July 5, 2013 6:12 pm

At home: Chatham House director Robin Niblett on speaking frankly

Director of the independent policy institute discusses the importance of frank, informal talks between officials
Robin Niblett with his dog, Louis©James Royall

Robin Niblett in the front sitting room with his dog, Louis

When Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, travels around the world, he often gets asked: what is the Chatham House rule? “It’s the most common question I get,” he says. “The Chatham House rule means that you can speak frankly without being identified by name or affiliation. But [the substance of] what you say can be used publicly ... It’s a byword for confidentiality.”

Back in town on a chilly summer day, London finally in full bloom, Niblett answers the buzzer to his lower-ground-floor flat, half-hidden beneath a set of iron steps. The dull exterior is deceptive. Behind the door, a corridor is bursting with colour, with intricate oil paintings hung or stacked along yellow walls. “These are all by Trish,” says Niblett of his wife Trisha de Borchgrave, an artist and interior designer. “She’s painting vegetables at the moment. Here is an artichoke.”

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The Nibletts, who have two teenage daughters, bought their flat, with its smart modern mix of walnut and glass, three years ago. “It was completely refurbished. We just moved in,” he says, leading the way towards a pair of walnut-framed glass doors with views of a lush, walled-in garden, with a glass-enclosed structure at the end. “That’s Trish’s studio.”

On the next floor, more overhead glass opens up the sitting room and offers cover to an oval dining room table. “It’s apparently an old wine-tasting table. It seats about 12.” And does this room play host to off-site Chatham House chats? “We tend to do our Chatham House dinners at Chatham House,” he replies. “It has its own intimacy.”

Chatham House was established to spark the same kind of frank, informal talks that flared up around the Versailles treaty negotiations of 1919. “It was the idea of Lionel Curtis, a British delegate,” Niblett explains. “Over dinner at the Hotel Majestic in Paris, members of the UK and dominions delegations decided to establish the Royal Institute of International Affairs. The Americans went back and founded the Council on Foreign Relations,” he says, pointing out that, unusually, the Versailles talks included both officials and informal experts. “Chatham House was meant to continue that exchange. It became one of the few places where government officials could talk candidly.”

Works by Niblett’s wife Trisha de Borchgrave©James Royall

Works by Niblett’s wife Trisha de Borchgrave

The institute adopted the name of its host building, Chatham House, a listed Georgian structure in St James’s Square in London that was once home to three prime ministers, including the elder Pitt, who was the Earl of Chatham. The Chatham House rule was coined in 1927 to enforce the spirit of open discussion without fear of political repercussion. And from the start, the institute gathered together politicians, experts and the public to test out policies.

“Gandhi spoke here in 1931. I have a little sketch one of the audience did of him. And our first study group, on gold, was run by John Maynard Keynes in 1929.”

He points to more art over the sitting room fireplace, including a painting of whole pieces of garlic by John Ulbricht, a Mallorca-based artist. It is paired with a more abstract canvas, “made from old oil painting rags by David Eddington, a friend of ours. He came to our wedding in Mallorca.”

Niblett grew up in Mallorca, where his British-born father was an estate agent. “My dad bought and sold houses and had many artist friends,” he says. “Trish and I were both brought up on the island. We met at 18.” Mallorca, he points out, was a popular refuge for creative characters. “A whole arty crowd lived there.”

Niblett, who studied German and French literature at Oxford, has always worked at think-tanks. “I did the bulk of my career at CSIS [Center for Strategic and International Studies] in Washington. I literally started as an intern, late, and moved up.” After three-and-a-half years, he returned to Oxford to get a PhD. “Brits are good at being skilled amateurs. But it was the end of the cold war and people were grappling around for a new way of thinking. I needed some tools,” he says. He went back to CSIS. “I became number two in 2000 and also ran the Europe programme.”

Trisha’s studio in the garden©James Royall

Trisha’s studio in the garden

Think-tanks, he says, have a different function in America, where they also serve as temporary homes for out-of-office politicians and officials. “Think-tanks in the US are primarily focused on providing advice to the US government. Because you have a revolving door, every paper you write could get you into the next government.” By contrast, Chatham House, with its 125 full-time staff and 140 associate fellows, is much smaller. Unlike most US think-tanks, it also has “next to no endowment. The Queen is our patron. And we own the building.”

The focus of Chatham House, says Niblett, is not local but global. “You can use London’s role as a global capital to host debates and bring stakeholders together to look at international issues.” Emerging countries are turning to Chatham House, with its programmes that include international law and security, for talks on looming crises, from oil squeezes to potentially lethal viruses: “Take many Arab oil-producing countries, with their internal energy demands – will they carry on exporting oil?”

Confidentiality is key, says Niblett, as governments are coaxed into disclosing vital facts. “You have all of these governments that, for internal political reasons, have to pretend they don’t have problems. Yet the effects of pretending can be disastrous across the world ... How do you create environments of trust where governments will share information without exposing weaknesses?” Niblett addresses the most recent security breaches. “There is a real danger that we’re getting mass information coming out that looks like it’s exposing government thinking, but it lacks content and context. It’s a mess – unfiltered stuff that’s neither analysed nor explained,” he says. “At Chatham House information is put into context, it’s tested in debate. We can apply judgment.”

A collection of ceramic lidded boxes©James Royall

A collection of ceramic lidded boxes

Providing this kind of analysis, Niblett adds, will also be important to Europe, which has its own concealed tensions to discuss, no longer held in check by the cold war: “Governments are often not truthful about their motivations ... The old mental maps have re-emerged.”

He adds that for their part, European governments need to be more frank about future hurdles: “Governments across Europe need to be more candid with their citizens ... The big challenge of Europe will be to sustain the welfare systems and quality of life that we have become used to at a time when the rest of the world is trying to out-compete us.”

Outside, storm clouds have swept in overhead, with the threat of heavy squalls. Back downstairs, we pause to look at the garden exploding with yellow blossoms, in contrast to the watercolour sky. “Those are monkey [puzzle] trees on the left,” he says. “And palm trees. The garden was already planted. But we bought those wicker chairs.” He agrees that the tropical lushness seems improbable for London: except for the total absence of sun, it could be Mallorca.

The ultimate aim of Chatham House, Niblett concludes, is to create a refuge where governments don’t have to hide their problems. “Many of our current crises, including even the banking crisis, have come from what we’ve hidden ... Chatham House is a safe space to start the conversation.”

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Favourite thing

A lithograph of Robin Niblett's mother-in-law, Eileen©James Royall

Robin Niblett has chosen a portrait of his mother-in-law. “This is a lithograph of Trisha’s late mother Eileen, done in 1970, by the artist Ellis Jacobson. It’s very raw. It reminds me of that period when I was growing up on Mallorca,” says Niblett. “We were brought up around creatives. Jacobson is one of those Americans who moved to the island in the 1950s, and were most productive in the 1970s. That community has disappeared. I think of the Art Buchwalds, the International Herald Tribune Americans who formed rich artistic and literary circles abroad. They’ve passed on.”

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