Charles Goodson-Wickes is a pretty cool customer for a man on a mission. The new Director General of Canning House greets me in the lofty lobby with a large smile, a firm handshake and a gracious ‘So pleased to meet you.’
We waste no time. I follow him to his office and he gets down to business, outlining his big plans for Canning House, the venerable home of the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council. He cannot be accused of a lack of vision or ambition.
‘I want us to spread our wings in all aspects of what we do, which is political and diplomatic, commercial, cultural, and education. And it’s no great secret that we’ve struggled a bit financially. My first job is to get the structure of this place right, fit for purpose, that ghastly new expression, because unless we’re financially sound, we can’t fulfill our charitable objectives. We are a charity and we need to convince people that we are up to the job, and that’s my role.’
It’s a role he takes up with an obvious and confidence-inspiring gusto.
And why not? He has already turned around the financial fortunes of the London Playing Fields Foundation, another historic London charity.
‘I will do the same for Canning House,’ he says.
So over South American coffee, Dr Goodson-Wickes lays out his strategy. He wants members to use Canning House ‘as a natural place for people to meet and discuss mutual interest and support the opportunities to exchange ideas, to meet the politicians who could make the decisions.
‘We have refined the number of categories of members… and we want to offer corporates the opportunities other places can’t. We’re unique in being the centre of the UK, Iberian and Latin American affairs. Therefore corporates should naturally look to us to reach ministers, ambassadors or anybody of influence in the countries in which they want to do business. This is a symbiosis. What we offer is access to politicians, diplomats, corporate leaders in the countries in which we operate. Twenty-three countries are members here, and so we give them access, we give them networking opportunities…we can do international conferences here, Latin American companies and British companies can do business in Latin America and vice versa.’
Dr Gordon-Wickes’s background makes him very well attuned to the intertwining of politics and business. As a barrister and physician, as well as a Tory MP for 10 years, not only has he managed to maintain parallel careers in politics and commerce, but has done so straddling two continents. For the past 20 years he has sat on the board of a Colombian company and developed an admirable case of Latinophilia, visiting all but three of Canning House’s 23 member countries.
‘To my shame, I haven’t been to Chile, which is an important country, and I haven’t been to Bolivia and Nicaragua.’
And yet, he can speak neither Spanish nor Portuguese, which is surprising but not incongruous with Canning House’s history.
Canning House is named after George Canning, the early nineteenth-century Foreign Secretary who devoted a huge portion of his career to Latin America, simultaneously advancing the causes of greater Latin American independence and British commercial interests, without ever having set foot in Latin America.
‘As far as I know,’ says Dr Gordon-Wickes, ‘the closest [George Canning] ever got to Latin America was as Ambassador in Lisbon and I highly doubt whether he spoke Portuguese either.’
Indeed, with a great-aunt buried in the department of Antioquia in Colombia, in addition to his two decades of travel throughout the region, Dr Gordon-Wickes has a longer and deeper tie to the region than Canning.
British-Latin American relations could not have a more enthusiastic champion, with a prodigious knowledge of historical and economic facts. ‘I think people forget that the combined GDP of Latin America is about three times that of India and it’s not far off China’s. I feel that Latin America is still under-recognised as a region with huge potential, a long tradition. I don’t need to tell you, in the Congress building in Caracas, the British Legion is celebrated on the ceiling.’
Indeed, in his pursuit to make the most of that tradition
and advance the importance of Canning House, Dr Gordon-Wickes has already persuaded Foreign Secretary William Hague to deliver the Canning Lecture on 9 November. He will be the first Foreign Secretary to do this, and the first serving British Foreign Secretary to ever give a major speech on UK-Latin American relations.
‘The day he took office, I dropped a letter on his desk, asking, “Will you do it? Break with tradition.” So he’d be the only non-head of state ever to do that,’ explains Gordon-Wickes.
For all his understated reserve, this is a man who is cool under pressure, even when hosting a Head of State or minister in the throes of international controversy. Undeterred by the international arrest warrant issued by the Ecuadorian government for his military pursuit of a FARC commander over the Colombian-Ecuadorean border, Gordon-Wickes held an official lunch for Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s erstwhile Minister of Defence and its new President. He arranged another for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez who always divides opinion and is at the other end of the political spectrum from Santos. Since then, President Chávez has spoken twice at Canning House.
Gordon-Wickes considers having such an ideological cross-section of guests vital to Canning House’s mission.
‘We’re a free forum. I think it would be wrong if we were to have a particular viewpoint. We’re here for exchange of views, for views to be challenged. It’s certainly my view, and I think the trustees are of the same mind, that we should be an open institution.’
Although he has only been in his new post at Canning House since May, Gordon-Wickes has already coaxed a vast array of new guests through the foundation’s open doors, from politicians to corporate sponsors. Following on from a highly successful Festival Brazil in partnership with HSBC, Canning House will now stage a series of events surrounding the upcoming Brazilian elections, sponsored jointly by British Gas and the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce. He will also introduce the Chilean Minister of Mines to potential British partners and investors.
Canning House is involved in other cross-cultural community projects, including a Portuguese language-learning programme with Arsenal Football Club. If its oversubscribed fundraising dinner on 16 September (tickets, £200 each) is anything to go by, Canning House’s revitalisation is well advanced.
‘Our message to people who want to do anything related to Latin America is that Canning House is their natural home. And we’re here to help.’ So far leaders from both sides of the Atlantic are flocking to accept the invitation.