The British Ambassador to Thailand, H.E. Brian Davidson, looks to modern British values to forge the future of the four- hundred-year-old relationship between Thailand and the UK, as he describes in an exclusive interview with Expat Life.
“One of the things that I would like to do is showcase the multi-cultural and truly diverse place that is today’s Britain.”
The sprawling verdant grounds of the British Embassy greet you with a silence that feels worlds away from the tumultuous traffic beyond. A stately, cream-coloured mansion – the home of the current ambassador – stands within as testament to a relationship dating back to 1612 when the first English ship arrived on the shores of Siam. The entire effect of the eightacre compound is to take you back in time until you meet Brian Davidson, the tall, dapper diplomat who from his casual shirt worn without a tie to his crisply ironed slacks is every bit as modern as you can get. And it doesn’t end with his dress sense. Davidson is determined to bring the best of 21st century Britain to Thailand.
“While we’ve had a significant historical relationship, I think both the Thais and the British suffer from certain misperceptions about each other. When you think of Britain here, the images conjured might be a tad outdated and influenced more by our past than our present,” he explains. “One of the things that I would like to do is showcase the multi-cultural and truly diverse place that is today’s Britain. A country not just to visit for castles and Shakespeare but one that’s at the forefront of pioneering work in many areas across a range of industries. On the flip side, it is my responsibility to shift perceptions in the UK. Thailand is not just about holidays and beaches but stands as ever, a valuable trading and investment partner in the ASEAN region with ample opportunities for British business.”
It was exactly a year ago that Davidson took over the role of from his predecessor. And an extraordinary year it has been, marked by stunning events both in Thailand and in Britain. Yet Davidson remains unfazed, “Certainly these events – the passing of the King of Thailand, the referendum on Brexit and the election in the UK – were unexpected and have had an impact on the level of activity and engagement but our mission, the mission of the Embassy, remains unchanged. I have outlined my top three priorities in Thailand, which are about promoting a free and open society; building stronger partnerships for mutual prosperity; and providing top-notch consular and embassy services to all who avail of them.”
Considering the first priority, Davidson himself has been the embodiment of the very values of openness and transparency that he champions. In 2014, Davidson married his long-time partner, Scott Chang, at a private ceremony at the British consulate in Beijing, which made headlines as one of the first same-sex marriages to be conducted by a diplomatic mission of a foreign country in China. Both the local and international press made much of the fact and it catapulted Davidson into the public eye in China and overseas as an icon for gay rights. Davidson is sanguine and happy to be open about his family life if it serves a purpose. “I think it’s incumbent on those of us who’ve enjoyed the support of their families and their government to live the life we want, to be more visible and to show that there’s nothing unusual about this, on behalf of those who may not have the same privileges. I also encourage others in my team to contribute to causes about which they feel passionate. It’s not a preachy, this-is-how-you-should-do-things approach but rather speaking from the heart with our perspectives and/or struggles around these issues. I’d like us as a whole, to walk the walk on diversity because this is an important part of the fabric of our society.”
Since taking up his post here in Bangkok, he has opened the ambassador’s residence to create an open space for debate for various groups working on promoting human rights and social justice in different parts of Thailand, whether it be in the area of LGBT rights, rights of the disabled, gender equality, support for Muslim mothers in the South or victims of child trafficking. “We’ve had a reasonable amount of success by opening the house to established groups working on these causes as it gives people an opportunity to share their perspectives, articulate ideas, and jointly figure out workable solutions. There is a limit to how much we can accomplish but I am hopeful that this approach in tandem with governmentto- government lobbying around commitments already made on some of these issues can be highly effective.” His goals around an open society also extend to creating a stable business environment and the Embassy is working with the Thai government on improving transparency around public procurement as well as tackling corruption, both of which, in Davidson’s view, are elements which will further Thailand’s own aims to be a service leader and beacon for innovation in the ASEAN region. “We’ve had good traction on these fronts, especially on certain projects funded through our Prosperity Team. We’ve just completed work with the UNDP and Thailand to draft the first ever public procurement act, following international best practices, which will increase efficiency across government. We’ve also undertaken many initiatives with anti-corruption agencies where we share knowledge and help disrupt networks.” Joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1985 after graduating from Cambridge University with a bachelor’s degree in law, Davidson has worked extensively in China, completing three tours of duty there, most recently as
Consul General in Shanghai. But his career has also taken some atypical turns such as his stint as the Deputy Chief Executive of International Financial Services. “Professionally, I’ve always followed my instincts on what might be interesting and the thing that I felt was missing from my arsenal was a clear sense of the private sector and its motivations. When an opportunity arose at IFS to develop their China strategy, I jumped at it. The experience was useful in understanding what drives business decisions and what they want from us in the public sector to best enable that”. It has also helped him with his second priority of strengthening ties between Thailand and England with trading and investment
partnerships. In Davidson’s opinion, “Much of the efforts have been around the Thailand 4.0 initiative and we’re in constant dialogue with different constituents here to determine the key sectors of focus and where there could be a match with the skill sets and strengths of British companies.
It’s learning what technologies are needed and trying to partner those needs with appropriate providers in the UK, whether in the areas of advanced engineering, aerospace, education, or the digital economy, among others. There are also significant opportunities in the UK for Thai investors and it’s my responsibility to provide a forum to promote them here. We’ve accomplished much with the Thai-UK Business Leadership Council, which helps trade and tech partnerships and also advises us on how to progress the ease of doing business.” Davidson is similarly prioritising the continual improvement of the quality of consular and visa services that his Embassy offers. Given the one million annual British visitors to Thailand and the 50,000 current British residents, not to mention the 100,000 visa applicants they receive each year, there is no dearth of work to go around! And Davidson and his team are not letting the grass grow under their feet. The Embassy is active on social media and Davidson himself is featured in many of the messages on safety and tourism. “We’re taking a look at what has worked in other regions and circumstances and trying to apply them to run preventative campaigns to hopefully get the point across in a lighthearted, personal manner. We’re also partnering with British companies working here to shine a light on the good work they do around corporate social responsibility, whether it’s Diageo’s Drink Responsibly Campaign, Tesco and their Royal Project work in Chiang Mai, or GSK’s partnership with the Thai Red Cross to distribute vaccines.” As if this wasn’t enough on his plate, there is the “elephant in the room” question of what’s to become of the Embassy’s current estate with rumours widely circulating of its imminent sale. Davidson pauses before responding, “I wish that I had something more concrete to say on this matter. It’s all still being finalised but it’s looking more likely that we will be moving. In the context of our global portfolio, which is self-funding and has myriad needs for building embassies in new places or shoring up security in certain high risk jurisdictions, if we were to consider whether we are using our footprint here to its fullest capacity, the truthful answer is no. However it remains one of our most valuable assets and we do need to be careful with its history and heritage. I have deep respect for the traditions that it represents. But if it were to be decided that we need to move, then we need to view it not as ignoring the past but as embracing the future. This is an opportunity to define our relationship with Thailand for the next 100 years. A smaller footprint in no way implies smaller impact or investment or engagement. If anything, all that is ramping up. We will certainly not reduce staff or resources and we would aim to preserve the fabric of this building and the use that we have made of the space in a similar fashion at another site. If I detach myself from the sadness of the passing of an era, I see it as all possibility. Three of my last four years in Shanghai, I spent moving a 200 plus staff to a one stop centre so I’ve been through this process once before. I can safely say that all the people involved in that move are still on speaking terms and all ended well! I feel confident that if called upon to do so, we can make it work here too. We’ve got to think of what’s next, what are the positives to be gleaned from this and where are the opportunities.” So in short, his response to the gargantuan task on the horizon that has everyone nervous and nostalgic is a classically British, keep calm and carry on!