Sir Nigel Sheinwald, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, gave a luncheon address in Houston on October 14 that was a masterpiece of diplomacy, if not eloquence. He made a slight slip – when he pronounced
Houston as “Hooston” – but otherwise he performed his office with aplomb.
Sir Nigel began with a brief recap of relations between Britain and Texas. He pointed out that 26 of the Alamo’s heroic defenders were born in the British Isles, and that Britain was one of the few nations to recognize the short-lived Texas Republic of 1836-45. In fact, there is a plaque in London today, marking the building that housed the Embassy of Texas for those nine years. Sir Nigel added that the plaque is difficult to spot because it’s placed quite high on the wall. “I understand,” he continued with the hint of a smile, “this is less a reflection of the height of the average Texan, and more to do with the fact that a number of Texas tourists, so overcome with pride at finding their Embassy, tried to take the plaque home as a memento.” [Laughter.]
Then the ambassador got down to business. The gist of his message was the importance of free trade in general and of trade relations between the U.S. and the U.K. in particular. “In addition to our historic political and cultural ties, he declared, “our two countries enjoy a truly unique trade and investment relationship. British companies are the largest foreign investors in the U.S., responsible for creating a million jobs, and almost half a trillion dollars in FDI. Likewise, the U.S. is the number one investor in the U.K. We are each other’s largest services partners. In 2009, total U.K. imports from the U.S. exceeded those from Brazil, India and China combined.”
Sir Nigel then unrolled an equally impressive raft of statistics on economic relations between the U.K. and Texas. “In 2009,” he said, “Texas ranked second among the U.S. states importing products from the U.K., importing over a tenth of all U.K. goods that come into the U.S. The U.K. is the eighth-largest destination for Texan exports, importing just over $3.2 billion in 2009. The U.K. is the largest investor in Texas and accounts for nearly a fifth of all jobs created by foreign-owned affiliates in the state. That’s 74,100 jobs …”
As a speechwriter, I marveled at the ambassador’s ability to cram so many statistics into a luncheon speech and not put his audience to sleep. But the urgent tone he adopted about the importance of free trade, and the mutual benefits that trade accrued to both his country and ours, firmly held his listeners’ attention during his 20- to 25-minute address.
I also admired the deft approach that the ambassador took in handling the sensitive issue of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He assured his audience that BP, “still the biggest oil and gas operator in the U.S. – is absolutely committed to seeing through its obligations. The company has spent over $10 billion so far, and made provision to meet three times that level of claims if necessary.”
Although he didn’t say so, the ambassador was doubtless aware that during the spill, sections of the American media took to referring to BP as British Petroleum, to stress that it was a foreign-owned company. That explains what he said next: “When the crisis was at its height, our Prime Minister and your President said that it was in no-one’s interest to see the company run into the ground. BP is an important British company, but it’s operations are global, with almost as many American shareholders as British; and more jobs in this country than Britain. That remains important. We must remain fair-minded, and not pre-judge the investigations into BP’s and other companies’ actions.”
In all, while this speech will not rank with any of Churchill’s, it was an impressive performance by a top-notch diplomat. Good show, Mr. Ambassador.