The great advantage of being a diplomat, howsoever lowly, is that you are on the inside. The great foreign correspondents have huge readerships around the planet. Some are seen by millions on TV in war zones. But while vital top-level international discussions proceed, the diplomats hovering outside the leaders’ meeting-room have the delicious satisfaction of looking out through the window at all those forlorn famous correspondents standing in the heavy rain, waiting for someone to open the door and toss out a scrap of meat.
In the previous issue of Diplomat, Michael Binyon, former Diplomatic Editor of The Times, gave readers his views on the privileges and pitfalls of organising state visits. Mainly the latter: “a state visit is almost the greatest nightmare diplomats have to face.”
I disagree. State visits are complicated and involve many unusual, pernickety details. Blunders take on an embarrassingly high profile. July 2011 Diplomat noted the ghastly British mistake when some wrong invitations were sent out for The Queen’s return banquet in Warsaw during the state visit to Poland in 1996. But top-level visits are also interesting and glamorous, and many people work on them, so the chances of serious mistakes are low.
In my diplomatic career I worked directly on three state visits, in London and at post. Here’s my inside story.
I joined the Foreign Office in September 1979. I was promptly appointed Desk Officer for Indonesia. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that President Soeharto of Indonesia was arriving in London on a state visit just a few weeks later. Within days of starting my diplomatic career I was at Buckingham Palace, meeting the astoundingly titled Silver Stick in Waiting. Glory!
My very first task as a diplomat was to prepare three heavy guest lists. Some 80 names for the State Banquet at Buckingham Palace; 300 names for the Lord Mayor of London’s banquet in the City; and 12 names for a lunch for the President hosted by the Prime Minister in Downing Street.
This was a perilous assignment. The Internet and e-mail were selfishly objecting to being invented. Files for the state visit of a few months earlier arrived. Buried deep in them we found a cross letter from the Palace: an invitation to a State Banquet guest had been sent out with an incorrect title of a guest. Perhaps the Foreign Office could get these things right in the future?
I toiled for two weeks compiling these guest lists and checking that they were 100 per cent accurate. That done, I attacked the briefing mountain. We had to produce full briefings for the Prime Minister’s discussions, dozens of short unclassified briefs for officials at the Palace, and individual briefs tied with blue ribbon for members of the Royal Family. The Foreign Office had photocopiers, but not yet machines that could collate documents automatically. Huge piles of paper were trundled precariously to us on trolleys from the printing room. We pushed back the desks and sorted them out on the floor.
These titanic efforts paid off. On 13 November we joined the public on Whitehall as President Suharto passed in a gleaming carriage on his way to meet the Queen.
My next State Visit experience came in 1994, when I was Political Counsellor in Moscow. Soviet communism had collapsed, and the Queen was to come to Russia to symbolise the normalisation of UK-Russia relations after decades of mutual suspicion. However, the political situation in Russia was difficult. A few months earlier President Yeltsin had barely survived an attempted Red/Brown putsch, and dangerous demagogue Vladimir Zhirinovsky was riding high in the opinion polls. Should the visit proceed?
Ambassador Sir Brian Fall made the case for pressing on: precisely because Russia’s transition from communism was so problematic, the reforming tendency led by President Yeltsin needed high-profile foreign support. This was accepted.
The Embassy plunged into the preparations. Negotiating the programme with our Russian partners and explaining to London why certain obvious and normal things could not happen was hard work. Right at the heart of our efforts was a young Second Secretary, Catherine White. She startled the sardonic Russian security officials – and the rest of us – by driving forward the planning with a brand new invention, a ‘mobile phone’ the size and weight of a brick.
The visit began. Just before it started, a bizarre problem appeared. The Queen’s magnificent old Rolls Royce had been shipped out to Moscow on a lorry to await her arrival. Visits are all about details. In this case the not unimportant detail of getting the Rolls Royce off the lorry: where to find strong ramps to bear its weight? The lorry toured the railway stations of Moscow deep into the night until this problem was triumphantly solved.
The first official public appearance of the Queen with President Yeltsin came at a gala evening at the Bolshoi Theatre. Her Majesty walked out onto the balcony with President Yeltsin to thunderous applause. A wonderful moment, restoring British-Russian relations at the highest level for the first time since 1918, when Lenin ordered the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and other relatives of the British Royal Family.
One of the planned public highlights of this visit was the walkabout by the Queen and President Yeltsin in Red Square to meet happy crowds and show the new close state relationship to the wider Russian public. The British side had naïvely assumed that a walkabout with happy crowds would, indeed, involve some happy crowds. Russian security brushed aside such democratic foppery. The Queen and President Yeltsin entered a completely deserted but magnificent Red Square, and no doubt enjoyed the spectacle.
I joined the banquet in the Kremlin, the first black-tie event there since the Russian Revolution. Word had it that the Russian guests had been scrambling around Moscow theatres to find suitable capitalist dinner jackets for the occasion. John Sawers (now head of MI6) was there supporting Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. John and I had served together in South Africa as apartheid ended. I pointed out to him that if in Pretoria in 1988 I had told him that 300 weeks later both apartheid and the USSR would have collapsed, and he and I would be sitting in the Kremlin with the Queen listening to a Russian army brass band playing Engelbert Humperdinck’s greatest hits, he might not have believed me.
My final state visit came in May 2004, when Poland’s President Aleksander Kwasniewski visited London to mark the accession of Poland (and other former communist countries in central Europe) to the European Union. I started my diplomatic career standing on the pavement watching President Suharto ride to Buckingham Palace. By the end of it I had risen to be British Ambassador in Warsaw: I now sat in one of those fine carriages in the procession behind President and Mrs Kwasniewski, looking out at the cheering crowds. What a treat.
During his visit I learned something I had not realised before. For the armies of officials and diplomats working on inward state visits, the event is all about politics and symbolism. For Buckingham Palace the event is all about the Queen’s personal house guests, and making them feel welcome and relaxed. This of course is done superbly well: it’s hard to match British light-touch informal formality.
The State Banquet during this visit was splendid with huge gold plates sparkling on the walls around the hall in
Buckingham Palace. The menus were in French – an unexpected
(if not diplomatically mysterious) yet elegant touch.
Poland’s former president-in-exile Ryszard Kaczorowski was also present. For weary Cold War decades the British government largely ignored Poland’s unwavering anti-Communist exiled leadership in London. Now, at last, their historic contribution was recognised at the highest level. The banquet brought together the former anti-communist President with the former communist who had chosen democracy and now led Poland. Symbolic and touching on many levels.
President Kwasniewski enjoyed himself during his visit. He delivered a storming speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet on behalf of Poland as a powerful new force in Europe. And he visited Arsenal football club to bring back memories of his days as a student in London working illegally in a nearby pub. Arsenal were delighted to show him their glittering trophy rooms before he went out onto the pitch and banged home a penalty past Poland’s Defence Minister Jerzy Szmajdziński.
For a head of state no state, visit gets better than that.