Lying in State

22 September 2022

Lying in State

The diplomatic angle.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

Sometimes it is impossible to read items of news without cringing and the account of the Speaker’s initial refusal to allow the Chinese to walk past the Queen’s coffin in Westminster Hall certainly sounded a very ugly nasty note. Of course we have plenty of issues with China. We are struggling to resist their attempts to impose a hegemony on world commerce. We are part of an alliance which seeks to resist their military expansion in the Far East. We disapprove strongly of their oppression of the people of Hong Kong, whose freedom they guaranteed by treaty, and also the Uighurs, a Muslim minority whose treatment probably amounts to genocide. One way and another we have many reasons to resent and fear them and yet we are not at war.  There is a Chinese ambassador in London and a British ambassador in Beijing.

The Chinese sent perfectly appropriate condolences on the death of Her Majesty and accepted the invitation to attend the funeral, sending the vice president Wang Qishan who had already signed the book of condolence at the British Embassy in Beijing and joined in a one-minute silence. Sir Lindsay Hoyle’s initial refusal to allow embassy officials to walk past the coffin was, in diplomatic terms, a slap across the face in the middle of a perfectly polite and respectful conversation.

Before considering the principles we should perhaps look at the practicalities.  Whatever our differences with China and however much we may disapprove of their conduct we are going to have to continue to work with them at some level. Take the environment as an example. We all need to work together on that and it will not be acceptable to tell our children and grandchildren that unfortunately they are going to die because we could not bring ourselves to cooperate with those of whom we disapprove. Take the handling of dangerous emergencies. Suppose there was a revolution in North Korea and Kim’s reaction was likely to be to throw about the nukes. We would all have to work together to stop that. Or suppose there was another pandemic. International cooperation might be the only way of dealing with it and yet such cooperation is not possible without dialogue at a high level and fairly trusting and frank dialogue too. The language of such a dialogue is the language of politeness and not that of snubs. For every practical reason we should have treated the Chinese with the respect and good manners they extended to us on this sad occasion

But what then of principle? Some of the Chinese delegation have been banned from the Palace of Westminster in protest against the genocide practised on the Uighurs. I do not wish for a moment to minimise the suffering of those people; and the reports of mistreatment, including torture and rape, that appeared in the media are enough to turn the stomach. But are we a world policeman tasked with rooting out and punishing human rights abuses? We were once, in the days of Empire, but that is a role we abandoned with Imperial withdrawal and it is merely foolish to behave as if we had not done so. Of course we should join in UN sanctions etc but for us to start insulting other countries because of the awfulness of their behaviour to their minorities misreads both our power and our role. It is in any case hypocritical. The Saudis will be represented and we have issues with their conduct but they of course are a major supplier of oil so we would hardly snub them.

There is also the risk of losing opportunity. Major international events such as a royal funeral allow world leaders to talk informally and that can go a long way to creating new friendships and understandings. Mrs Thatcher’s attendance at the funeral of the Russian leader Andropov is a good example of this. She impressed the Russian people by the way in which, in contrast to certain other Western leaders, she was careful to observe Russian protocols and manners. She also used the visit to make the acquaintance of Gorbachev, famously the first Russian leader she had met who she could do business with. None of that would have happened had the Russians had the bad manners to snub her on arrival.

Whatever bans there may have been on the Chinese delegation entering the Palace of Westminster it was surely an occasion for those rules to be relaxed and indeed eventually that was done. Nonetheless snubbing always does damage and one can only hope that the Chinese government have the good manners simply to ignore it.

So if we were right to allow China to participate fully, what about Russia? The Russians of course were not invited at all despite having sent a perfectly appropriate note of condolence to this country and to its Royal family. The case is perhaps harder than China because we are at this moment engaged in an economic war under which each side is doing its best to undermine the opposing regime. Still, we have not actually declared war and we still have diplomatic relations. Do we need to keep open some channels of communication with Russia? Of course we do. Is our fury over poisonings, their support for Assad and the invasion of Ukraine such that we should not be able to bring ourselves to speak to them? Of course not. Other EU countries are keeping channels open at the top level and we should do the same. For as long as we have diplomatic relations with Russia there should be a level of friendly communication.

One of the many things you hear said in praise of the late Queen is that she was a diplomatic asset. Over her long rule she must have sat down with many a dictator who she did not care for at all because it was in the country’s interest to butter them up. Her funeral was in a sense her last public appearance. I am sure that she, could she do so, would have approved of it being used to help build bridges with countries to which in so many respects we are opposed.

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