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Interview: Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps

marshallDiplomat Editor Venetia van Kuffeler meets The Queen’s newly-appointed liaison to the Heads of Mission at the Court of St James’s,  the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps Alistair Harrison CMG, CVO

Her Majesty’s Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps started his new appointment in January. Alistair Harrison CMG, CVO is the 28th Marshal, a position introduced by King James I back in 1603. He is married to Sarah Wood, a writer and marketing consultant, and they have three children.

When did you get back to the UK and have you and your family adjusted back to these chillier climes?

After my last role as Governor of Anguilla (for almost five years), I decided to retire from the Foreign Office when I was offered this job. In a sense, coming back to London has been like returning from a diplomatic posting in that there are always things about your home country that have changed in your absence. On a trivial level, I didn’t have to pay for the Evening Standard anymore, and learnt about the importance of my Oyster Card when travelling around the city! The biggest adjustment for us has obviously been the weather. In the Caribbean, the coldest temperature was about 75 degrees.  But there have been plenty of pluses: both my wife and I love the cinema, music and the theatre, which we can enjoy in the UK. Our biggest challenge has been resettling the children – getting them into schools – and then resettling ourselves.

Equally, I’m thrilled to have a new challenge where I’m still a diplomat but no longer working for the FCO. I’m enjoying it so far – just less than a month into the job. It’s a fascinating position with huge opportunities.

Did your upbringing influence your choice of career?

I went to the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle and then on to Oxford University. The Foreign Office seemed like an interesting idea, and I completed the exams and was surprised to be accepted. I found the FCO an interesting, enjoyable and fascinating career, so much so that  I stayed there for 36 years and 124 days.  (So I was told when I left the FCO!) I’ve had seven overseas postings, but now the time has come to do something else.

What were the main issues you dealt with as British High Commissioner in Zambia (2005-08)?

I found that Zambia is one of the most beautiful countries in Africa with probably the best game parks, but its biggest asset is its people. I think Zambia is a fantastic country, despite the fact that it has gone through some bad times, especially economically.

There were two main challenges during the posting: one was working with the Department for International Development and Zambia’s government on our aid programme. The other was dealing with Zimbabwe next door. There was a real feeling as you looked across the Zambezi into Zimbabwe on the other side of what different countries they were. Zambia was a prosperous, peaceful country where human rights were respected. In Zimbabwe, very little of that was true. Rampant inflation meant that one day I was offered one billion Zimbabwe dollar note for the equivalent for about 40 pence! Demonstrations in Harare revealed people holding plaques declaring Starving Billionaire! because the currency was so devalued. The Zambian President, Levy Mwanawasa called an emergency summit meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to talk about Zimbabwe, taking various initiatives to sort out the situation.

Of course, I also had to do the main job of a High Commissioner anywhere: promote Britain, keep a high profile and get our views on all sorts of issues across to the host government and the population. It was a happy three years and we had excellent relations with the Zambian government.

Can you tell me about your role as Governor of Anguilla? a beautiful place, but no doubt it came with its own set of challenges.

Anguilla was a very different sort of posting. For most of the time I was there, unfortunately, there was a hostile elected government with a reputation for anti-colonialist rhetoric. The UK had always made clear that if they wanted to take Anguilla to independence and hold a referendum, we would follow the wishes of the Anguillan people. But a referendum was never called; many took that to mean that they knew they would not win it. As Her Majesty’s Representative on the island, this sometimes left me in a difficult position – at one point, my family and I had to have armed police protecting us for several days. Anguilla also saw some difficult economic times while we were there, and various governance and corruption issues, which, along with the hostilities, made it easily our most difficult posting.

On the other hand, as challenging and stressful as it was, it was a very nice place to be challenged and stressed! The climate is beautiful and the island has some of the world’s best beaches. I fondly remember The Earl and Countess of Wessex’s visit for the Diamond Jubilee. People were tremendously enthusiastic for The Queen and Royal Family. Largely people on the island liked having us there and found us to be a reassuring presence.

What are your main plans and priorities for your new role as Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps?

The Marshal’s aim is to be the main link between the diplomatic corps in London and The Queen, the Royal Household and the Royal Family. My first task is to learn the core of the job: bringing in new Heads of Mission to present their credentials to The Queen, looking after the diplomatic corps at various state functions throughout the year and, at the end of their tour, bidding farewell on behalf of Her Majesty. More than that, I want to be someone who is available to the diplomatic corps: a bridge between the palace and the FCO, and also help the UK’s interests in making sure that all diplomats in London are well looked after with access to the information they need.  Perhaps I can help with introductions and contacts too.  But at the moment, I’m still learning!

The Marshal’s role is one that is steeped in pomp and tradition.  The Marshal and The Queen’s Equerry are reportedly the only two people required to walk backwards when leaving the Sovereign’s presence. Can you tell me about some of the more peculiar and unique traditions involved?

If you watch the credentials ceremony, just as I have done, it really makes sense. You don’t turn on your heel after introducing one person to another. It’s simply polite – I find this to be common sense.

What do you think will be your greatest diplomatic challenge in this new role?

I have tremendous access to the diplomatic corps here – the challenge is to get to know all members as soon as I can. Other challenges will come with the first Credentials Ceremony, first state banquet and so on. Once my first year has been completed, the second time will be easier.

My first Credentials Ceremony is on 14 February with the High Commissioner of Lesotho and the Ambassador of Timor Leste, who is establishing an Embassy in the UK for the first time.  I find this particularly interesting because I did a lot of work on Timor Leste when I was at the UN (2000-03), and in fact, I represented Britain at the ceremony when Timor Leste was admitted into the UN.

What do you think has been the most memorable day or event of your career to date? Good or bad.

With such a long and varied career, it’s difficult to choose just one. However, I was present at the meeting of the heads of government of the five permanent members of the UN at the Millennium Summit in New York in 2000.

One of the most significant political events that I lived through was when I was Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Poland during the declaration of Martial Law. And being posted in New York on 9 September 2011 was a horribly memorable experience. I shall never forget flying back into New York seeing the smoke hanging over lower Manhattan.

On more positive notes, there was The Queen’s State Visit to Poland during my second posting there as Deputy Head of Mission (1995-98) and even swimming on top of Victoria Falls.

Something I have learnt throughout my career, however, is that even if you can predict what is going to happen, you can’t predict the timescale. No one could have predicted that Poland would have become a democratic country just seven short years after the declaration of martial law. I knew Germany would be reunified, but I thought it would happen sometime in the 2020s. I knew Communism was going to come to an end, but I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime. That’s quite something to consider


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