[This interview was conducted in October 2020, when Alison was Britain's Ambassador to Afghanistan.]
As part of the first cohort of women undergraduates at Merton in 1980, did you feel like a trailblazer, or was that secondary to the feeling of being new to university and college life in general?
We did feel like trailblazers. Other Oxford colleges had already admitted women but in 1980 there were still many more to come. I had a mixture of feelings in going to Merton, not just as a woman but on an individual level too as I was the first from my family to go to university. Like everyone, I had all the usual feelings of excitement and trepidation, as well as a sense of possibilities and expectations.
There were 11 of us undergraduate women in that first intake. So we were certainly outnumbered and finding our way, but we were a mutually supportive group. Luckily, Merton was (and is) a small friendly college.
We discovered that we had all been put in Rose Lane – where the first-year students are traditionally housed – and all together on the top floors. It was a nice thought, and done with the best of intentions – safety in numbers and I think to avoid our sharing bathrooms with the men. But by the third year, when we were able to choose our rooms, we were by then completely integrated and housed all over the College.
Were there any particular challenges in being in that first intake of women students? Any attitudes to overcome?
That year, 1980, was also the year of the first intake of women students at Christ Church, and as we got to know them and compare our experiences it seemed to me that we had been more quickly and easily accepted in Merton than perhaps had been the case in Christ Church.
I do however remember an early encounter in the lunch queue at Merton, where one of the senior postgraduates came up to me and said, ‘I know most people think that accepting women is a mark of progress. But the jury is still out on that.’ It took me aback a little at the time but it was the only negative comment I remember us getting in that first term.
On a more amusing note, one of the history students in the year above told me that he and his friends had been most worried about going to the underworld (where we did our laundry) and the frightening possibility of having to remove women’s clothes – women’s underwear in particular – from a washing machine or dryer.
You studied Ancient and Modern History. Did you enjoy your degree course, and do you feel that the subject – and your time at Merton – have had an impact on your life since?
I believe I was the first person to read for that joint honours at Merton. I had been at a small girls’ school in London, where I had loved history and Latin but where Greek was not offered, otherwise I might have chosen to do Classics. Ancient and Modern History was a great course – and it felt very bespoke. I was able to pick the classical Greek and Roman history papers, along with selected papers from British and European history – including British social policy from 1880 to 1914. A complete mix, which meant I could really indulge in what interested me.
Studying history at Merton gave me a great framework for critical thinking, absorbing huge amounts of information quickly and cutting through to the heart of it to try to understand the world and what has shaped it. If there is a main theme running through my life that was shaped by Merton, it was about doing what you love, not being afraid of new challenges and making mistakes but being ready to take opportunities as they arise.
Your first job on graduating was as an archaeologist, and you spent several years in archaeological roles before joining the Civil Service in 1989 and then the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 1996. Why the change?
Before I went up to Merton, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I had volunteered on digs and worked at sites near my home in London. I was particularly interested in Roman and early Medieval Britain and Europe.
The 1980s was a great time for archaeology in London as the City of London was being redeveloped, revealing astounding Roman and mediaeval features beneath the Victorian basements once they were dug out. It wasn’t the most secure career, and over six years I had a series of very short-term contracts – with the Greater London Council, English Heritage, the Museum of London – and supplemented this with jobs in other organisations including in a book shop, for the Royal National Institute for the Blind, and as a sub-editor in an economics research think tank. I was having a great time but I wasn’t sure it would still be great to be doing this after another six years.
So I applied to the Civil Service for the fast stream intake, and was offered a place in the Ministry of Defence. They sent me to NATO, on loan to the Foreign Office, and I discovered that I loved being a diplomat. It was partly about being mobile, representing the UK overseas and working with a wide range of international colleagues, but it was also about being able to live overseas and spend time getting to know another country, its people, its languages, its culture and how it ticked.
Can you tell us a little about your first years with the FCO?
My first assignment at the FCO was four years in Brussels as part of the UK Delegation to NATO and the Western European Union at a time when European defence and security and NATO were transforming themselves after the end of the Cold War, and NATO was deploying operationally first to Bosnia and then to Kosovo. I went from there to the FCO in London as deputy head of the Eastern Adriatic Department, still focusing on our engagement in the Balkans, and that was followed by four years at the British Embassy in Washington, DC, where I led on foreign and security policy for the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) area. I arrived in Washington a month before 9/11, and was working in the Embassy on the day the planes crashed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. So after that pretty much all of us at the Embassy found our jobs and lives transformed as we started working with the US administration on the response and the start of the ‘war on terror’, and as American society adjusted to feelings of vulnerability to threats from overseas terrorism.
In 2006 I returned to work in London, first in the Cabinet Office coordinating our foreign and security policy including on Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, during the premierships of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. I returned to the FCO in late 2007 as head of the FCO’s Conflict Group, to continue working on our policies for addressing conflict and crises overseas.
I wasn’t sure what to do next when I saw the role of Deputy High Commissioner in Islamabad being advertised (we advertise all our roles internally). I had never been to Pakistan but the then High Commissioner convinced me it was a great job and that I should apply, so I did. I was appointed and discovered he was right.
You have now had three postings in South Asia: three years in Islamabad as Deputy High Commissioner in Pakistan; three years in Dhaka as High Commissioner in Bangladesh; and now in Kabul as UK Ambassador to Afghanistan. Have you come to love the region – or just arrived at an understanding with it? And why?
Yes, after almost a decade in the region I still love it. As a region, South Asia faces some big challenges: poverty, insecurity, terrorism and legacies of past conflicts, complex politics and a complicated history with the British. But I find it an endlessly fascinating place with huge possibilities, talented and extraordinarily resilient people and so much history, so as a historian, I’m fascinated by it. I love the cultures, the food, the colours and (mostly) the climate. But overwhelmingly it’s the people and its patchworks of ethnicity and religions. I have tried to learn at least one local language wherever I have been. I don’t believe you can do these jobs well if you aren’t passionate about our role in encouraging and supporting the people to build fairer, more prosperous lives.
It’s a real privilege to be an ambassador, or high commissioner, and to represent the UK and promote our interests overseas. A huge part of that in places where we have big development programmes is about building institutions and systems to provide better education, health and services to the people who live there. We also have a duty to our own staff, to protect them and to help develop them and their careers. In South Asia, unlike Washington or Brussels, our embassies/high commissions are often on a compound along with the head of mission’s Residence and facilities for staff and accommodation for the UK expatriate staff. Kabul, Islamabad and Dhaka are some of the UK’s biggest single overseas missions. In Kabul, where we need a big security contingent to be able to operate, we number between 900 and 1,000 people.
Let’s turn specifically to your current posting, which is as HM Ambassador to Afghanistan. What are your priorities and your main challenges? You moved to Kabul in May 2019. What changes have you seen in your 16 months there?
As ambassador, I’m custodian of the bilateral relationship between the UK and Afghanistan, so my most important task is to engage the Afghan government, political and military leadership and civil society leaders so that we can work together to promote greater security, stability and prosperity for both countries.
To do this I have a team drawn from across eight Whitehall departments, working with Afghan and international partners, military and civilian, to tackle extremist violence, provide humanitarian and development support, to promote better governance and the rule of law, human and civil rights and to drive economic reform and development, including trade.
There have been two Afghan-specific changes since I arrived. First, the start of direct talks between teams representing the Afghan Republic (and government) and the Taliban. Progress is slow, but far from stopping their fighting, Taliban violence across the country has been increasing steadily since March. The other significant change, which was the reason for the Taliban agreeing to the talks, was the US signing an agreement with the Taliban setting out a timetable for the withdrawal of all international forces from Afghanistan by May 2021.
And, as everywhere else, Covid-19 exacted a terrible toll on Afghanistan, with almost everyone we know saying the virus affected their families. Now most of our Afghan partners and friends have generally resumed ‘business as usual’, whereas we diplomats are still adhering to strict social distancing and wearing our masks to meetings.
Of all the countries you have lived in, are you able to say which has been your most rewarding posting – where you feel you have been able to make the most difference – and what was it?
Most rewarding posting? That’s difficult! All of them have been hugely rewarding; but the place where I was conscious of feeling that everything had come together – that this is what I had been training for over the past 20 years – was Dhaka, my first head of mission job and therefore rather special. A big mission in an extraordinarily beautiful developing country. I was lucky that I could get out and about across the country too, and as my Bengali was serviceable (certainly stronger than my Urdu or Dari), I could talk to Bangladeshis outside the diplomatic circle without interpreters.
Is there any one thing in your career of which you are most proud?
I was Acting High Commissioner in Islamabad in 2012 when Malala was shot. At that point, she wasn’t an international icon although she was known in Pakistan as a campaigner for girls’ education. The Pakistani government approached us with a request to get her to the UK for medical treatment. I set up a small team, we got together and made it happen.
The moment that most stays in my mind was sitting in my house at around 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. We had all the paperwork London had asked for ready, apart from one paper of assurances. If Malala was going to be saved, her doctors said the flight carrying her needed to leave for the UK straight away – i.e. there was no time to wait. I had had an instruction from London that the flight was not to leave until we had all the necessary papers, but I was sure that we would have them all within the next few hours, and so I made the decision to give clearance for her flight to leave. I said, "Let her go, but we need the paperwork before she enters UK airspace." Anyone else would have made that same decision, but it happened to be me and I’m pleased to have played a small part in getting Malala to the UK for her medical care.
Going full circle: have you ever felt that being in that first cohort of women at Merton has stood you in good stead with your postings to countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan where ‘visible’ women are in the minority?
It’s given me confidence, and a strong sense that role models matter. Being in the first intake of women at Merton, we were role models in a way, though I didn’t think of it like that at the time.
We weren’t the first generation fighting for women’s rights, as our mothers and aunts or grandmothers were. But being in a minority at Merton has stood me in good stead. Although the challenges faced by women in South Asia are hugely daunting, beyond anything I faced, I recognise some of what they face. The fact that I was the first woman to serve as British High Commissioner in Dhaka had an impact I could use to support gender empowerment in Bangladesh. And I am happy to use my position to raise awareness and support the struggle for equal rights for women, minorities and marginalised groups. This feels especially important in Afghanistan today where there are serious concerns that a political settlement with the Taliban, so necessary for peace, could put women’s rights and human rights in danger.
What is your favourite memory of your three years at Merton?
It’s hard to pull out a single favourite memory, although among them are sunny afternoons in the Fellows’ Garden, walks to Godstow or Binsey on summer evenings and lively discussions over after-dinner coffee. But I do also remember tougher moments, the pressures of being in what sometimes felt like an academic hothouse. I remember that Mertonians did a lot of self-supporting, but there were darker issues and it was difficult to know how to support friends who were struggling with more serious anxiety or depression than just fifth-week blues. It seems to me that things have moved on a lot since then, including greater awareness of the pressures of student life and support for those who need it.
But of course I do have very happy memories of my time at Merton. I coxed what I remember as the mathematicians’ eight, and we women got together to form a joint eight with Christ Church, although I was a terrible rower. I was in the University Officers’ Training Corps, and we would go off for weekends that were a complete antidote to the concentrated academic work of term. I had friends involved in Merton Floats and the Kodály Choir, and I enjoyed all the dramatics and music. Having come from a small girls’ school which offered very little in comparison, it was wonderful to have sudden access to so much.
Would you do it all over again?
Absolutely I would! I was brought up to make the most of all opportunities that come my way.
And I can’t imagine where I would be now if I hadn’t gone to Merton. I’m still in touch with a group of friends that I made in the first week. I had a great time, they were and are hugely important to me, and I can’t imagine my life without them.