WHEN Matthew Barzun was first appointed a US ambassador, President Barack Obama summed up his task in one word: “Listen.”
That piece of advice – in a chat in the Oval Office – is one the 45-year-old diplomat has taken to heart.
Yesterday he was at Wester Hailes Education Centre on the latest stage of his mission to find out what people think about America.
Mr Barzun, the London-based US ambassador to the UK, held a session with around 60 senior pupils at the school, which involved asking them to say what frustrated, concerned or confused them about America and what they liked, hoped for or found inspiring.
“We had a great session,” he said. It was his 108th school visit since he became Mr Obama’s man in the UK two years ago.
“It’s different each time, but lost of common themes emerge. It’s a workshop not a lecture.
“I was at Wester Hailes because I received a tweet at the beginning of the year from Stuart Sinclair, head of modern studies at WHEC, inviting me to come because he heard I was doing these sorts of things.
“I’ve now met with 10,000-plus of this age group across the UK.
“Guns has always been the biggest topic, every single time.”
It was a concern picked out by two-thirds of the group at WHEC. Other hot topics included police violence in African American communities, racism and income inequality.
In contrast to university talks, which Mr Barzun also gives, when the issues raised by the audience are almost invariably on foreign policy, he says more than half the concerns highlighted by school pupils are domestic issues.
He started the school visits because he thought he might get a better snapshot of people’s views.
“My hunch was if you talk to people who are just a bit younger, you get a clearer picture of what is on the minds of the future leaders of the UK, which is why I’m here.
“I tell them that when I became an ambassador for the first time was in Sweden and I got to sit down with President Obama in the Oval Office before leaving and I asked him what advice he had for a first-time diplomat and he summed it up in one word: listen. I tell the students there is no group of people more important to listen to than you because – no pressure – you’re the future leaders of Scotland and the UK.”
Mr Barzun has also established a Young Leaders UK programme to keep in touch with 18 to 30-year-olds in this country, invite them to events and promote exchange opportunities with the US. He already has contacts with 500 young leaders and was using his visit to Edinburgh to launch the programme in Scotland.
He said: “We have this amazing friendship between Scotland and the United States – and the UK and the United States – and it’s not there by accident.
“It’s there through a lot of hard work, shared sacrifices, generations who went before. Next year we celebrate 70 years since Churchill coined the phrase ‘special relationship’ and I think it is special.
“What we are trying to do at the consulate and the embassy is make sure it is on a steady footing for the next 70 years and not to fall into the trap of being imprisoned by history or coasting off the nostalgia of great things of the past. Let’s reinvigorate it and that doesn’t mean papering over issues of confusion and frustration and concern. We’ve got to talk about them.”
He does not believe Americans’ attitudes to Scotland have been affected by the controversy over the release of the Lockerbie bomber or last year’s independence referendum.
“The strength of the US-Scottish relationship is broad and deep enough to get over whatever issues there might be.”
During his visit to Edinburgh, the ambassador also popped into sandwich shop Social Bite, which helps the homeless – though the West End branch, not the one visited by Hollywood star George Clooney – and was duly impressed. “Finding ways to grow social ventures like that in the United States and vice versa are a powerful field with lots of potential.”
Mr Barzun is on record making clear his dislike of lamb and potatoes, which he claimed to have been served 180 times in his first year in the UK. But he is ready to try new tastes in Scotland – including haggis, which has famously been banned in the US since 1971. Does he like it? “I do, I’m learning. It’s a journey.”
He says there are lots of Americans who come to Scotland and acquire a taste for it. “They try it, they love it and they want to keep having it.”
But he does not want to “over-promise” about a lifting of the ban, despite talk of tweaking the recipe to satisfy US requirements. “There are real obstacles, but they are obstacles we are working hard to overcome,” he says.
He also tried Irn-Bru – “a jolt of joy” – though he admitted he had gone for the sugar-free option and a Tunnock’s teacake. “I was trying to be good,” he says. “Balance is an important diplomatic principle, so I had my Tunnock’s teacake and my sugar-free Irn-Bru and on balance I was fine.”