need to know what we’ve got the core team here that we can protect.”
But of course you’re also having that conversation with your family too. And that was tough for us; the sense for my wife and for me and for the kids that we would be separated. We thought at that stage that if they were evacuated they weren’t coming back, and that was going to be another year, another two years. That key moment. I’ve taken a lot of decisions in my life that bring me closer to my kids, and at the moment I was taking a decision that would bring me further away from them for a long, long period of time.
I don’t know how Louise would put it, she would probably put it less delicately than I would, but that was a really tough time for us to navigate, and you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re effectively saying to your family, “As your dad I want to hold you close, but as your Ambassador I need you to go.”
Andy Coulson: [0:24:23] And that’s where you ended up?
Tom Fletcher: [0:24:24] And that’s what I had to say. And that’s never going to go down well.
Andy Coulson: [0:24:30] Let’s just go back a bit, Tom, if I may. The start of your diplomatic career. You grew up in Folkestone, excelled at your local grammar school, won that place at Oxford the second time around, I think?
Tom Fletcher: [0:24:48] It was. So I was actually- it’s quite fun now talking to the undergrads, who also make me have complete imposter syndrome. And reminding them or telling them that I was a failed Oxford applicant. But I was also in that period a failed lead singer in a band; Freshly Squeezed never really got going, I think they were ahead of their time.
Andy Coulson: [0:25:08] I was going to say, they don’t ring a bell?
Tom Fletcher: [0:25:10] They will do. I was a failed door-to-door salesman. I lost all my money in Kansas City, Missouri, and had to live in a homeless shelter for two weeks.
Andy Coulson: [0:25:26] This is actually sounding like a very interesting gap year. I mean, this is all squeezed into a-
Tom Fletcher: [0:25:32] And I became a failed boxer as well. And then I was a failed teacher, actually teaching in Israel, in an Israeli Arab town in Northern Israel. So I’d failed at many, many things before then going into Oxford and finding a home and then going into diplomacy straight from there. And I suppose really finding a community, finding something that I believed in passionately.
Andy Coulson: [0:25:54] Can we pause just for a second, because I’m interested in your- this is a question I ask a lot of our guests, right? I phrase it as, “I’m interested in your operating system.” But you failed first time around, you clearly took yourself off, had some amazing adventures by the sounds of it, but then refocused again on, “Actually, this is what I am going to do and I’m going to do it again and I’m going to succeed.” So what is it about you Tom, do you think, and where does that come from?
Because I’m going to return to it as your career develops in Number Ten as well. You are a very, very focused individual and not afraid of risk either. You touched on it perhaps, there’s a hint of that in the description of life as an Ambassador, right? You didn’t run away from any of those risks. Tell me about what sits behind it all?
Tom Fletcher: [0:26:47] I think that’s the toughest question, even tougher than-
Andy Coulson: [0:26:50] How much of it do you attribute to upbringing?
Tom Fletcher: [0:26:53] A huge amount. A huge amount. I mean, in that moment having failed to get the Oxford place, I think I’d have quite happily headed elsewhere and been very happy elsewhere. And Dad said, “Just take your time, have a think about it.”
It’s ironic now, given the stage of life you and I are at, and the advantages we now understand that we had. I think a lot of my career, my life, I’ve sort of somehow felt that I was kind of an outsider. I now realise I had a huge advantage, evidently. But I think in that time I probably felt like-
Andy Coulson: [0:27:33] But advantage is different to inclusion?
Tom Fletcher: [0:27:36] Yes, I think I wanted to prove people wrong. I think I have also, as you hinted, had a sense of mischief. I’ve always taken the job that- or the role, the position, the option that sounded more fun, that sounded more like an adventure. My great friend, Graeme Lamb who was running the SAS, he used to always tell me when I was Ambassador, “Proceed until apprehended.” It goes back to your session with Andy McNab, that sense of, give it a crack.
Andy Coulson: [0:28:08] Give it a go.
Tom Fletcher: [0:28:09] Give it a go. And a slightly kind of rebellious mischief to that. And curiosity.
Andy Coulson: [0:28:17] What I remember about you Tom, in Number Ten, we worked together for a while, through some quite interesting days, the coalition.
Tom Fletcher: [0:28:22] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:28:24] And you were, as I described in the intro because it was accurate, you were brilliant at your job. You managed to get the confidence of three very different men as Prime Minister very quickly. They all relied on you, and that doesn’t happen by accident. But you also had- that sort of sat in the background of a lot of the meetings that you and I shared, a sense of- you just used the word mischief and I think that’s exactly the right word. You kind of saw it for what it was as well. And when we’d step out of the room, you’d normally find something that was amusing about it. Humour is a fundamental part of it for you, isn’t it?
Tom Fletcher: [0:29:04] Completely. I think it’s the only way to survive.
Andy Coulson: [0:29:06] Not disrespect.
Tom Fletcher: [0:29:07] No.
Andy Coulson: [0:29:07] Not disrespect at all.
Tom Fletcher: [0:29:08] Absolutely not.
Andy Coulson: [0:29:09] But that humour is useful, right?
Tom Fletcher: [0:29:11] Yes, you respect the role and there are moments when you’re exhausted, frazzled and there isn’t much space for humour. But in almost every situation in Number Ten there was normally something funny going on. It was very different, as you say, under those three Prime Ministers. I won’t tell you which order, but you could say one was like steeplechase, one was like rodeo and one was like dressage, to use a horse analogy.
Andy Coulson: [0:29:35] I think I can work it out.
Tom Fletcher: [0:29:36] But they were very, very different Number Tens. Brilliant people to work with. And I would say anyone who is cynical about politics, to spend some time in Number Ten and see leaders close up is an immense, immense privilege. But it was also crazy.
You remember that first G8 Summit we went to with David Cameron, and you and I wanted him to go swimming in the lake, partly to kind of get him to get over his jetlag and so on, but also I wanted to brief the other delegations that, “Our man; he’s new, he’s fit, he’s the virile young kind of leader on the block.” We then went to the meeting, I briefed all the other leaders, so that when David Cameron arrived in the meeting, Obama was feeling his muscles, there was this sense that he was the new guy. Theatre matters massively in diplomacy, in statecraft. That sense that you’ve got momentum and energy.
And then of course Berlusconi rocked up and looked around enviously, saw the leaders of the free world courting, gathered around the new guy, David Cameron, disappeared off angrily and came back and handed out to Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, the leaders of the world, photos of himself oiled up from head to toe in skin-tight-
Andy Coulson: [0:30:51] That’s right.
Tom Fletcher: [0:30:52] Are we allowed to say budgie smugglers on this podcast?
Andy Coulson: [0:30:55] I think we are, I think we are. Yes, that’s right.
Tom Fletcher: [0:30:59] Talk about crisis.
Andy Coulson: [0:31:01] Not just that, but just started sharing stories of his conquests as well, just kind of-
Tom Fletcher: [0:31:05] Terrible, just horrifying. And if you can’t enjoy those moments, then you’ve got to get out of there. But humour was without doubt a way of withstanding the worst of the moments.
Andy Coulson: [0:31:20] The other side of Number Ten which I think surprises people who find themselves working there when the curtain gets pulled back is it’s, how shall I put this politely, low-tech nature? You use a phrase in one of your books actually, that when visitors to your- in the context of the importance of the front of shop if you like, for an Ambassador, when visitors to your embassy or ministry smell the whiff of genteel decay, it’s a problem.
Tom Fletcher: [0:31:46] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:31:48] Number Ten has got a little bit of that, yes?
Tom Fletcher: [0:31:50] Yes, it’s not really designed for crisis and I think everyone- I lead a review of the Foreign Office and the FT said that I wanted the Foreign Office to be more like 24 and less like The Good Life. Which wasn’t something I’d actually said, but it kind of captures that same sense.
And you could say the same about Number Ten. I think people imagine because they’ve watched these programmes on Netflix and whatever, they imagine that we’re all sat around in some amazing operation room, but often it’s just the advisers in a huddle on a sofa in a corridor with the Prime Minister. And you’re not having Ambassadors beamed in from all round the world-
Andy Coulson: [0:32:26] No, it’s not Minority Report, is it?
Tom Fletcher: [0:32:26] It’s certainly not. So it’s actually a real challenge when you’re dealing with a crisis in Number Ten. And it’s one of the things I think we’ve probably got to get much better at if we’re really going to support leaders.
The other thing that really struck me in Number Ten was that we’re not great at developing strategic bandwidth. And I’d always thought when I got to Number Ten that you’d look around and you’d find a basement and it would be full of your smartest spooks, diplomats.
Andy Coulson: [0:32:58] This is where it happens.
Tom Fletcher: [0:32:59] Yes, business people, whoever, political advisers, all of them chewing over strategy together. And probably they’d have like a chessboard or a world map, moving armies and oil barrels and dollars around on the map. And I don’t know how you found it, but in my experience I got closer and closer to the centre of power until sometime I was the only person in the room, and often I was just trying to get through that day.
I was in a country recently that had a 2071 National Plan, and we were normally just trying to get through to teatime. Whatever we all say about long term decisions and so on, and everyone’s saying it in this conference period, we were normally dealing with whatever was on Sky News that morning and trying to get our line out on it, and it was very, very hard.
That’s why I have such admiration for those Prime Ministers because they were always trying to carve out that space to be strategic, but the machine, and that very much includes me, are always pushing them towards being tactical.
Andy Coulson: [0:34:01] So Tom, tell me, you described yourself as feeling like an outsider, you talked about imposter syndrome. When you’re heading into a room with a Prime Minister, what were you saying to yourself? How do you big yourself up? How do you motivate yourself and how are you convincing yourself of your value?
It’s obvious to everyone else, but what are you saying to yourself? If that’s genuinely how you were feeling, if you were feeling like an outsider walking into the Prime Minister’s study, as you did repeatedly, what are you saying to yourself before you walk in there?
Tom Fletcher: [0:34:36] It’s funny, because as you say that I can immediately think of one time with each of those Prime Ministers, really early on in my relationship with them when I screwed it up badly. And that’s the first thing that comes to mind out of the kind of hundreds of interactions with them.
I can remember a moment with Tony Blair when I’d just started and I was doing the Middle East. And there were a lot of people in the room and someone said, “And what are we doing about Iraq?” And it was my turn to speak. And I didn’t say anything and there was a moment when everyone’s looking at me and the other political adviser’s thinking, “You guy, your turn,” and I just couldn’t do it.
A moment early on with Gordon when-
Andy Coulson: [0:35:13] What, you were just paralysed?
Tom Fletcher: [0:35:14] I was paralysed, yes. You’ve seen it happen, it happens to all of us at some moments. You don’t want it to happen on your first meeting with the Prime Minister.
A moment soon after going in to work for Gordon when he kind of looked at me and I was just sat there. And no-one had introduced us and it was my moment to kind of go, “Oh Prime Minister, I’m Tom Fletcher, I’m your new kind of Foreign Policy kind of sidekick.” And again I just kind of froze and didn’t say anything. He kind of looked kind of confused and went off again.
And then when David Cameron arrived, I think more or less my first interaction with David Cameron, I’ve never told this story before, I hope he’s forgotten. I had to put the call through to him from Barack Obama, and I was talking to you about the call and preparing for it. I’d had a long time to prepare for that moment. I had one job that night, Barack Obama. So I went in there, “Hi Prime Minister, I’m Tom Fletcher, I’m your new Foreign Policy guy,” and David Cameron was on the phone. And he kind of looked at me, and Ed Llewellyn was there as well, and kind of went, “Barack Obama’s on the phone, Barack Obama’s on the phone.” And I just thought, “Seriously?”
Andy Coulson: [0:36:21] At least you didn’t call him Mr President.
Tom Fletcher: [0:36:23] Yes, exactly. And by that stage, I’d been doing the job three, three and a half years, I was as close to being good at it as I was ever going to be. I don’t know if that- that’s not an answer to your question.
Andy Coulson: [0:36:34] No, but you clearly don’t- what’s your relationship with failure I suppose is the question? Because you clearly, you remember it, right?
Tom Fletcher: [0:36:42] I remember it.
Andy Coulson: [0:36:43] It’s the first thing that comes to mind there, but you’ve clearly put it to work. Do you put failure to work?
Tom Fletcher: [0:36:47] Yes, and I would say I haven’t thought about those three times until it just came into my mind just now. So I think I’ve learnt from those, and I suppose the fear of that does make me work harder and work with more focus and a sense of purpose. But it’s not on my mind.
Andy Coulson: [0:37:06] There’s the risk bit as well about you though, you enjoy that bit, don’t you?
Tom Fletcher: [0:37:09] I really like- I probably am at one end of that- in terms of Foreign Office people I’m probably at the slightly more open to risk end of the spectrum.
Andy Coulson: [0:37:17] Your decision to leave. I remember your leaving do and it came far earlier than any of us were expecting. We hadn’t been there a year I don’t think, when you decided, “Actually, no, I’m going to step away from Number Ten,” not actually knowing, I think I’m right in saying, what you were going to do next. You had an idea of what you wanted to do. I saw you for lunch I think a few weeks later and asked you what you were doing, and you said, “I’m learning Arabic.” So it was a bit of a clue, I suppose. But that was a risk? Most people would not have walked away from that job.
Tom Fletcher: [0:37:48] It was a big, big risk and I think looking back on it I was probably more burned out than I was admitting at the time, I was really, really exhausted. We’d been through the G20 financial crisis, we’d been through- we were doing Afghanistan, Iraq. I mean, we didn’t leave any regional blocks or start any wars during my time in Number Ten, but we went through just about everything else; hostage crises.
But just the sheer intensity, the rhythm of Number Ten as you know, it’s just relentless. And I think that was probably wearing me down by that- I mean, I was having as much fun as ever, and I remember being at that leaving do thinking, “Seriously, you’re walking away from all of this?” But I was also thinking, “There’s an adventure out there.” And the adventure for me was Lebanon. I was going to get out the other side of the camera, I was going to lead my own ship, really up for that, get to do my own thing, be far enough from London that I could take some risks. And I did, particularly around social media and giving blood outside of the Iranian Embassy when we had no relationship with the Iranians.
Andy Coulson: [0:38:54] They were very, very unusual moves for an Ambassador.
Tom Fletcher: [0:38:57] And so on. Becoming a domestic worker to highlight the mistreatment of domestic workers in the region.
So I suppose I was just ready for a different challenge.
In a way the even greater risk was then leaving the Foreign Office in 2015 and writing a book. I mean, we’re not meant to do that. In fact that’s why I had to leave. I was writing a book ironically about why diplomacy matters and how it’s evolving for the digital age. And I had to leave diplomacy to write that book, to make the case for diplomacy. But that was a massive risk leaving, because the book could have sunk like a stone, I could have come back after a year or two with my tail between my legs, slightly embarrassed about having disappeared off and done something slightly un-Foreign Office, if we’re honest. I could have crashed and burned at NYU and in the academic world, crashed and burned-
I was working on getting lots of Syrian kids into school, that was the thing that really motivated me to leave at the time, that could all have gone wrong as well.
So in many ways that was an even bigger risk than leaving Downing Street.
Andy Coulson: [0:40:06] You haven’t told me where the risk comes from?
Tom Fletcher: [0:40:09] The desire to take the risk?
Andy Coulson: [0:40:11] Where’s that characteristic, that bit of you that is attracted to risk? Have you worked out where that comes from?
Tom Fletcher: [0:40:22] So very early on, one of my first Foreign Office reports said, “He might make something of his diplomatic career when he develops some gravitas.” And I’m still trying. Clearly then my first line manager thought, “This guy is a bit too mischievous, there’s a bit too much humour probably, and risk.”
So all the things that you’ve identified twenty years on, they were part of the DNA then. In many ways I’m just fortunate now that I’m in a more senior position where people can see them as character quirks, whereas when you’re more junior you’re not able to take those risks in the same way.
And incidentally I helped out recently, I’m phrasing this quite carefully because it was an internal discussion, with a bit of work that looked at the obstacles to more diverse communities getting promoted within Government. And most of those looked very specifically at the obstacles. “Why wasn’t Person X promoted at this moment?”
But what we thought about instead was, “Okay, why were people like me actually promoted?” Because I had a pretty charmed life on the way up. And one of the conclusions was that people of my demographic tend to be forgiven more for taking those risks than-
Andy Coulson: [0:41:48] That’s interesting.
Tom Fletcher: [0:41:51] Minority groups might be, the first time they take one of those risks, it might be just sort of, weigh up a little bit more in the next promotion panel. “So and so is great but maybe their judgement’s slightly out.” Whereas people from my demographic, as a white male, often get forgiven the first one more readily. And that’s something that needs to be corrected within Government.
Andy Coulson: [0:42:16] Some would apply the word crisis to exactly that challenge at the moment, and that’s not just about recruitment, although obviously ultimately that is the problem that we have, but it is also about the relationship between the Civil Service and our politicians and the breakdown of trust.
I had this conversation with Michael Gove when he came on the podcast. And then I suspect actually it was a bit more pronounced than perhaps it is a little bit later down the track. I think Rishi Sunak has certainly, perhaps on a temporary basis, calmed things a little. But we do have a situation right now where people in the rooms that you and I have both been in leave those rooms and start briefing.
Tom Fletcher: [0:43:05] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:43:06] The ability to build that kind of esprit de corps, the feeling of shared purpose, the feeling of shared mission has never been harder, has it, in Government, than it is right now? What do we do about that, Tom? I mean, first of all do you agree, do you think there is a crisis?
Tom Fletcher: [0:43:20] I do. There is a crisis of trust and we’ve lost, as the UK, we’ve lost that treble-A rating for competence, which mean that for years our education system, our banking system, our businesses, our way of being in the world had a certain credibility because people trusted that the Brits knew what they were doing. That’s gone and it’s not actually about Brexit, but it’s about the six, seven years since Brexit. People have taken close look at us and they’ve thought, “These guys are a kind of circular firing squad here, they’re not very good at this stuff.”
In the Middle East, I spend a lot of time in the Middle East, often there’s a sort of national myth in the region that everything is our fault. And it’s because we’re so clever; it’s because of those cynical Brits and the things they did in the region that everything’s a mess. You’ll hear actually a lot of Israelis and Palestinians saying this, even about today’s crisis. And all of a sudden they looked at us and went, “Oh dear, these guys aren’t actually very good, so how the hell did we let them push us around a hundred years ago?”
Andy Coulson: [0:44:17] Yes.
Tom Fletcher: [0:44:19] Which is a kind of strange dynamic. But I think what we’re really dealing with here is that wider crisis of confidence and trust in society at large. Some of this is about the agency of the smartphone, that sense we have that we can do anything we want on that device. But it means, as the Pew Research Centre say, trust is declining, not just in government, in the media, in business, it’s also declining in teachers. We’re all on WhatsApp groups saying, “Are they doing enough reading, are they doing too much reading? More sport, less sport.” Declining in doctors and nurses. You know, Doctor Google, we all go to Doctor Google for the diagnosis.
Andy Coulson: [0:45:00] Every area, yes.
Tom Fletcher: [0:45:00] And so that makes it much, much harder for any leader of an institution, anything that looks like a hierarchy. It’s interesting that Michael Gove saw a lack of trust in expertise given his often misquoted comment. It makes it much, much harder to lead and to govern.
I’ll give you a very direct example of this, actually from sort of pre-Brexit. In Lebanon- we talked about the crisis response. One of the jobs I would have had is to get the message to two thousand Brits very quickly. “Get to the airport, get to the port, but hunker down,” to get them out. Crucial moment. Now, I would have been able to, technologically through the smartphone, contact everyone with a UK mobile at that moment. It wouldn’t have been hard for us to know where the UK mobiles were. Without going into too much detail, we have pretty good kit for doing that. But that group of two thousand would never have trusted me with their mobile phone numbers, and probably quite right. I mean, given everything we know since about the way that data has been used and misused by governments and by big tech, why should they give me their mobile number as they arrive in the country?
So that lack of trust in government, in authority, actually meant that I wouldn’t have been able to do the most important thing I could do for that group of citizens, which was to protect them in the event of a crisis.
Andy Coulson: [0:46:25] In terms of the challenge though, between politician and adviser, how does that- how do you begin to repair that in your view?
Tom Fletcher: [0:46:36] So it’s a classic diplomatic thing to basically say, “Six of one, half a dozen of the other.” And so I’m going to try not to do that. I think there’s been a breakdown in trust from the officials towards the politicians because we’ve seen officials pushed out of office, attacked in ways that just wasn’t the case in the past.
Andy Coulson: [0:47:00] They have become the story in a way that they were never part of the story.
Tom Fletcher: [0:47:02] Exactly. And we could go through a number of those individuals, and it’s really disruptive.
Andy Coulson: [0:47:07] Some, by the way, have inserted themselves into the story too.
Tom Fletcher: [0:47:11] So this is where I am going to be a little bit on the one hand, on the other hand. Winston Churchill said, “Ignore every second page of Foreign Office advice because it’s on the one hand this and on the other hand that.”
So on the other hand I would like to see, and I’m conscious that this may be a self-defeating point, I’d like to see a little bit less of officials going out and writing their memoirs and talking about their relationship with ministers in particular. I would defend going out and writing about the way the smartphone changes my trade and my craft, I would not defend me writing a memoir about the advice I gave to David Cameron or to Gordon Brown or to Tony Blair. I think it’s one thing for us to joke about the Berlusconi story, I’d feel comfortable doing that in front of those Prime Ministers as well.
Andy Coulson: [0:47:57] Yes. You and I have both worked with people, both officials and advisers in other capacities, who have perhaps been busy thinking about the book while they were actually doing the job, let alone when they’ve left.
Tom Fletcher: [0:48:06] Taking notes on the whole thing.
Andy Coulson: [0:48:07] It is a fashion, isn’t it? That eats away confidence in the room, if you think that someone’s taking a note and to go home and stick it into the computer, because they think it’s going to be the start of chapter ten.
Tom Fletcher: [0:48:18] Completely. And it’s not completely new of course.
Andy Coulson: [0:48:21] Of course, of course.
Tom Fletcher: [0:48:21] Tony Benn was in the Cabinet taking verbatim notes in Cabinet meetings and so on.
Andy Coulson: [0:48:24] Exactly.
Tom Fletcher: [0:48:26] But I think it has got worse from the official side. And some of that is because they feel undermined, they feel they’ve got to have something on the record to defend themselves for the moment when the crisis comes in their direction. But it is a worrying trend and it makes it, I imagine, for my successor wanting to be in the room with the Prime Minister giving unvarnished advice. You don’t want them sticking on a Post-it note on the top of a submission and then throwing the Post-it note in the bin. You want them to be really honest and you want the PM to be very honest in that moment, in the certainty that that won’t then turn up in someone’s memoir in three or four years’ time.
Andy Coulson: [0:49:03] How do we take that into the recruitment piece then? Which I know you’re very interested in and you’ve been doing some work around. How are we going to attract talent, and continue to attract, or perhaps frankly attract a bit more talent than there is coming through the system at the moment into the Civil Service?
Tom Fletcher: [0:49:23] We’ve got a real challenge here, because the young people that I work with now, the students I work with now, hugely values-driven, they care about the world. They are global citizens, I always hated that phrase of Theresa May’s, Citizens of Nowhere. These are young people who care about the world, they care about the human- they want to get stuck in. But they don’t see these as exciting careers.
When I left from Oxford, the Foreign Office was the most sought after role and now I don’t think it’s in the top ten. So that’s a real challenge. That big tech is part of the problem. In The Naked Diplomat, I imagined this job as being an ambassador to tech, to big tech. And Denmark, bless them, created that role. They had an Ambassador to Tech. I said to him when he got appointed, “I give it three years.” He’s now working for Microsoft.
Big tech has the pockets, the deep pockets, but it is also doing exciting things, solving problems, and so they’re hoovering up a lot of that talent. So I think we’ve got to make the options of going into public service more attractive, there’s got to be more flexibility.
Andy Coulson: [0:50:26] Is that about pay as well?
Tom Fletcher: [0:50:27] Pay has to come into it. When I did the Foreign Office review I concluded that we should be smaller but better rewarded. We had to understand that people needed a career; people from different backgrounds couldn’t be expected to support a career where you were moving every three or four years, trying to move your family and so on.
One of the great things that’s changed, two things actually in the Foreign Office in the last ten years, one is that they’re much better at dealing with crisis, post Bali they really restructured that side of things. The other is now that we have a group of amazing women ambassadors in actually most of the key missions in the world, doing a brilliant job, doing it in different ways, showing it can be done. But we need a structure that supports different people to run their lives and their families simultaneously in that way.
I think we’ll probably have to accept that for many people it won’t be a career for life in the same way.
Andy Coulson: [0:51:26] That’s a big shift.
Tom Fletcher: [0:51:27] That sense of several decades of service, that sense of public service, has probably been eroded in recent years.
Andy Coulson: [0:51:33] So Tom, we started this podcast by talking about the national, international challenge around the crisis that we’re now seeing unravel in Israel. But when we think about the approach that we could, should be taking to those big kind of global moments, do you think that there’s a line that connects with the kind of conversations that we’ve been having on this podcast? Conversations about personal crisis and the way that you approach those. Control, we discussed. Perspective, avoiding bitterness. Are there lessons there, do you think, for our politicians and our policymakers?
Tom Fletcher: [0:52:15] Well, I mean that’s the question. If we get that right, I think we can be a lot more confident about the 21st Century. Empathy is at the heart of all this. I talk to the students about the great lesson of diplomacy is that we all have a filter, think of it like an Instagram filter. And you have a filter, I have a filter. If I can work out what your filter is, if I can know where you’re from, why you are as you are, what you’ve been through, what’s shaped you, kind of what you’re doing to me in this conversation, and you can see mine, it makes it much easier for us to take off those filters and make peace ultimately.
And people talk about those sorts of skills; empathy, emotional intelligence, as 21st Century skills. I’d kind of call that diplomacy, because that’s what you’re doing in negotiation.
I was in Northern Ireland doing one long negotiation and as you know from Number Ten, one of my jobs was just to kind of soak up all the anger overnight so the PM could come in and do a deal over whatever it was we were doing a deal on. And these two leaders were in the room, I can’t say their names, one of them was held responsible by the other one for the murder of his sister. Worse than that, she was in hospital and the faction had come in and killed her in her bed.
Andy Coulson: [0:53:27] Goodness.
Tom Fletcher: [0:53:28] So understandably a lot of hate in that room. He’d turned his chair away. He wouldn’t face him. And I came into the room and had to break the news to the other guy that his mother had died and said, “Look, obviously we’ll break up here, you need to be with your family,” and he said, “My mum would want me in the room, it’s more important I’m here in this room doing this work.”
And at the moment he turned his chair round. There was that moment, what we call in diplomacy, the last three feet. It’s what you can’t automate, that sense of two humans together connecting. And that’s what you’re looking for in a peace process, that’s what you’re looking for as you come through crisis; that sort of empathy for the other person, understanding of the other person.
Now your challenge there, can we do that for nations, for whole communities? Could we imagine how that conversation feels with the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the Lebanese and the Israelis, with the Hutus and the Tutsis?
I had a conference on this in Beirut, and at the end of it a lady who was speaking, I said to her, “So why are you here?” She said, “My dad was killed in the Brighton bombing.” And the guy with her, I thought it was her brother or business partner, I said, “Why are you here, sir?” I’m an Ambassador, I’m going on the line kind of, I said, “Why are you here?” He said, “I was the bomber. I was the guy who did it.”
There’s a way, you can find- and that’s our job as diplomats, you can find a way to reach across that divide. But can you do it for nations, can you make peace effectively with our own history? Because that’s what it is. It’s about healing the wounds of history, it’s about not passing on these ancestral conflicts, ancestral differences. Not passing on the fact that your god said that he gave you the country and my god said that he gave me the country. And unless the two gods are going to have a fight about it, we’re going to have to have a conversation and try and resolve this. Can you do that?
I would say you couldn’t imagine doing that until the advent of social media. And my thought, and I was too idealistic about social media in the early days, and we then saw Trump and Putin weaponise it. But I was trying in Lebanon to experiment with this idea that I could talk to a country, talk to a society. When a bomb went off in Lebanon, I wasn’t saying, “Britain is gravely concerned.” I was saying, “Look for the helpers. Look out for each other. Don’t rush to blame the other side. They’re human too.” Trying to think about ways almost to make that personal connection, but with millions of people.
Now, I was scraping the surface of that, but could you bring together some of the lessons that you discuss on this podcast around dealing with crisis, moving on from crisis, with diplomacy and statecraft and with really effective social media where you can talk to a whole population, move a whole population in different ways, use their political communication skills that we’ve seen close up? Bring those three things together and I’d be much more optimistic for my kids and grandkids that we can sort things out.
Andy Coulson: [0:56:32] Superb. Tom, thank you for your time and your wisdom.
Tom Fletcher: [0:56:37] Thank you.
Andy Coulson: [0:56:38] It’s been a great conversation, a very timely one obviously, and as you say we’ll see how things develop. But really, wonderful to have you with us and thanks very much.
I’m going to finish as we always do with the straightforward question, give me your three Crisis Cures, please? I’ve just slipped up there, we no longer call them cures, I’m not allowed to call them cures.
Tom Fletcher: [0:56:58] Right, what do we call them?
Andy Coulson: [0:56:59] They’re comforts, they’re Crisis Comforts.
Tom Fletcher: [0:57:01] Crisis Comforts, oh, that’s better.
Andy Coulson: [0:57:02] So these are three things that you sort of lean when it gets really sticky. It can’t be another person I’m afraid.
Tom Fletcher: [0:57:09] It would be another person, if I could. But if she’s vetoed then, so for me I go in my head to my fig tree. I read a great article, David Brooks, recommend it if you haven’t read it, New York Times, where he talks about living a life defined by your eulogy values, not your CV values. So it’s not the list you read out at the beginning, it’s “Am I kind, am I curious, am I brave?” And I did that exercise, I do it with my students now, and I realised that I needed a small piece of land, somewhere I could put my hands in the soil and I have that now. And so in my head I go to that fig tree, it’s actually a biblical reference of sitting under a fig tree, it’s in Hamilton as well, isn’t it?
Andy Coulson: [0:57:53] Yes.
Tom Fletcher: [0:57:54] Washington goes off and sits under his fig tree and his vine, I sit under that fig tree and I probably have a Negroni but I don’t know whether that’s allowed in this scenario.
Andy Coulson: [0:58:03] We’ll give you that with the fig tree. I need two others I’m afraid.
Tom Fletcher: [0:58:07] Let’s just assume there’s a sunset and I have a WhatsApp playlist. I spend a lot of time with my oldest friends doing Spotify and WhatsApp playlists, that’s playing in the background. And for me that’s a pretty good place to go to in my head.
But if I’m actually in the crisis, I’m stretching this now, I think I need three things which- and this is really not rocket science, this goes back to thousands of years of human history and our innate human ability to come through crises and learn from them. I need air, water and sleep.
I breathe. Remember to breathe. People always forget this in a crisis, you suddenly find yourself a bit breathless. Think of it in Number Ten, always the same in Lebanon as well.
Then everyone has that extra cup of coffee, too many, and gets a bit revved up, hydration. Number Ten you never walk past a water fountain, do you? You never walk past a water cooler.
And then sleep. Get those seven or eight hours. George W. Bush was perhaps wrong on many things- I collected a book of advice for my son and he took it away for six weeks, I think he was reading it quite slowly before he wrote his advice in it. But his advice was, “Get seven hours sleep,” and I think that’s pretty good advice. And I think even more so in a time of crisis. If you want to be thinking straight you’ve got to get your sleep. It’s why we make it much harder for our political leaders and each other by running this hamster wheel in Number Ten where we exhaust them, we wear them down, we force them to take decisions at terrible times of day, after horrible plane journeys, jetlagged, exhausted. It’s not a great way to help someone run a country.
So air, water and sleep, please.
Andy Coulson: [0:59:57] You’ve reminded me of something Tom, just before we finish. That little notebook that you carried around with you where you would ask world leaders, “Could you just give me one piece of advice?”
Tom Fletcher: [1:00:09] It was great.
Andy Coulson: [1:00:10] Everyone, we talked about it a minute ago, everyone was thinking, “Ah, Tom’s planning a book.” You were planning a book but you were planning a book that you would then just literally hand that notebook to your son, which says a lot about you.
Tom Fletcher: [1:00:19] And it comes back- we talked a bit about the boys and trying to find a life that gives me more time for them.
In that period, Charlie, my son, I was miles away and I was miles away in my head as well, it wasn’t just physically. I was thinking about Afghanistan, Iraq, whatever was happening. And so I collected that book of advice and they’re all in it. Obama said, “Charlie will be either very rich or very clever, depending on whether he sells it or reads it.” Many world leaders, Obama, Tutu, Mandela.
Andy Coulson: [1:00:51] I can’t remember if you asked Berlusconi?
Tom Fletcher: Four or five – well, it’s a very naughty question because I think you do remember very well, he came over and tried to write in it. And I hid it away. He was one of those that didn’t make the grade for that book.
But yes, if you distil all that down, it really comes down to what my grandpa wrote in that book, the most importance piece of advice, which was “Be kind, be curious and be brave.” And I was able to give that book- the idea was that it was advice for Charlie when he hit fourteen. and a couple of years ago he hit fourteen and it’s his book now.
Andy Coulson: [1:01:21] Fantastic. Tom Fletcher, thanks so much.
Tom Fletcher: [1:01:24] Thank you.
End of Recording [1:01:35]