Taking the minutes

The first-ever Commonwealth-Secretary General, the Canadian diplomat Arnold Smith, had been in office for only a few months. His election, at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference of June 1965, had also seen the birth of the Commonwealth Secretariat. No longer would the Commonwealth be run out of the British government’s Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO). At last, there would be a genuinely independent intergovernmental body, responsible for Commonwealth coordination and consultation, and administering its growing programmes. Or so many thought.

But old habits die hard. At the 1965 conference, Britain had tried to block Smith’s election, proposing the appointment of a British ex-colonial governor on an interim basis. At the same meeting, the Australian Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, warned: “If the Secretariat sought to invade the field of policy and executive action or trespass on the rights of individual governments, it would do great harm to the Commonwealth.”

Smith had to endure other attempts to clip his wings even before they had begun to beat. There was a move to diminish his diplomatic status; the attempt to persuade him to accept a Letter of Appointment from the British Prime Minister; the proposal that his office should be in an obscure corner of Marlborough House, rather than above its splendid Fine Rooms.

Now Smith contemplated his very first Commonwealth meeting as Secretary-General – Finance Ministers in Jamaica in September 1965. Worried Jamaican officials were in touch. CRO officers had advised Jamaica to place the SG at a small table in the middle of the larger horseshoe table at which ministers would sit. Smith demurred. He had no intention of being treated like “a steno-typist”. He insisted on sitting at the main table, beside the Chairman. The Jamaican Prime Minister readily agreed.

Smith won the early battles and gradually established the Secretariat. But periodic tensions between governments and their Secretary-General remained. Smith’s successor as Secretary General was Shridath Ramphal. In 1977, the Commonwealth summit was in London, with the Retreat for Heads at the Scottish golfing resort of Gleneagles. It was, Ramphal admitted, “my first excursion into quiet diplomacy”. But quiet it was not. There were bruising exchanges with the pugnacious New Zealand Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, over the vexed question of apartheid in sport. But Ramphal gave as good as he got, drawing from an exasperated Muldoon the memorable response: “Your job is to keep the minutes!”


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