[Sir Peter Marshall is a Past President of the Royal Commonwealth Society, a former Deputy Commonwealth Secretary-General (1983-88), a former British diplomat and a former Permanent Representative to the United Nations. He shared with the Round Table his perspective on The King’s Christmas message. Views expressed do not represent the opinion of the editorial board.]
‘So whatever faith you have or whether you have none,
it is in this life-giving light, and with the true humility
that lies in our service to others,
that I believe we can find hope for the future’.
No British monarch has ever spoken in such forthright terms as these, they contemplate an approach to the conduct of international relations which has never before been so strikingly proclaimed. This is no mere slogan. It is testimony to commitment and to action, in particular to the vision of the iconic Preamble of the United Nations Charter, to public spirit, initiative, skill and cohesion amongst the entire membership of the international community, and at every level of society, whose leaders adopted the UN75 Commemorative Declaration of September 21, 2020 and to the lifelong dedication to duty and service of Her late Majesty.
Four closely related themes pervade this epic conclusion to His Majesty’s inspirational message:
(1) mastery of the substance of what we see at stake in our world of great and growing interdependence;
(2) close understanding of the context or ambiance in which it all has to be tackled and discussed;
(3) unchallengeable conviction and authenticity. These are words of the heart, communicated by the head – or perhaps words of the head, communicated by the head. We call it integrity.
(4) the focus is on managing the future, strengthened by experience of the present, and by study of the past.
We have had a preview of what the Coronation may bring in May in the address His Majesty gave on September 9 to the Nation and the Commonwealth. Human nature being what it is, we will probably take more interest in the details of the service itself than in the message it sends to the world attending or viewing it from far or near. But the message will be there at the beginning and will be carried hither and yon at the end.
Tribute to The Queen by Sir Peter Marshall
A Remembrance Reflection by Sir Peter Marshall
The second Elizabethan era is over: time for Britain to take a hard look at itself – Eye on the Commonwealth
Let us delve a little deeper into the four themes:
Faced with the awesome realities of our present situation – which might be described as “a quadruple whammy”: covid, climate change, Ukraine and world-wide economic disruption – those whom it hurts to think could be tempted to give up. The world’s intelligentsia, however, has already shown us that that is not the way forward. Their output is spectacular. They are assisted by wonderful information technology.
Inevitable pre-occupation with the urgent and complex foreground cannot but inhibit our necessary concern with the hinterland. The link between the two is crucial: It is a matter not only of what to think about, but also of how to think about it.
Just as I find what faces us awesome, I am no less awed by the vast pool of national talent. I have no fears for the future of the country.
We are living new lives. Our whole ambiance is changing. One of the great joys of this Christmas and New Year break has been the brilliant BBC Radio Four guest-editing; it has served to bring us heart-warming tales of adaptability, creativity, initiative, enterprise and triumph over adversity, so appropriately attuned to modern challenges and opportunities.
Fairness and the balm of “trust”
“Our relations”, we used to say in Cold War days, “are built on trust and understanding: you don’t trust me, and I don’t understand you”.
This is fair enough as an international diplomatic jest; it is quite another matter if it applies to the home scene. It becomes a contradiction in terms. The members of a complex modern society have no option but to trust one another for the provision of whatever it is they want and need every day, yet have no prospect of producing themselves.
We are guided by the notion – or the instinct – of “fairness”. Fairness is the badge of reciprocal trust. “Take but degree away” said the bard, “untune that string, and hark what discord follows”. One can discuss indefinitely what exact meaning we should attach to “degree” but there is no mistaking the portent of the phrase as a whole.
A social blessing, but a political essential to reconcile serious differences
Highly desirable as it is socially in our dealings of every sort with one another, this amalgam of fairness and trust is essential when it comes to managing our collective affairs. Our collective affairs are highly complex. There will certainly be different ideas on how best to manage them. It is the task of democracy to reconcile conflicting views and to reassure those whose opinion is not chosen.
Given the scale of the problems which face us, is it not somewhat mealy-mouthed to treat them in such measured terms? The point is valid. But there is another side to it.
Trust, fairness and service
If we live by fairness and trust, we are, knowingly or unknowingly, serving one another. Hang-ups about what the notion of “service” may have involved in the past have good reason to exist. Since 1945 the notion has been positive, not negative. How we treat one another individually is the key to our collective behaviour.
We have lived for centuries without questioning the proposition that the whole earth is the tomb of heroic men, though their story may be given in stone over their clay, it also abides everywhere woven into the stuff of other people’s lives.
The notion that – let us call it the Pericles effect – your story is woven into the stuff of other people’s lives surely does not apply simply and solely to the death of heroes. The instantaneous transmission of information and ideas, which so dominates our lives today, emphasises the influence people can exert on one another during, and not only after their lifetime. The events of 2021 and 2022 in particular, unique as an amalgam in recorded history, must suggest to us that the experiences of other people are woven into our lives in a way in which we had not appreciated hitherto.
“You campaign in verse, but govern in prose”
It has been shrewdly observed that in democracies you campaign in verse but govern in prose. We are nation-states. We are hybrids. It is as nations that we largely discuss our priorities and pre-occupations. But we rely on the state apparatus to implement what we decide. Does there lie, within the responsibility of constitutional monarchy, embodying both nation and state?
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly’s December 12 speech
We may feel more comfortable with prose: it can be vivid, it responds to the discipline of events and to the pressures they inevitably exert. I am lost in admiration for the speech delivered on December 12 at the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office [FCDO] by Foreign Secretary James Cleverly under the title “British foreign policy and diplomacy”.
The Foreign Secretary’s speech is so elegantly drafted that one could be forgiven for thinking of it in verse, rather than prose terms. The full force of the problems which beset us emerge sharply from the Prime Minister’s speech on January 4.
Let us return to the King’s compelling phrase “life-giving light”. Most of us are not enthusiastic about the dark. We do not regard it as “life-giving”. We are very conscious of the contrast. Humans have through the ages attached special significance to it and have found numerous imaginative ways of celebrating it.
How, then should we, in our present condition, draw strength from this life-giving light? I am deeply impressed by the courtesy, as well as the erudition of the public discussion of recent days. It breathes both understanding of other points view, and measured respect for them. Can we take this a stage further, and look together at the nature of the differences between us. Should we aspire “to disagree well?”
Author’s note: Sir Peter Marshall served in the RAF as a Navigator 1943-46 before returning to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, of which he is an honorary fellow, to read economics. He joined the diplomatic service in 1949 and served as the private secretary to the British Ambassador in Washington, where he witnessed Churchill’s last visit to the Eisenhowers at the White House. He was subsequently political councillor in Paris where he had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of Jean Monnet, and made a study of his life and work. He and his son Guy are members of the Council of the Fondation Jean Monnet at Lausanne University, the alma mater of Prof. Henri Rieben, Monnet’s great friend and collaborator.