‘Very rude!’ Queen and PM let the truth slip

Honest guv: People will ‘find it refreshing he was speaking his mind,’ said Boris Johnson. © PA

This week, diplomatic masks slipped as the queen and David Cameron were each caught on film criticising other countries. But why the fuss? And should they come clean more often?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the queen and the prime minister of the United Kingdom all walk into a room. What do they discuss?

Corruption, as it turns out. On Tuesday David Cameron used a royal reception to fill the queen in on preparations for today’s anti-corruption summit. ‘We’ve got some leaders of some fantastically corrupt countries coming,’ he boasted. ‘Nigeria and Afghanistan — possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world.’

The archbishop quickly defended Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who is ‘trying very hard’. But the moment was already caught on film — leaving Buhari ‘shocked and embarrassed’.

The queen did not get off easily either. Just hours later she was filmed telling a senior police officer that Chinese officials had been ‘very rude’ during their state visit to Britain last October. They responded by insisting that the trip had been ‘very successful’, a sentiment echoed by Buckingham Palace. (But China is now censoring coverage of the incident.)

So why is there such a chasm between public statements and personal opinions?

‘In the international arena we all come from different cultural backgrounds, with different communication styles and different value systems,’ explains the public speaking advisor Ruben Brunsveld in a blog post titled ‘Why diplomats lie’. It is easy accidentally to offend powerful people. So politicians must not say anything negative about each other in public. How else will they get anything done?

Yet few leaders have avoided making such gaffes. In 2011, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy was recorded discussing the Israeli prime minister with President Obama. ‘I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar.’ Obama responded: ‘You’re fed up with him? I have to deal with him even more often than you.’

That moment came a year after Wikileaks had revealed America’s true opinions about foreign leaders. Private communications called Angela Merkel ‘risk averse and rarely creative’; Gordon Brown a ‘sinking ship’; Sarkozy ‘susceptible and authoritarian’.

Speak up

‘How hypocritical!’ cries the honest observer. Why not just tell the truth? Cameron’s summit is based on the ideals of openness and transparency — it is right that he lived up to them and admitted that the countries he invited have a long way to go. A bit of straight talking might even earn him their respect.

You make an interesting point, responds the diplomat. But Cameron can’t keep insulting people he needs on his side. Flattery and deference are essential parts of the political game, even if they are insincere. As Henry Wotton said in 1604: ‘An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.’ Not much has changed.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever hide your true opinions about someone to get your own way?
  2. Do you agree with Henry Wotton’s assessment of diplomacy?

Activities

  1. List five steps that David Cameron should take to tackle corruption.
  2. Read Ruben Brunsveld’s blog post under Become An Expert. Then think of a politician or someone in the media who you disagree with, and write a paragraph telling them why. There is just one rule: you must use the most diplomatic language you can.

Some People Say...

“Lying is always wrong.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does it matter what politicians think about each other?
On the surface, it shouldn’t matter; politicians ought to put personal grievances aside in order to do the best for their countries. But it is always fascinating to be given a glimpse of what is happening beneath the surface. It reminds us that our leaders are as human as the rest of us — with human relationships and mistakes.
Was anyone offended by the comments?
Nigeria’s president has admitted that Cameron was ‘telling the truth’ and that his country has problems with corruption — he doesn’t want an apology, but he does want ‘a return of assets,’ from Britain — referring to the £25.6bn of stolen money which has allegedly been sent through London. China, meanwhile, has censored all BBC coverage of the queen’s comments.

Word Watch

Anti-corruption summit
The UK government says it hopes to ‘bring together a unique coalition’ of governments and organisations which will ‘commit to taking practical steps to tackle corruption and make it a genuine global priority.’
Nigeria
The African country is the 32nd most corrupt country, according to Transparency International. In the past it has lost around $20bn of oil money to corruption, and $15bn was stolen from the military’s efforts to fight Boko Haram.
Afghanistan
Listed as the third most corrupt country by Transparency International, in 2010 it lost 5-6% of its GDP when corruption led to the collapse of Kabul Bank.
Wikileaks
An organisation, led by Julian Assange, which publishes secret documents it has obtained from governments and companies. In November 2010 it worked with a series of newspapers to report on 251,287 secret ‘diplomatic cables’ — texts and reports sent by American diplomats to the US government.
Gordon Brown
Britain’s prime minister from 2007-2010. He was written off as ‘abysmal’ by the US ambassador to Great Britain after a year in office.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.