I had the pleasure of attending my first Arete Club dinner last Friday, where the topic under discussion was “How is Britain perceived by the rest of the world?” certainly to my mind a timely subject ripe for debate.
Britain remains sometimes schizophrenic in its approach to the outside world. We maintain a veneer of global power broking thanks to pivotal roles in modern history, a legacy of Empire, our native English speaking tongue, London being a global financial centre and an experienced foreign office and diplomatic service (what’s left of it).
We are still an independent nuclear power and, despite the drastic cuts in our Armed Forces, still maintain a more professional and capable army, airforce and navy than most other countries; but the vacuum of meaning created by our decline as an Imperial world power remains. By this, I’m arguing that until the 1950’s our role in the world was clear. Even during the Cold War, a position as an Atlantic bridge and European protector against the Soviet menace provided some level of direction for foreign policy and excuse for defense spending.
Today, with the imminent Communist threat dissipated, where does Britain’s future lie? Are we the bridge for Europe to our American cousins? Should we continue to try and project power and police problem countries outside Europe? With higher levels of mostly well(and some not so well)-integrated immigrants providing a richer cultural landscape, what does being a Briton mean? Colour, race and creed these days do not define Britain. So what does and does this bear any resemblance to how those outside view us?
The dinner speakers tasked with stimulating discussion around this theme, did not disappoint.
First up was Roddy Gow who gave a polished and highly educational talk on the way Britain is seen in Asia, specifically India. Current affairs communicated eloquently in context of history always delivers a rich and engaging speech; Roddy Gow did not disappoint.
Sadly I can’t write specifically about what was said, as the events are held under Arete rules in order to precipitate honest and candid debate – another reason why attending an Arete dinner can be a unique experience.
Events are black tie and usually held in salubrious surroundings. With good wine and good food fuelling the invited guests, between each course the speakers take the floor, propped up by their dining chair as lectern.
Our intellectual main course was Minister Qin Gang from the Chinese Embassy. He spoke candidly and passionately. Inevitably some of what was said you might expect to hear during a formal press conference – the Minister is after all a member of the Chinese Government and consequently – just as our own government ministers – he is expected therefore to speak bearing in mind his formal capacity.
Minister Qin Gang also brought though a personal perspective to his own experiences living and working in London as native Chinese and highlighted some of the challenges that two different cultures can face, living and communicating in our complex globalised world.
Ziauddin Sardar was reserved the honour of “being the pudding” as he so eloquently noted (I asked him specifically if we could use that quote!) and gave a very informed and often humorous talk on straddling two cultural origins, being both British and Pakistani. Many of the topics are covered in his recently published book, “Reading the Qur’an”, which I’ll be adding to my reading list.
Over coffee we had the honour of questioning our speakers; for me this was the highlight of the dinner. It produced enlightened and engaged debate between the speakers, ably chaired by Professor Stephen Chan who was a pitch perfect ringmaster for the evening. Before drinks, Arete’s founder Sara Fazlali rounded off with an insightful and humorous summary.
There are many networking dinner events out there, but Arete Club does much more than provide wine-fuelled matchmaking. First, it combines people from disparate sectors (business, politics, the military and the arts – indeed this idea was a cornerstone of Arete Club’s inception) and second, does so in a way that challenges dinner guests to think about something beyond swapping business cards.
In summary, I enjoyed an excellent dinner and then drinks in the most stimulating of company. I discussed global politique with a senior Chinese Communist party minister, the global challenges facing our Armed Forces with a Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander and with a Canadian journalist the stubborn hangover bequeathed by a loss of the British Empire.
I will certainly be returning for seconds in the months to come.
You can read more about Arete Club here.