Tobia Nava

Simon McDonald has had quite the career. After graduating from Cambridge, he joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the early 1980s. Since then, he’s held more positions than I can count, before retiring upon the merging of the Foreign Office and the Department of International Development in 2020. But he has recently began his most important role yet: master of Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Simon McDonald studied history at Pembroke, and I opened the interview by asking how his experience of Cambridge has changed from when he was an undergraduate here:

“It’s weird”, he tells me, “because in some ways, the place looks just the same.” But while some aspects are familiar, others are “completely different.”

“History was useful to me every single day in my career”

When he was an undergraduate, the college was single-sex – but “all the colleges that used to be all men are now mixed”. This gender balance is also reflected in the fellowship, he says: “In the early 1980s, Christ’s was already mixed, but there were very few female fellows”. Now, “while not quite 50-50”, he tells me “it’s 50-50 for clout within the fellowship!” It’s not just this that has changed. “The rhythm of the college is different”, he says – there’s less of a sense of college community, per se. “Fewer people live in college, and more people have other things in their life away from college.”

I ask Simon how his degree in History shaped his career. “History was useful to me every single day in my career in the Foreign Office”, he tells me. It was invaluable in shaping “the discipline of dealing with multiple sources and sifting through contradictory evidence”.

“The raw material that a lot of my job was dealing with was countries that used to be part of the British Empire – studying how the Brits acquired that empire and how they lost it was in the background” of all of his work. So, too, were his studies valuable in understanding the “historical aspects” of relations with the United States, Germany, France and others. “History felt to me like a very practical degree for someone interested in diplomacy”, he tells me.

Since graduating from Cambridge, Simon’s been on to have an illustrious career in foreign diplomacy – when I mention this, he tells me that he’s visited 144 countries! When I ask him what his favourite experience was, he laughs. “It’s too hard, too hard!”, he protests. He tells me about his job as permanent undersecretary in the Foreign Office, where he headed a service that spanned 170 countries. Here, part of his job was “to go and see the team on the ground”. As he travelled, he tells me, he was compiling a list of places he was determined to take his wife. The four places at the top of that list? Cuba, Cambodia, Namibia and Saint Helena. He tells me that, so far, they’ve only managed to visit Cuba – which, I remark, leaves plenty of options for future holidays!

“The meeting took place in Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli – in a tent!”

As a diplomat, you’re not just the representative of a state – you’re a person, interacting with some of the most important figures in global politics. When I ask about his most memorable experiences in diplomacy, he immediately mentions: “a one-to-one meeting with Colonel Gaddafi”, the former head of Libya, leaving me in disbelief. “The meeting took place in Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli – in a tent!”

Sitting in the tent, Simon could see the building destroyed by the Americans in a raid in the 1980s, in which Gaddafi’s daughter was killed, through the opening – what Simon calls “an unsubtle reminder by my host of the complicated history between Libya and Britain.”

After all these incredible stories from his career, I ask what advice Simon would give to students keen to enter into the world of diplomacy. “Study hard”, he says, warning: “the Foreign Office is a very popular job among British graduates”. When he was in office, there were 23,000 applications for about 60 places. “The Foreign office is a buyers market – and one proof of being very good is a very good degree”.

But it’s not all academic: “Diplomacy is about the wider world. So work overseas and learn foreign languages, take an active interest in international relations, and if you’re rejected – reapply! Persistence is noted”. According to Simon, all of this will help any application stand out amid the other 23,000.

Why did you take the job of master at Christ’s?

I think that’s the wrong verb – it was not offered on a silver platter; I applied. There was an advert two years ago, and a lengthy process it was! It took longer to become a Head of House [head of a college] than it took to become a permanent secretary in Whitehall. But I applied because I liked the look of the job, and in particular, working with young people in beautiful surroundings. In my last job in the Foreign Office, one of the things I most enjoyed was the encounter with new entrants. Very bright young people at the beginning of their career, open, uncynical – and this seemed like that experience cubed.

What is your favourite part of the college?


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I enjoy the job! I enjoy the whole job. The main people are the students, the fellowship, the staff and the alumni. In different ways, I enjoy meeting and working with all those groups. .

The best and worst thing about being a head of a college?

In theory, I know what the worst of the job might be – and I hope I never have to deal with that. But tragedy is possible, and Cambridge is not exempt from that. Heads of House have to deal with that when their college is affected. I hope never to have to do that. But, in advance, I would say that would be the worst.

If you had to be the master of another college, which would you choose?

A ridiculous question! Christ’s does exist, and if it didn’t exist, I would wish it to exist. I’m sticking with Christ’s.

What would you say to your successor in this role?

My advice would be to please, wait! I’ve only just arrived! You’ll have your time in due course! I believe in doing the job as well as you can, for as long as you can. And to do that, you mustn’t think about succession too early.