'I joined the civil service to to be part of something bigger than myself': life as a diplomat in Poland

A huge diversity of people and roles make up the modern civil service. Crispian Wilson is a career diplomat currently based in Poland, where he has been supporting the UK’s response to the Ukraine crisis

By Civil Service World

02 Aug 2022

Crispian Wilson, diplomat, Warsaw, Poland

When and why did you join the civil service?

I joined the civil service via the then-Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomatic service mainstream as an EO in November 2005. I suppose I joined for the reasons lots of people join, to make a difference in the world and to be part of something bigger than myself that felt exciting and important. I also really wanted to travel, to live overseas and to understand other countries. 

What did you do before?

I joined straight from university, where I studied engineering. The FCO noticed my specialism and gave me my first job in international science policy! 

Tell us what you do and how it helps citizens

I’m currently the political counsellor at the British Embassy in Warsaw. I oversee the strategic relationship between the UK and Poland on a range of key issues, including foreign policy, defence and security, and justice and home affairs. In practice this means working with Poland to strengthen the UK’s security in Nato, countering Russia and delivering military and humanitarian support to Ukraine. It also means working together on emerging issues like cybersecurity, countering disinformation and serious and organised crime. To do this I need to understand how power and influence works in Poland and build relationships to achieve UK aims. During the recent Ukraine crisis I was also one of the embassy crisis managers, overseeing our response including consular support to UK nationals (including vulnerable families) crossing the border from Ukraine back into Poland, ensuring that those that needed assistance got the help they needed. 

“On one night shift early in the pandemic, I remember desperately hoping the weather at Brize Norton would hold as an airliner full of evacuees from Wuhan was on its way”

How did your role change during the pandemic?

I had a strange pandemic! At the start of the pandemic I was working in the FCO’s crisis management department and responded to the early outbreaks of Covid in China and then across the world. As a silver operational manager I was responsible for overseeing evacuation flights from Wuhan to the UK – I remember one night shift desperately hoping the weather at Brize Norton would hold as an airliner full of evacuees was on its way! As the pandemic widened, I became an operational manager helping to oversee the repatriation of 1.3 million UK nationals. We did this from home – working out of spare rooms and from kitchen tables. I then left that role to go on language training and spent 10 months in the UK learning Polish over Zoom, before moving to Poland towards the end of the pandemic. It was a real challenge moving the family in a time of Covid testing and different international restrictions. 

Your diplomatic career didn’t quite follow the path you were initially expecting – what have some of the challenges been and how have you overcome them?

Most UK diplomats expect to spend around two-thirds of their careers overseas. However, during my first overseas posting in Turkey my mother sadly died from cancer and we decided to cut our posting short to return to the UK to be closer to our family. A few years later we had our first daughter, who was diagnosed antenatally with a serious heart condition. She was very ill when she was born and spent 16 months in hospital. On discharge she still needed a lot of medical support and so overseas travel wasn’t an option. Overall, we ended up in the UK for about five years longer than we had expected. However, when she got older and stronger, we decided to take the plunge with an overseas posting. We are delighted to be overseas again, in fascinating country at a fascinating time. 

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