Paul Johnson

Jaw-jaw is better than war-war — if it’s well-mannered

Jaw-jaw is better than war-war — if it’s well-mannered

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International affairs would go more smoothly if leading politicians had better manners. It must be said that Tony Blair sets a good example in this respect. He is one of the most courteous men I have come across in public life and shows up his European colleagues, on the whole an ill-bred lot. During the recent acrimonious summit in Brussels he never once lost his temper or showed signs of irritation, though much provoked, and at his press briefing declined to engage in personal jibes, indeed kept his remarks deliberately impersonal in true diplomatic fashion. This was in notable contrast to the petulant performance of Jacques Chirac, a rude and peevish person even by current low Gallic standards (perhaps his sidekick de Villepin who, though frivolous, has a touch of ton, should give him a few lessons in public deportment). The German, Schröder, is even more oafish — a pity since Germany’s post-war leaders, until recently, have been notably polite. Konrad Adenauer had the graciousness of a distant age, Willy Brandt was a delightful charmer, and even Helmut Kohl, though nature made him a bear, took enormous trouble to make himself pleasant. The standards of behaviour in Brussels, always an indecorous place notorious for swear-words and persiflage, have tumbled steadily under EU rule and the nastiness is infectious. Even Berlusconi, an amiable and light-hearted fellow with an admirable sense of humour, has been corrupted by the prevailing atmosphere of mephitic malice. The East Europeans, who came to Brussels innocent and willing to learn, have been shocked by the verbal skulduggery and slippery praxis, and have — I fear — quickly adopted some of the more odious tricks of the EU trade.

Yet it is one of the lessons of history that good manners pay. The Duke of Wellington was a man of outstanding courtesy in speech and habit — he always, for instance, tried to answer all letters in his own hand and usually by return of messenger (sometimes Tony Blair does too: I have a formidable collection of his hand-written missives). His colleague Lord Castlereagh likewise made a point of responding with exquisite courtesy even to offensive criticism, something he learnt as Leader of the House, where he set up high standards of patrician amenities (and truthfulness). It was no accident that these two men made the Congress of Vienna a notable success, which created from the chaos of Napoleonic Europe a civilised framework which lasted for a century.

Again, at Versailles in 1918–19, the oleaginous and artificial charm of Lloyd George, who could put it on and sustain it when he wanted, combined with the genuine good manners of his foreign secretary, A.J. Balfour, a paragon of courtesy and a credit to the Eton and Trinity of his day, no less than to the ladies of the Souls coterie, kept an unwieldy and self-destructive peace process on the rails (albeit that the ultimate destination was another world war). It is true, as Churchill said, that jaw-jaw is better than war-war, but bellicose jawing can precipitate fighting; far better if it is mellisonant and euphonious. Ernest Bevin and John Foster Dulles were two outstanding foreign ministers of the post-war; but both would have been still more successful with a gloss of manners. And even if the courtesy is only for show, like Anthony Eden’s, Georges Bidault’s or John F. Kennedy’s, the urbanity helps.

In the world of politics, national or international, formal manners are a positive virtue. The point can be illustrated time and again in the history of the White House. After its degradation during the Watergate scandal, followed by the mouse-like timidity and clumsiness of the unelected Gerald Ford and the sheer sloppy scruffiness of Jimmy Carter, who wore sweaters while doing business in the Oval Office, President Reagan did a sharp about-turn in the direction of formality. He did not need to be told that the stage and statesmanship have a lot in common. As his White House administrative officer he appointed a young student of the presidency, John F.W. Rogers, who was delighted to recreate its solemn grandeur. He brought back ‘Hail to the Chief’ and the Herald Trumpeters. He remounted the Marine Guard, which had been stood down by Gerald Ford. Presidential symbolism and sumptuary were brushed up and staff were ordered to wear suits and ties to the office. Guards of honour were regularly in attendance for foreign visitors of rank and properly inspected. The armed forces were delighted, visitors impressed and the public pleased. And Reagan, whose manners in public and in private were impeccable, himself flourished as the chief actor in a show which was again playing to full houses.

Actors of Reagan’s generation deliberately learnt the value of good manners and formality because they needed to be instinctive when playing certain roles — I noted the same characteristic in Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness, for instance (and even John Gielgud, though in his case it was ruined by a unique propensity to make faux pas). A wise man always cultivates decorum. The outstanding example was George Washington. As a teenager in Virginia he got hold of a handbook called The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, and copied out its 110 maxims in a notebook which still survives. The text had originally been compiled by the Jesuits in 1595, for use in the colleges they were setting up all over Europe, in which the sons of the ruling classes were educated. It was translated into German, Latin, French, Italian and Spanish, and in 1640 it appeared in English, going through 11 editions by 1672, and generating also a version for girls and women. The admonitions ranged from not talking with your mouth full to ‘When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered’ — something pop singers should note — and more subtle advice about how to talk, stand and behave in polite company. They are pretty comprehensive and, as a rule, excellent counsel.

The evidence that Washington took them seriously is in his notebook, and that he learnt from them is proved by his success as general and president, and in his generally smooth relations with colleagues, subordinates, Congress and the public. Of course he was lucky in that his great height (6ft 3ins, enormous in those days) gave him a commanding presence to begin with. As early as 1775, one observer noted, ‘He has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among ten thousand people. There is not a King in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side.’ When he became president, the wife of a British diplomat noted that ‘he has perfect good breeding and a correct knowledge of even the etiquette of a court’, adding ‘how he has acquired it, heaven knows’. The answer is that he learnt it. So can our ill-bred progeny. The Rules of Civility has been published in a handy little volume by New York’s Free Press. An enterprising London publisher should put out an updated English version for use by our yobs and ladettes. I would even write an introduction to it if they asked me politely, and maybe that good boy Tony Blair would provide a well-mannered foreword.