From the Rock’s reluctant days of transposing EU Directives in the late ‘90s to the current complexities of Brexit, Foreign Office diplomat and Jane-of-all-trades Alison Macmillan MVO has had her finger on the politico-economic pulse of Gibraltar. Several times over the past decade she has said ‘farewell’ to jurisdiction of which she has been such a good friend – as Assistant Deputy Governor, Deputy Governor and even, last year, Acting Governor, as well as in her most recent role as the link between No6 and Britain’s Brexit team.
And she has been in the wings as other major events and encounters have been played out on the world stage since she joined the Foreign Office in 1982. There have been moments of drama, of unintended comedy… From the Contra rebels in war-torn Nicaragua, through the Reagan-Thatcher years of UK-US harmony, to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations Alison was close to the action.
Petite, soft-spoken, but with the sort of steely determination and no fear of occasional confrontation when necessary while at the same time charming some of the Rock’s toughest legal minds – Alison is the consummate diplomat. And though she describes the first of her many years in Gibraltar as ‘a baptism of fire’, her initial Foreign Office postings were equally influential in shaping her approach – to people and their problems.
Born of a Devon classroom enthusiasm for the French language, Alison studied and worked as a translator in Paris where, while a guest at a British Embassy reception, she was fascinated by the diplomatic ambience – and wondered aloud: ‘How do you get to work in the Foreign Office?’…And, delightedly, was told how to apply.
‘I always wanted to work for something British, but preferably somewhere abroad,’ she explains.
After a year of vetting (and some basic training), she was attached to the Law of the Sea Conference team and from that, thanks to her command of French, was switched to the West African desk. But, bureaucrats like nothing better than to fit square pegs into round holes, and, apparently, Britain’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office is no exception, for Alison’s first overseas posting was to Mexico – at short notice and although she spoke no Spanish.
There, as a foretaste of what were to be several dramatic events she was to experience, Alison escaped the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City in which more than 5,000 died. During a later posting to Nicaragua where the Embassy re-opened there at the end of the civil war, she met husband Julian, an agronomist working on a UK-funded project to address malnutrition in children.
Part of her Embassy duties was to monitor Julian’s project and, as their mutual attraction grew ‘this was probably the most audited overseas British project ever,’ she quips.
Other postings followed; and, now married, Alison came to the Rock in October 1996 to ‘a baptism of fire and the best training job you could ever have.’
Gibraltar’s government, led by the recently-elected Peter Caruana was not only slow but reluctant to transpose EU Directives. ‘It was more difficult than the Foreign Office thought … and I learnt a lot, not only about EU directives, but about the people and social dynamics of Gibraltar. Fortunately, I met James Levy of Hassans and he organised a “round table” of the leading law firms – a “tracking group” which helped speed up the transposition of many Directives…’
But it was during one of her absences from Gibraltar while serving as Deputy Director of Protocol and Assistant Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps that her personal skills and tact bloomed – and prompted some of her most memorable memories as the job was in part as link between the Palace (the Lord Chamberlain’s Office) and the string of foreign embassies in London.
In this role, Alison organised the state visits of, and met some of the world’s foremost figures – including the Pope, President Obama and the Emperor and Empress of Japan (her ‘most delightful’ couple). And, at the arrival of the US President, she ‘stood in’ for the then Foreign Secretary William Hague to welcome Obama and his wife to Britain.
The volcanic eruption in Iceland causing an ash cloud which threw commercial air traffic out of kilter across Northern Europe coincided with the President’s visit to the UK – the arrangements for which Alison was responsible, and every minute of which had been planned. Obama’s security team, loud and demanding, was already in London, as were the cars of the Presidential cavalcade – including Obama’s armour-plated limousine, nicknamed ‘The Big Beast’ – when the volcano erupted.
But the US President was in Ireland, and fears of delayed flights prompted the arrival being put forward twelve hours ahead of the planned schedule. He would land at Stansted in a couple of hours but the Foreign Secretary and the rest of the original reception entourage were unavailable due to the change of timing. A special moment in the life of unflappable Alison MacMillan, who stepped in to meet and greet the President.
But the tense arrival had its ludicrous moments, and Alison still chuckles as she recalls them.
En route to Stansted Airport, the hastily assembled convoy headed by the Big Beast, made an unplanned stop at a petrol station on the M11 where the G-men – in identical suits and the dark glasses that TV and cinema buffs will recognise as part of any FBI package – leapt out of their cars (you can check out this company to know which cars) and, guns drawn, deployed around the fleet. The Brits were baffled – a terror plot uncovered? A hidden bomb?
‘No. They weren’t expecting Obama until the following day, so the Yanks hadn’t topped up their tanks… and, without enough petrol for the return journey to London, had decided to rectify their mistake,’ Alison explains. ‘But the American team had no cash… and their credit cards wouldn’t operate in the UK…’ [And I was left wondering to whom she sent her expenses chit.]
That visit was a resounding success, as was the Pope’s – though ‘it nearly didn’t happen.’ For the budget was limited and negotiations about the visit programme were complicated by the strong positions of two monoliths – the Vatican security staff’ and their UK counterparts in the Palace. Both thought they should have the final say,’ she explains. ‘It offered ’unique opportunity to test one’s negotiating and diplomacy skills.’
‘The Pope was charm personified and as a Catholic, I felt particularly blessed – both in the literal and the spiritual sense, for he would hold your hand and mutter blessings.’
She also discovered that the Pope was an enthusiastic helicopter pilot. He asked whether he might fly the helicopter which was to take him from Wimbledon to Birmingham. ‘He sat up front and, instead of taking a direct line, decided to follow the course of the Thames for several miles to take in the views.’
The highlight of her time as Assistant Marshal? During the ‘Sovereigns’ weekend’, during the HM The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, a dinner attended by the world’s kings, queens, emperors and princes was held. One royal dropped out at the last minute and Alison was invited to take the empty seat at one of the ten tables.
She returned to Gibraltar in her final posting to the Rock as Deputy Governor and then stayed on to liaise on Brexit. But the Foreign Office cut the budget for that job, and at the end of May, Alison returned to the UK.
Her work with the Diplomatic Corps earned her membership of the Royal Victorian Order – one of the few awards for services still Her Majesty’s sole recognition to bestow.
She is already missed. Surely, it is time for her services to Gibraltar to be similarly recognised. Come on Fabian, how about the Freedom of The City, or something like that?
words | Peter Schirmer