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In the Ring: a Commonwealth Memoir
Don McKinnon, Elliott & Thompson, 2013, ISBN 13-978-1908739261

From an early age, Don McKinnon wanted to be a farmer. As a shepherd, he would delight in spending all day in the saddle, herding sheep and cattle. That love of farming and the outdoors has never left him – but somewhere the seeds of a different life were planted. The story of Don McKinnon’s transition from farmer to politician and, ultimately, to Commonwealth Secretary-General is told in his Commonwealth memoir In the Ring.

As he left farming behind, McKinnon began to climb the ‘greasy pole’. First as an MP for New Zealand, then Chief Whip, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It was this last position – held for a record nine years – which McKinnon found life-changing and which took him onto the international stage. It is the once activist foreign minister, now turned secretary-general, who speaks from the pages of In the Ring. Every chapter is littered with homespun political advice: “One of the first lessons in politics,” he argues, “is to be able to eat your words and not get a stomach-ache in the morning.”

Despite being the son of a general, McKinnon returned to the land of his birth with an egalitarianism that sometimes jarred with some of the ‘colonial’ attitudes he encountered in British society. His relationship with the UK government – from prime minister to minor FCO official – was often stormy and he hints at British perfidy in the unsuccessful plot to deny him a second term as Secretary General, in Abuja in 2003.

He was, however, quickly won over by the Queen. In 1999, before taking up his new post in London, he had been offered, and had declined, a knighthood in recognition of his service as an MP and minister. He had supported the abolition of titular honours in New Zealand and thought that the monarchy would not survive for much longer. As Secretary-General, in the course of over 30 meetings with the Head of the Commonwealth, and on the road to memorable stays at Windsor and Balmoral, McKinnon underwent a damascene conversion.

The first substantive chapter of his memoir is devoted to the monarchy and a Queen he simply described as ‘amazing’ and ‘magnificent’. It is little wonder that, after returning to New Zealand in January 2009, he after all accepted a knighthood, in the form of a GCVO (Knight Grand Cross of the Victorian Order), an honour in the personal gift of the Queen. In his practical way, he also developed a procedure for handling the thorny issue of the succession to the headship on the Queen’s death.

One of the expectations of McKinnon’s tenure was that he would tackle ‘Secretariat reform’. He realised that with revenue increasing by just over one percent a year, and salary and related expenses by six percent, the consequence would be continually reducing staff numbers. Changing the salary structure and pensions, seeking greater rotation of staff and improving the governance arrangements brought McKinnon into bruising conflict with staff and, indeed, some governments.

The heart of the memoir, however, covers fascinating chapters on the politics of the Commonwealth – from Zimbabwe and Pakistan, to Fiji, Swaziland and Bangladesh. As the first Deputy Chair of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), from its formation in 1995 to his election as Secretary-General in 1999, and subsequently through his eight years in office, McKinnon developed a unique insight into CMAG’s workings.

Review by Stuart Mole


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