Harry Eyres: The language of diplomacy

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It speaks to the modesty of the man that when he received a call asking permission for a building to be named after him he assumed it was a joke.

But the call from Jean-Jacques Dordain, head of the European Space Agency, to Roy Gibson was entirely serious; and now the ESA’s new UK facility at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxford will have a Roy Gibson building, in honour of the ESA’s first director-general.

Gibson is one of those un-self-promoting but brilliant public servants that Britain has been quite good at producing; people, in stark contrast to today’s celebrities, of whom you will most likely have heard much less than you should have. When I visited him recently at his home in Montpellier I felt I had seldom if ever encountered anyone with his combination of high intelligence, unbending principle, administrative and diplomatic skill and complete lack of ego.

Gibson’s career began in the British army in India during the second world war, where he served on the staff of Field Marshal Mountbatten during the Burma campaign, and was impressed by Mountbatten’s work ethic and lack of obeisance to establishment norms. It continued, after speeded-up studies at Oxford and the London School of Economics, in the British Colonial Administrative Service in Malaya (now Malaysia) and then in a number of international bodies in which he played leading and, in some cases, founding roles.

Given that Gibson has devoted his life to peaceful co-operation between nations, it is something of an irony that the war and the last days of the empire gave opportunities that would not otherwise have existed for a Lancashire lad from what he describes as an ordinary background who went to a good but not famous school (Chorlton High School).

Now in his late eighties, Gibson lives life to the full, participating in quite serious bridge tournaments, learning Arabic, studying and tasting the wines of Languedoc and beyond. He strikes me as a man who does not care to dwell on the past or to rest on laurels. But his exceptional career is worth looking back on and drawing lessons from at this belated moment of public recognition.

The first lesson I would draw concerns the value of learning foreign languages, almost entirely neglected today by politicians in the English-speaking world (the Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, who speaks fluent Mandarin, is an exception). Gibson is an outstanding linguist who learnt Urdu and Tamil in the army, then Malay, Hokkien and Thai in preparation for his role as a colonial administrator.

He proved just as adept at mastering European tongues, and found it natural while working in international organisations to switch languages in the middle of conversations. The sight of Italians, Germans and French curtailing their multilingual conversations at the approach of a monolingual English colleague, on the other hand, he experienced as mildly shaming.

Learning and speaking foreign languages, it seems to me, is not just a technical matter, like having a simultaneous interpreter in your head. It is also an act of cultural generosity, a way of opening yourself to others, of learning about the rich variety of the world. It is an acknowledgment that there is a multitude of ways of being and expressing oneself, all of which have untranslatable nuances – and which should not be bulldozed by the juggernaut of global American-English (which is coming to seem more and more like a crude way of doing business and conveying information, rather than the matchless resource of eloquence deployed by Shakespeare and Milton).

Sometimes a feel for languages can solve an intractable diplomatic puzzle. Gibson told me a story about negotiations around the transport of nuclear waste, when he was working for the UK Atomic Energy Agency, which were being blocked by the Russian delegation. With his keen ear – and without speaking Russian – Gibson realised the problem had to do with the lack of a Russian word for an inner container. Once this linguistic shortcoming was identified, the diplomatic impasse was resolved.

The second lesson has to do with narrowed horizons and the shrinking of altruism in the field of international relations, compared to what Gibson regards as a kind of heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. “In those days there was an active will to solve problems. Part of the intention of ESRO, which became ESA, was to upgrade industry in poorer countries. Member states were anxious to have good relations with developing countries; a free launch worth £50m was given to India and people were sent over to help.” Nowadays such countries are more likely to be seen as competitors.

Roy Gibson is one of a generation who, having witnessed the horror of war, set about creating a more peaceful, prosperous, co-operative world. Much of his focus has been on institution-building in Europe, a process which, amid current tendencies towards disintegration, is as important as it has ever been.


More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

Letter in response to this article

Mountbatten’s perplexing ‘work ethic’ / From Mr Patrick Townsend

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