I’m about to leave Chicago after three fascinating and rewarding years as Consul General promoting the UK across 13 states of the US Midwest – an area bigger than western Europe and with an economy the size of Germany’s.
People in Chicago often ask what a Consul General does. So here are five lasting impressions of life and work here which I’ll be taking with me as I head off next month for my new job in the very different environment of Afghanistan:
- US politics at all levels are a wonderful theatre of democracy in action. Much of the 2012 election played out in Midwest swing states. The Consulate team and I spent a lot of time helping the Embassy to get under the skin of the election, from the Republican caucuses in Iowa to the end-game battling for the crucial Electoral College votes in Ohio which decided the outcome. Talking to the spin doctors and watching the arguments, advertisements and tactics evolve was an electoral education in itself. And it was a privilege for my wife and I to be in the crowd – cheering, some literally fainting – as President Obama took the stage after his victory was announced.
- Closer to home it has been fascinating to see Chicago’s bare-knuckle politics up close, and to get to know its famously intense Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who arrived fresh from the White House in 2011. We are working with his administration to make the most of Chicago’s 20 year old Sister City link with Birmingham – a relationship which is delivering results in higher education, business and culture. As cities round the world increasingly become political and economic actors in their own right (a major theme in the US Midwest) this sort of municipal diplomacy looks set to become more important. I think there’s scope for UK cities to do more internationally in ways that go beyond traditional twinning.
- As home to some of the largest international investors into the UK, the Midwest is crucial to our prosperity. At one end of the scale much of my time has been spent working with our UKTI team in the patient development of relationships with companies like Ford, General Motors, Boeing, Caterpillar, Mondelez and Procter & Gamble. At the other, we have been working increasingly with UK SMEs to help them make the most of the opportunities in this vast but highly competitive market. It’s very rewarding when this work helps produce a direct impact – as when, for example, BorgWarner, a big US automotive supply chain firm, announced an investment which will bring 130 new jobs to Bradford or when Walgreens announced last year that they were taking a strategic stake in Alliance Boots.
- Chicago has involved virtually no work on pol/mil issues, a staple of much of my career. So it was a refreshing return to my roots to welcome leaders and their entourages to Chicago in May 2012 for the NATO Summit which agreed Alliance support for transition in Afghanistan (a major focus of my next job in Kabul). We were also able to introduce Prime Minister David Cameron to the CEOs of some of the major US investors here, facilitate a substantive meeting with Mayor Emanuel and show him the work being done at ‘1871’, Chicago’s new tech incubator (named in honour of the city’s resurrection from the great fire that year).
- Finally, there’s a quality of life here which is second to none. Chicago itself is, according to Saul Bellow, ‘The Great American City’, with some of the world’s finest buildings and passionately supported arts, theatre, music and sports (the latter noisily on display this week as crowds poured into the streets as the Chicago Blackhawks won ice hockey’s Stanley Cup). Beyond Chicago the Midwest encompasses the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, the horse farms of Kentucky, some of the world’s best universities, the Big Skies of the Great Plains and the inland seas of the Great Lakes – as well as the urban challenges of Detroit and Cleveland. My wife, Teresa Albor, has found Chicago’s varied and innovative art scene a hospitable environment in her own career as an artist. Everywhere there’s a specifically Midwestern warmth to the people and their welcome and friendship.
In short, there’s a lot I’ll miss.