Marshal Lore

In the first of a regular column for Embassy Magazine, the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps Alistair Harrison outlines some of the highlights of his role that dates back 400 years

I have just celebrated six months in the post of Her Majesty’s Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps which is a good moment to take stock. My son was recently asked at school what his father did for a living and replied: “I don’t know what he does, but he has a sword.”

The Marshal acts as the link between The Queen and the diplomatic community in London. For the last decade the job has been filled by a former member of the British Diplomatic Service, and I was lucky enough to be appointed in January after 36 years in the FCO including seven overseas postings in Europe, New York, Africa and the Caribbean.

My duties start right at the beginning of a new Head of Mission’s posting in London. It is my job to escort him or her to Buckingham Palace in a horse-drawn carriage to present their credentials to The Queen. A second carriage conveys senior members of the mission’s staff. If the day is sunny, and the carriage is open, members of the public often wave to us.

Her Majesty makes a point of seeing each High Commissioner or Ambassador individually. After the audience we return in the same carriage, usually for a celebratory party.

For most Heads of Mission this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and a very memorable one – although occasionally someone presents their credentials more than once. The Ambassador of Armenia presented his credentials to The Queen for the third time earlier this year. We believe this may be a record for any Ambassador anywhere in the world. It is certainly a record for London during recorded history.

At the end of each Head of Mission’s stay in London, it is my duty to call on the Ambassador or High Commissioner and bid him or her farewell on behalf of The Queen.

The second part of my job involves networking more widely within the diplomatic and foreign affairs community in London. The Young Diplomats in London invited me to their excellent programme of meetings (see p8). I would strongly advise all young diplomats in London to get involved with their programme. (As for how young you have to be to qualify, I can only say I am not the oldest member!).

In addition, Heads of Mission and others are kind enough to invite me to a wide range of events, which enables me to meet many academics, businessmen, civil servants, politicians and members of the cultural community who have an interest in foreign affairs.

I am also on hand to offer advice to members of the diplomatic community, sometimes directly, or I can refer a colleague to the right person in government or the private sector.

My office is also involved in the organisation of many events to which Heads of Mission are invited: The Queen’s annual evening reception for the diplomatic community; the Birthday Parade in June (“Trooping the Colour”); the State Opening of Parliament at which The Queen sets out the priorities for Her Government in the coming year. We also act as a link to some sporting events, notably Royal Ascot at the height of summer.

Then there are the one-off events. One of my most moving experiences this summer was attending the service to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War at Westminster Abbey on 4 August.

I was accompanied by my daughter, who was born in the last year of the twentieth century and may still be alive at the start of the twenty-second. Both my grandfathers were wounded in the war, so it impinged on my own childhood as an important memory within the family.

All the main participants were represented (I sat behind the Ambassador of Belgium and next to the Charge d’Affaires of Turkey) and the theme was of reconciliation and understanding of the circumstances that led the world into war.

The service was framed by wonderful music from the Abbey choir, interspersed with readings from contemporary writers, read by actors. Everyone held a candle, which we extinguished as the service progressed so that eventually there was only one candle burning. HRH The Duchess of Cornwall extinguished this final candle at the end of the service leaving us in contemplative relative darkness as Big Ben sounded eleven (the exact moment when Britain declared war).

So far the job has exceeded my expectations. My biggest worry was when I read in the press that the Marshal is expected to walk backwards from the audience room after introducing a new Ambassador. As I am, according to my wife, the clumsiest person in the world, I was concerned about crashing into a priceless piece of china. But some careful lessons from The Queen’s equerry made it seem easy.

And I do have a sword – as part of the Diplomatic Uniform that I wear for audiences, as does the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office who accompanies The Queen. So the role is proving to be a fascinating and varied job, one of the best in the diplomatic community in London.