British Ambassador to Spain, Denise Holt, meeting King Juan Carlos I
In May 2007, Denise Holt became the UK’s first female ambassador to Spain, and Her Majesty’s Non-Resident Ambassador to the Principality of Andorra. Her inauguration made her the first female ambassador in more than 500 years of diplomatic history.
Preceding this, she had taken on the role of Director of Personnel at the Foreign Office before becoming the British Ambassador to Mexico in 2002. Her appointment in 2005 as Director of Migration and Overseas Territories at the Foreign Office put her in good stead for her life in Spain, as migration is a high priority for the Spanish government.
How did you get into the diplomatic service?
I studied French, Spanish and Politics at university and had the extraordinary good fortune to be recruited by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a Research Analyst when I left University. I spent the first 15 years of my career working in Iberia and then moved into mainstream diplomacy, so it was a natural next step for me.
What are your duties as Ambassador to Spain?
It is a very busy job! I am responsible for advising the Foreign Secretary on any aspect of our relationship with Spain. My teams around the country and I need to keep in constant contact with all levels of government—central, autonomous communities and provincial, as well as cities and towns. We also need to have excellent contact with the media all around Spain, English-speaking and Spanish, also with the world of business in the UK and Spain. There is a great deal of relationship management as well as a very serious advisory role on political and economic relations.
What drew you to Hispanic cultures?
A wonderful Spanish teacher at school who opened my eyes to the richness of Spanish language, literature, art, music and way of life.
What do you like about Spain?
I’ve known the country for over 40 years and speak pretty good Spanish, which means that I’m comfortable with living and operating in Spain. I know the Spanish regions pretty well and love taking advantage of any opportunity to get out and meet people living their lives. I find it adds much richness to the job and gives me better insight into what makes Spain tick. Above all, of course, I love the food, the weather and dealing with Spaniards.
How hard is it to be a female in what is a predominantly male profession?
The hard bit is reconciling family life and the need to be on duty 24/7 wherever you are posted. Luckily for me, my husband and I had a couple of joint postings before he retired and he has always been extremely supportive of me in any job that I have been doing ever since. My son has become increasingly interested in the content of the job and what it means on the ground, so I’ve got a very supportive family and that makes it possible. But otherwise I’ve never encountered any problems as a female.
How can we improve relations between the UK and Spain?
I think we need to do better in learning each other’s languages but I am glad to say this is improving in both countries. For example, in the United Kingdom, Spanish is the European language that is most increasing in take up in the schools, and in Spain I am very glad to discover that many regions—and indeed the central government—have as their objective the increase of bilingual education, which I think will be a tremendous asset to children.
What are your ambitions?
I hope at some stage to be able to work on making a difference to people’s lives, but whatever happens I feel incredibly honoured to be appointed as the British Ambassador here.