In a grand room in central London on the 24 May the cameras witnessed a moment of pure theatre. For a few minutes the most powerful people in Britain, plus possibly the most powerful person in the world, were rendered impotent. They were paralysed by pomp and protocol, and the fear of losing face. At one level it was the stuff of Chaplin or the Marx brothers, at another a poignant indictment of the establishment. It all happened when no-one stopped the band of the Scots Guards striking up and playing the national anthem and so interrupting Barack Obama as he spoke.
The occasion was a state banquet for the President at Buckingham Palace. The event was hosted by the Queen. Some 170 guests attended and from the British side the list included senior royalty, foreign ambassadors, captains of industry, leading academics, prominent nobility, the current prime minister, two former prime ministers and a deputy, the mayor of London and a purple-gowned archbishop of Canterbury.
After a meal that included a little something from Her Majesty’s back garden (Agneau de la Nouvelle Saison de Windsor au Basilic) the speechifying began. The Queen spoke first and then it was the turn of the President. Here was a man who expects to be heard and assumes that his requests are obeyed; an orator of some distinction who chooses both his words and his pauses with great care. His speech was coming to an end and for the denouement he turned to the Queen and asked the guests to stand and raise their glasses as he proposed a toast to Her Majesty. On hearing those words, and while Obama was in still full flow, the band struck up. The conductor had misread his cue and launched into the national anthem – his musicians were oblivious.
Obama continued sheepishly with his voice drowned out. The Queen looked uneasy, even squirmed. Anxious heads turned amongst the flunkies. And when the President asked the attendant crowd to raise their glasses, no one moved, they were paralysed. We all know that when the national anthem plays one stands strictly to attention and stays motionless. The anthem then finished, champagne was sipped but the moment had passed. Clearly we had witnessed a diplomatic faux pas.
But why did nobody tell the band to stop? The Queen, whose party it was, should have acted the mother and said ‘no’. The most powerful man in the world who on other occasions can press a certain button, looked bemused and opted out. The lips of the local bovver boys, bullies and warmongers (I refer to Prime Minsters past and present) remained sealed. Nothing was heard from the normally over-loud Boris and the archbishop failed to invoke divine intervention. Any one of them could, indeed should, have done something but none dared – the band played on.
What was going on? In a world where protocol rules, everybody waited for a move from the persons ranked above them. Stepping out of line would be unimaginable, an unbearable loss of face. So, when the Queen says nothing, everyone keeps stumm. But think what would have happened, if instead of the orchestra it had been a terrorist that had struck up. Security guards would have taken over, senior people would have been pushed to the ground, guests ordered about and the hierarchy turned on its head. As it was a peaceful blunder normality held sway but, in its midst, communications were paralysed.
These events, like much of diplomacy, aren’t about shared ideas but about shared posturing. So if the posturing relates to etiquette, stepping out of line is taboo. What the palace needed that night was the voice of an honest, sensible, outspoken child (a la emperor’s new clothes) to stand up and say, “I cannot hear what Mr Obama has to say. Could the band please stop playing?”
It is that spirit which is needed at many a diplomatic talking shop – and what a breath of fresh air it would bring to those otherwise stultifying gatherings.
See it for yourself – BBC News video: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13537972