The Top Table: Written on 28 March 2019
Late one Saturday evening in the 1980s when I was the Duty Staff Officer at a military HQ during a political state of high tension, I had to go to the house of my star-ranking Commander, who was three ranks higher than me, to deliver ‘by hand of officer only’ a signal message which was marked “Top Secret Personal for …” followed by the Commander’s name and appointment.
I knew the contents of the message because I had taken delivery of it from the Crypto Officer in the Communications Centre, and had sealed it in his presence in the envelope I handed to the Commander. After reading the message, the Commander sealed it up again and told me to take it, together with a verbal message, to my own immediate superior, who was only one rank higher than me. The verbal message was to be delivered in private, face-to-face, word-for-word. Having delivered the message, I was to report back by telephone to say what my Boss’ reaction had been. The Commander’s message was only six words long: “With the glory goes the responsibility”.
I knew exactly what was behind the message: the Commander had been seriously embarrassed, both professionally and politically, by something my own Boss had done which was outside his remit. My Boss was surprised when I knocked on his door a few minutes later. He invited me in when I told him I had a personal message from the Commander. He took me into his study, but I declined to sit down. When he had read the signal message and I had said my piece, I had to repeat the six-word message until the import sank in. I then returned to the Officers’ Mess and telephoned the Commander.
“What did he say?” he asked.
“He blushed, Sir, and said ‘Thank you, Tony’,” I replied awkwardly.
“Good. Just remember that if you try to curry favour by going through the back door, you will usually live to regret it.”
Left: That's me, looking slightly worse for wear part-way through a Dining In Night at RAF Finningley in 1961.
Everyone would like a seat at the Top Table, whether they are distant relatives invited to a family wedding feast, junior officers wanting a privileged seat at formal Mess dinners, employees at the company’s annual party, local councillors and Westminster back-benchers wanting to be in Cabinets, and Prime Ministers and Presidents wanting a seat at the world’s major gatherings with a place, front row centre, on those awful publicity photographs we see subsequently in newspapers and on television.
It’s human nature to want to do well, but being at the Top Table usually has unforeseen costs, rarely indicates your true worth, is very often not as much fun as being further down the pecking order, frequently results in you sitting next to someone you really don’t like and can’t work with, and, in the wrong circumstances, can irreparably damage your reputation.
Is it not time for the UK now to relinquish gracefully its place at the World’s Top Table?