Edinburgh 1997 leaders photo, ICAWs publication and Edinburgh picture [Marketing Scotland]

This is an excerpt from a Commonwealth Oral Histories Project Discussion on Britain in the Commonwealth: The 1997 Edinburgh Commonwealth heads of Government meeting. The full transcript of this discussion will appear on the Commonwealth Oral Histories website in the near future and has been shared with Commonwealth Round Table.

Sir Richard Dales, at the time designated Assistant Under Secretary of State for Africa and the Commonwealth in late 1995, had inherited the decision to hold the 1997 CHOGM in Edinburgh and provided this memorandum of his recollections:

The first CHOGM I attended was in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1975. (I was an Assistant Private Secretary to the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, James Callaghan.) It lasted over a week. The CHOGM of 1977 (which I also attended part of) was only slightly shorter. Both included an away-weekend, when Heads of Government and Foreign Ministers gathered separately in informal surroundings without officials.

By the 1990’s, no British Prime Minister could afford to devote so long to one meeting (and nor could many other Heads of Government) given the multiplicity of international meetings of that period. Moreover, the whole weekend Retreat away from the conference centre had become more difficult, both because of the need for suitably prestigious hotel accommodation for over fifty Heads of Government and because the increase in the number of Commonwealth members had made the informality of the weekend very difficult to achieve.

The 1997 meeting was therefore not only cut down to four days, Friday to Monday, but the Retreat was turned into a day trip. I remember that this caused resentment among some countries but that Britain would make no concession. I cannot remember whether the four-day meeting was decided upon by Mr Major or by Mr Blair, but I believe that the decision not to stay a night away on Retreat was taken by Mr Blair, because of the difficulties of finding suitable hotel accommodation for such large numbers outside Edinburgh. At one time we were considering having the Retreat in Edinburgh, so that no-one would have to move. In the end we decided upon St Andrews to which a special train took all participants. The journey would be easier to organise than having masses of cars trying to get out of Edinburgh and the travelling time could form part of the Retreat. It did not work. There were quite a few critical mutterings on that train!

The logistical arrangements for the CHOGM were in the hands of the FCO’s Conference Section. I went early on the Edinburgh to look at the facilities and to establish links with the Scottish civil servants in Edinburgh who would have to help with much of the preparatory work – police and security, car hire firms, hotels, press arrangements and, ultimately, provision of separate facilities for the Business and NGO forums which (I think) ran in parallel.

I went again, with Baroness Symons, to check that all the arrangements made by that time were right. Conference Section were very effective in coordinating all the different aspects of logistics. They recruited a businessman to help with contract negotiations covering everything from hotels to freebies – the memento packs (of varying value) given to all delegates (I still have my CHOGM 1997 ballpoint!!)

I chaired coordination meetings attended by different departments to ensure that all the boxes were ticked on both the substance of the meeting and the arrangements. I am fairly sure that we came in on budget.

The logistical arrangements were extremely difficult because none of the facilities were really big enough for such a large meeting of VIPs. Even the (new) Conference Centre was a tight fit. But there was no question of moving the venue from Edinburgh. I remember negative comments from some Commonwealth officials who I think thought that we had done the CHOGM on the cheap. There was of course never any question of building a special Commonwealth village on a par with Mobutu’s OAU village in Kinshasa, where each OAU head of Government had their own villa to stay in at an OAU Summit!

You can read the entire transcript with participants Amitav Banerji, Martin Hatfull, Sir John Holmes, Anji Hunter, Stuart Mole, Prunella Scarlett and chaired by Sue Onslow, Deputy Director, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, through this link.