David Cameron should think carefully about Francis Campbell’s successor as British ambassador to the Holy See

David Cameron has probably not had the chance to think about it yet, but there is a huge upside to the sad news that Ann Widdecombe will no longer be in a position to represent the Court of St James to the Holy See upon the retirement of the outstanding Ambassador Francis Campbell. There is now a unique opportunity to position our Embassy as a key international vanguard for the advancement of a global Big Society just as Cameron has established vanguards for social innovation on the home front.

To those who underestimate the seriousness with which the Prime Minister takes his crusade for a new civic future such an idea may seem odd. For those unaware of the huge reach, range and impact of Catholic diplomatic, NGO and charitable institutions it may seem stranger still. And yet to those with experience of the nexus of relationships that find there way to, through and from Rome such a proposal should not even raise the blinking of an eyelid given the Cabinet’s passion to “turn government upside down”.

Talk to those who represent their continent or firm on the World Economic Forum and many will report that they have experienced equally elite and substantial private gatherings convened by Pontifical Councils on the shores of Lake Albano. Chat to diplomats close to the Germanicum and the North American College in Rome and they will tell you they have invested time getting to know seminarians who in years to come will be friends and pastors to those on all sides of the Reichstag and Capitol Hill, and who between them will control formal social welfare institutions with over 15 million beneficiaries and a million paid staff in their two countries alone.

There are as many states who take seriously what the Holy See says as there are nations in the Commonwealth. In every global trouble spot are located members of religious orders who, if simply secular, would be among the world’s most respected international foundations and NGOs. The liberal Ford Foundation, for example, simply cannot compare.

And, like Cameron and Nick Clegg, these institutions know how much damage a centralised state can do. Meet a tired-looking cardinal, a sun-dried head of a missionary order or a visiting politician in Rome and the chances that you are talking to someone who has been imprisoned, arrested or persecuted by a bureaucracy are high. A Foreign Office that was convincingly turning itself upside down would have diplomats racing to serve as Francis Campbell’s successor rather than clamouring for postings to the capitals of the G8.

Modern ambassadors, embassies and diplomacy though come in many shapes and sizes. In the 1990s I used to meet rising stars from abroad as they toured Britain with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that they were friendly for the future. In 1992, in war-dominated Zagreb, I can remember squeezing into Ambassador Bryan Sparrow’s interim office as he worked to get the show on the road. In Africa, Asia and Europe I have witnessed the astounding work of the huge Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Friedrich Naumann Foundation. In universities I have taught those who have gone on to draft concordats between Bosnia and the Holy See and who have resisted corruption in Third World nations seeking development.

Meanwhile, in embassies I have seen NGO workers tipsy after a day under fire, experienced the emotion of a nuncio as he showed us the very spot where the Stasi had arrested a Sister from among his predecessors’s staff, and witnessed the intense pride of American diplomats on Thanksgiving Day. All of this human life will be found in and around the Holy See’s offices, too. All of it will point outwards to the civil sphere, which any new incumbent will want to serve as passionately as some career diplomats have longed for a posting to the glorious embassy in Paris.

Now that the British Government has begun to wind up the Prevent Programme that so upset Muslim communities, the Holy See should be of increasing importance for inter-religious reasons. The Dominicans have houses in Cairo and Jerusalem, while the Jesuits are in touch throughout the Middle East. The Catholic University of Bethlehem is bankrolled from the Holy See directly and trains Palestine’s future leaders and especially its most able women. Investing time understanding the Holy See’s networks here is at least as important as backing the Church of England’s work in neighbourhoods across Britain.

Francis Campbell’s successor then should not be someone with nothing to prove. A retired or semi-retired politician might fall into that category unless they are so senior that a single word will deliver. Rather, they should be able to pick up the energy of recent years but shape it in a fresh direction to advance our national interest. Naturally, this will mean doing the things that embassies have to do, such as listening closely for insights that will protect our Armed Forces, our jobs and our people.

But in the Holy See there is the additional – and wondrous – chance to carve out a fresh model of working that puts our diplomats at the service of global civil society. Whoever gets the job should be different but experienced, an independent-minded innovator who will also take the Church incredibly seriously. And it should be someone passionate about the potential of the Big Society to make more than a national difference, rather than someone in love with the architecture and culinary delights of Italy.

Does such a candidate exist? Francis Campbell came from 10 Downing Street itself and there is certainly huge talent and faith expertise in David Cameron’s private office. The real question, however, is whether such a person exists (and can gain the confidence of the Holy See) in the Foreign Office. At a time when the Cabinet wishes to build a new vision, to turn government upside down, the Prime Minister ought to make a radical decision to create a new mould, a “vanguard”, for appointments. And that is why there is such an opportunity as a result of Ann Widdecombe’s unfortunate indisposition.

Francis Davis is a fellow of Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, has advised at Cabinet ministerial level and is on the board of judges for the Erste Bank Foundation Prize for Social Innovation and cohesion in South Eastern Europe. He co-authored Moral, But No Compass – Church, Government and the Future of Welfare (2008) for the Church of England