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Thursday, 1 March 2012

BBC World Service and Russell Johnston

BBC just had a party to celebrate eighty years of World Service and an imminent goodbye to the World Service's HQ, Bush House. A magnificent building and a very good evening at which I heard some spectacularly good (and sadly unrepeatable) gossip about this week's political news, and some genuine insights into diplomatic matters, a self-consciously pompous observation which underlines the extent to which large parts of my life increasingly resemble an Olivia Manning novel, although with fewer shortages, a smaller prospect of a German invasion and less time spent waiting in hotel lobbies. Anyway, one thing that struck me for the second time in recent years was that a senior person from another European country was keen to tell me, as I am a Liberal Democrat, how much he respected Russell Johnston. Russell Johnston (whom I never met) was a Liberal MP and peer who, of course, never held ministerial office (what Liberal did, after 1945 and before 2010?), but who was, I believe, a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in which role he encouraged and mentored liberals and others in countries that I think included Lithuania and Kosovo, playing a role in such emergent democracies that, in terms of influence, was somewhat in excess of anything that was achieved by several post-war British Foreign Secretaries. He remains greatly respected and warmly remembered among politicians and diplomats in the countries concerned; I am unsure of the extent to which his efforts were the result of official encouragement from the more interesting parts of Her Majesty's Government. His career is a fascinating example of what a backbench MP can achieve if s/he specialises in foreign affairs and blends moral authority with deep intelligence.

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