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Ditchley Debates

churchill50 years on and The Ditchley Foundation continues to address some of the world’s most pressing political issues and build on the Atlantic relationship

The Ditchley Foundation, a charitable organisation originally set up to promote Anglo-American understanding, held its first conference 50 years ago in April 1962. Hosting over 1,000 conferences since then, Ditchley has gradually moved from an exclusively transatlantic focus to global issues with wide international participation. Diplomat magazine asks current Director, SIR JOHN HOLMES, how the foundation’s work has changed over the decades and how the transatlantic and global fit together.

Ditchley Park, a 300-year old country house set in hundreds of acres of glorious Oxfordshire countryside, has fortunately not changed much physically through its long history. But its transatlantic credentials were already impeccable, for example as the venue for Winston Churchill’s early negotiations and drafting of the historic wartime Lend-Lease Agreement between the US and Britain. Churchill spent many weekends before and during the war at Ditchley, not least as a safer alternative to his official residence of Chequers when Nazi bombers were about and ‘the moon was high’.

After the war, and mindful of what he saw as the lack of pre-war transatlantic cooperation which had allowed Hitler’s rise, the then owner of the Ditchley estate, Sir David Wills, established The Ditchley Foundation with the aim of ‘strengthening mutual understanding between two great English-speaking peoples, together with their neighbours and friends’. It has sought to achieve this over the past half century by bringing together practitioners from all over the world to discuss the big international issues, and to look for new policy solutions to old problems. It has the great advantage of being able to operate free from government influence or interference thanks to the generosity of Sir David’s endowment, though that has to be supplemented nowadays by other donations and income from other uses of the house.

How does it work? Each month, high-ranking and influential politicians, business people, civil servants, academics, diplomats, and members of the military and media swap their hectic world of work for a mostly Wi-Fi-free weekend conference in the country. The escape from the pressures of modern life allows space and uninterrupted time to think creatively, as well as to debate issues with new contacts, aided by the safe and encouraging environment created by the house in its remote rural setting, and the Chatham House Rule which guides its discussions.

This tried and tested formula demands that guests relax, and allow themselves to be looked after, so that reflection and discussion can be their main focus. Titles, official talking points and cultural barriers melt away, and the camaraderie inspired by the setting allows fresh ideas to flow from open minds.

Not many people know about Ditchley or its Foundation. However unintentional, this has advantages of discretion when Ditchley is used, as it sometimes is outside conference times, for quiet and sensitive negotiation between those who are not so keen to be seen together. So what makes Ditchley different from other conference centres or think tanks?

‘In today’s complex and fast-moving world, the time to think and to meet experts from both sides of the Atlantic …and the opportunity to thrash out thorny policy problems through frank exchange, are needed more than ever,’ Sir John Holmes, the Director since 2010, explained. ‘We may not change policy directly, but we feed into the minds of those who do. And that is the key to Ditchley’s success.’

The Foundation may have plenty of history, but it is not stuck in the past. Conference topics have moved with the times, from the Cold War and security-dominated subjects of the 70s and 80s to the modern day dilemmas of ageing populations and cyber-security. Guest lists have changed too: participants hail from all over the globe. The most notable increase in attendance has come from the big emerging economies, as their global importance has risen and their governments have opened up, allowing their representatives to engage in freer discussion. Attendees are encouraged to speak as individuals, rather than representatives of a particular organisation or point of view.

One tradition has not changed much over the Foundation’s 50 years: being headed by a diplomatic heavy-hitter. John Holmes follows in the footsteps of Jeremy Greenstock, Nigel Broomfield, Michael Quinlan, John Graham, Reginald Hibbert, Philip Adams and Michael Stewart, after the initial stewardship of former Sunday Times Editor Henry ‘Harry’ Hodson. And with a CV that lists Under-Secretary-General at the UN, Ambassador to France and Portugal, Private Secretary to both former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major, and a knighthood for services to peace in Northern Ireland, John Holmes is more than qualified for the job.

 ‘The Directors of Ditchley have tended to be former senior British diplomats because of their obvious wide international experience and contacts, but Michael Quinlan, from the Ministry of Defence, was a huge success, and there is no reason why the field should not be widened in future,’ comments Sir John. ‘We need to do more on the big economic and financial subjects of the day, with more business and economically-minded people here than has usually been the case. We also need to focus more on Asia and the other rising continents because that is where the political and economic weather is increasingly being made.’

Planning is key to Ditchley’s success. Conferences are highly-structured affairs, with participation strictly by invitation only. This means huge amounts of careful research to find the brightest minds and the right mix of backgrounds and nationalities to make discussion interesting and lively. Topics are selected by the Director and his small team, on the advice of a Programme Committee comprised of MPs, diplomats, academics and the like.

John Holmes notes that they all contribute voluntarily. ‘We are extraordinarily fortunate to be so well served. We also have transatlantic sister organisations, the American and Canadian Ditchley Foundations, established in 1964 and 1981 respectively, who remain highly active partners.’ This year’s conference programme is as wide-ranging and varied as ever, with Multiculturalism and Religion in Foreign Policy the subject of the conference which will coincide with the Foundation’s 50th anniversary in April.

‘We want to know if, for example, inter-faith dialogue is making any difference. How can and should people of faiths and cultures different from the majority in any country be able to influence that country’s foreign policy? How is religion used to both motivate and justify foreign policy?’

This will be followed in May by Can International Intervention Work?, where post-1945 international interventions will be analysed: have initial objectives set by those carrying them out been thought  through and then achieved? And if not, why not?

‘Do we understand what we are doing and the local dynamics we are inevitably interfering with when we decide to go in? When should the “Responsibility to Protect” kick in? What should be the role of the UN Security Council in these situations? In the light of recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, we need to look at how far the international community can set new rules and norms for the future.’

Against the backdrop of the global financial crisis, Putting Science, Government, Business and Innovation Together is on the agenda in June. With innovation being increasingly vital to an economy’s successful development and growth, this conference will look at how these areas can work together to foster not only scientific advance but also its commercial exploitation. Other topics on the 2012 programme include: Security and Prosperity in East Asia; A Two-tier Europe and its Consequences; Global Power Shifts: what do the new players want? and How Should Drug Control Policy Change?

Sir John explains: ‘These are all topics of vital relevance to modern realities. East Asia has extraordinary economic dynamism but uneasy security and political relations between the main players – how will they manage these in the next 10 years? Will Europe survive the eurozone crisis as a united entity or are two or more tiers now inevitable? How do China, India, Brazil and the like want to change the world and the way it is governed, if indeed they do? And what should we do about one of the great global scourges if current policy is failing to curb either supply of drugs or demand for them?’

John Holmes notes that expansion of Ditchley’s traditional speakers and areas of interest is vital to the preservation of the transatlantic link for Ditchley. ‘It is no longer enough, if it ever was, for the British and North Americans to talk just to each other about what is going on in the world, and what can be done to make that world a better place.’ An international group of discussion attendees is essential.

How can Ditchley be sure about the impact it makes? Sir John is engagingly frank: ‘I do not think we can measure it in any scientific or mathematical way. The astonishingly warm tributes we receive from people who have been to our conferences, the different perspectives we know they go away with, and the new networks which are formed between participants from all over the world are enough to convince us that what we are doing continues to have huge value, and to contribute to better understanding and better decision-making. That is what David Wills wanted, and with the continued dedicated support of the Wills family – Lady Eva Wills, his widow, and Dr Catherine Wills, his daughter – I am confident we will go on making that difference.’


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