The UK's top diplomat in NZ has a personal reason for wanting to work here

by Clare de Lore / 24 June, 2018

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Laura Clarke. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

British High Commissioner Laura Clarke told everyone who would listen that she wanted the job. She had good reason. 

When Laura Clarke took up the post of British High Commissioner to New Zealand in January, it was a homecoming of sorts. Clarke, a committed European now tasked with doing her bit to help explain Britain’s exit from the EU, has strong personal links to this country. Her husband, Toby Fisher, is a New Zealander.

Clarke and her three young children are now settled in at Homewood, the grand official residence in Karori, and will soon be joined by Fisher, who’s been winding up his barrister’s chambers in London. He will join the Crown Law Office in Wellington.

Wellington, once regarded as a pre-retirement posting, is now attracting younger high flyers. Clarke’s predecessor, Jonathan Sinclair, who returned to London to become the principal private secretary to British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, was also a parent of young children at Homewood.

Clarke grew up in rural England and later studied at two of the UK’s leading universities, Cambridge and the London School of Economics.

What was country life in England like for a child?

I have a sister, who is two years older, and she and I had a completely idyllic childhood. A lovely house and garden, with animals, and my grandparents across the valley in the next village. My mother was mostly at home – she was there when I got home from school and when I was ill. My dad was a solicitor in a nearby town. It was a very innocent childhood. We used to roam the countryside with friends.

I went to the local primary school and the local grammar school. I was a studious child. I didn’t have a path mapped out for me and I also didn’t have role models of professional women. That took a bit of navigating.

Laura Clarke and the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Clarke-Fisher family collection

Laura Clarke and the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Clarke-Fisher family collection

In what way?

Well, what do you imagine for yourself as a girl? I remember an older relative asking me when I was about seven, “Are you any good at maths, Laura? No, I don’t suppose you are.” It had not occurred to me to wonder if I was any good at maths, but I then thought, “I’m probably not.” That was the culture for me and it took me a while to deal with the impostor syndrome – that feeling that every time I did well in my career I was sort of kidding people and didn’t really deserve the job.

When did the light bulb come on about being a diplomat?

It didn’t; I didn’t apply for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office because I didn’t think I would get in. I think that’s called a self-limiting belief. Instead, I joined another government department and was eventually seconded to the FCO. I got there by accident, really, and I love it. It’s the combination of the intellectual challenge – really big strategic thinking about things that matter in the world – and then people. Getting to know people and building relationships. There aren’t many jobs that give you both of those.

With Toby Fisher and their three children, from left, Nell, Margot and Blake. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

With Toby Fisher and their three children, from left, Nell, Margot and Blake. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

How did you and Toby meet?

We were at Cambridge at the same time, and used to see each other around but never met. When I did my masters at the London School of Economics, my best friend in the first week was a Kiwi guy called Heath. He said, “You went to Cambridge? My little brother Toby went to Cambridge”, and I remember thinking, “I know exactly who he means.” Toby, at the same time, had heard about Heath hanging out with this girl from Cambridge with lots of curly hair and he thought he knew who that was, so he invited himself to our housewarming party. His chat-up line – and he was trying quite hard – was about Francis Fukuyama and his book The End of History. Wow, not the normal line of attack, but it worked! That was in 2002, and we married four years later. We always thought it would be great to do a posting in New Zealand and somehow the stars have aligned.

Did you actively seek the job, then?

Some of the best advice I ever got was, “If you want a job, you have to tell everyone”, and so I had to get to the right level and progress, and along the way I have done some very exciting jobs. When the timing lined up, I went around all the people who are decision-makers on these things and told them I wanted this job. At least I was in their minds when the decision came round.

At her Government House welcoming ceremony.

At her Government House welcoming ceremony.

Is living and working here, as opposed to holidays, what you expected?

It’s a great place to live, and it’s easy to get to know people. New Zealand and the UK have much in common, many shared agendas. And I really enjoy Wellington. It feels like a European city; you can walk to places and get a grip on it. But this is not a job designed for single mums; I do quite a lot of work functions in the evening, so I protect the rest of my time with the kids.

You use the hashtag #welltravelledart on your Twitter account – tell me about that collection.

Our paintings and other pieces have been around the world with us, to South Africa and then back to the UK, and then here. One lovely piece is by [New Zealand abstract expressionist Allen] Maddox. My father-in-law, Richard Fisher, pioneered fertility treatment in New Zealand. I think someone in Maddox’s family had fertility treatment before Maddox made it big, so he paid with art. When we got married, we got this lovely picture as a present.

Clarke and her husband Toby Fisher. Photo/Clarke-Fisher family collection

Clarke and her husband Toby Fisher. Photo/Clarke-Fisher family collection

Did you bring a library with you?

Just our normal books. I love novels and books that give me a sense of place, so I am aiming to read more New Zealand literature. I have joined a book club but haven’t made it to a single meeting yet because of my schedule, but the book I put on the list for next time is Mutuwhenua: The Moon Sleeps, by Patricia Grace. I haven’t read it yet but I will. I just read Fletcher of the Bounty by Graeme Lay, because I am going to Pitcairn soon [the British High Commissioner is also Governor of the Pitcairn Islands). I enjoyed Women & Power by Mary Beard, and Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is a lovely novel. I am a fitful reader – sometimes I don’t manage much at all. It is quite hard keeping on top of reading for pleasure because there is so much to do for work. How do you get a balance? We all spend too much time on screens.

Do you have any rules for your children on that topic?

They are eight, six and four, and I am quite strict about screens, especially on holidays. We are realistic, though, that computers are part of the modern world. They say that some of the best surgeons spent a lot of time as kids playing computer games. They develop amazing 3D spatial awareness. If you want to be a keyhole surgeon and you are really good at computer games you will have the right spatial depth awareness and precision.

Speaking of special skills, how do you explain Brexit when there isn’t unity or a consistent direction on it within the ranks of the Government?

Look at the origins of the EU. For most continental Europeans, joining the EU was part of the journey from totalitarianism towards democratisation. For the UK, in 1973, it was a far more rational, economic decision, much less about identity. There was, therefore, never quite the same willingness to sacrifice more for Europe. Being part of the EU does require quite a serious sovereignty sacrifice, in terms of not having control over your own trade policies, not having the final court of appeal in your own country. That didn’t sit easily for some people and the link was more tenuous for Britain.

With French President Emmanuel Macron at a South Pacific conference in Nouméa. Photo/Getty Images

With French President Emmanuel Macron at a South Pacific conference in Nouméa. Photo/Getty Images

What lies ahead?

It is a bumpy path. We all had our vote and the outcome isn’t what I would have chosen. I am a European. I have worked in the European Commission, and I think it is an imperfect but extraordinary achievement. It is no secret there is a lot yet to be resolved, but there is real commitment in the UK and the EU to make this work. There is too much at stake for it not to.

When I talk to business, they are much more relaxed about that now, not least because there is an agreed implementation period. Even when we Brexit next March, there is a huge amount of continuity provided which gives businesses confidence. For example, continued membership of the Customs Union, the European Court of Justice, the single market – all that goes through until the end of 2020. That time can be used to work out the future relationship.

Some Remainers are holding onto the hope that the decision will be revisited and reversed. What are the odds?

It will remain a divisive issue and very contested but we are going to work through it. There are real opportunities with New Zealand – it is in the top three or four countries lined up for free-trade agreements with the UK after Brexit. We can also strengthen co-operation in other areas. We are increasing our presence in the Pacific, reopening our High Commissions in Tonga and Vanuatu and opening in Samoa.

But our European partners will remain important. Look at our fast response to the Trump decision to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal. Straight away the UK, France and Germany issued a joint statement. We will keep trading, we will co-operate on security, and Europe remains important. We are strengthening old and new relationships. It is complex but we have to make a success of it.

This article was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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