Up the Political Creek with Two Oars

Rowing boat diplomacy in 1964: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is being rowed by Swedish Prime Minister Tage Erlander in Harpsundsekan – at the real event, it was actually Khrushchev who was at the oars. Drawing: Börje Dorch.

20 October 2017

Göran R Buckhorn writes:

The other day, Boris Johnson, Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – ‘Foreign Secretary’ for short –, invited a delegation of eight European foreign ministers to Chevening House in Kent to discuss Brexit-ridden Great Britain’s continuing commitment to the security and defence of Europe, writes The Sun.

The article, in this poor excuse of a newspaper, is reporting less about these talks than of Boris (as he is commonly known in his country) leading his European counterparts around on a stroll. Coming to the little lake on the grounds, where there are some rowing boats, he tried to persuade the foreign ministers to go for an outing with him.

In a Sun video, you can clearly hear Boris’s wife, Marina Wheeler, asking her husband to give up the endeavour, as ‘we don’t want to drown the foreign ministers’; well aware, as she is, that despite her husband’s years at Eton, he did not row there, he played rugby. But Boris, being Boris, decided to disregard his wife’s advice – seldom a wise thing to do – as he got one taker, the brave Ivo Sramek, Czechia’s Deputy Foreign Minister. The two men went for a short voyage on the lake, by The Sun coined as a ‘bizarre activity’. An international incident was avoided due to both ‘oarsmen’ staying afloat.

Read The Sun article and see pictures (including video) about the event here.

You may think whatever you like about Britain’s Tory Foreign Secretary, but plying the oars together with representatives of foreign countries is not a bad idea. This aquatic activity, a sort of ‘diplomacy at the oar’, has a fine tradition in my native country of Sweden, where the Swedish prime ministers since the 1950s have taken out foreign political guests in a rowing boat, the famous wooden Harpsundsekan, at the Harpsund manor house, the country estate for the Swedish prime ministers. Not only foreign politicians have visited Harpsund, discussions and talks between government officials, members of the Swedish industry and other organisations are held here, which have given the proceedings a name of its own, ‘Harpsund Democracy’.

Going for an outing with foreign leaders in Harpsundsekan was the idea of Tage Erlander, leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, who was Sweden’s Prime Minister between 1946 and 1969. The 23 years of government tenure led to Erlander being known as, according to Wikipedia,

‘Sweden’s longest Prime Minister’ referring to both his physical stature – 192 cm, or six feet and four inches – and tenure (the Swedish word lång meaning both long and tall).

One of the most renowned oarsmen during an Erlander outing (the Swedish prime minster seldom rowed himself, he allowed his guests to ply the oars) was the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in June 1964. Later that year, in October, Khrushchev was ousted and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev.

Nikita Khrushchev, at the oars, together with Tage Erlander (with glasses) and a translator. A couple of months later, the Soviet leader was overthrown in a coup. His oarsmanship skills, or lack thereof, are not believed to have had anything to do with him being overthrown.

During Erlander’s time as Swedish premier life jackets were unheard of, but later times’ Swedish prime ministers and his political guests have been seen wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) rowing in Harpsundsekan. Other world leaders plying the oars in the Swedish prime minister’s boat through the years were Willy Brandt, Urho Kekkonen, George Pompidou, Frans Vranitzky, Kofi Annan, among many other prominent political figures.

When Tage Erlander resigned as prime minister, he went on a last outing in Harpsundsekan. His guest onboard was none other than King Gustav VI Adolf – this time Erlander had to row!
Tage Erlander’s successor, Olof Palme is here seen rowing on his own in Harpsundsekan.
Four prime ministers in the same boat, from left: David Cameron (Great Britain), Angela Merkel (Germany), Fredrik Reinfeldt (Sweden) and Mark Rutte (The Netherlands). Merkel and Rutte are still in power.

I would like to recommend that all world leaders receive some training in the ‘diplomacy at the oar’ – by Jove, if that was the case, Brexit would have been fixed long time ago, though Cameron did not succeed last time he rowed.

One comment

  1. Actually, while Merkel, Reinfelt and Rutte may have been indulgent of David Cameron in his political negotiations, they were clearly savvy enough not to let let him have his way in the boat. Cameron had been at Eton before going up to Brasenose College, Oxford, but he was a tennis player (or sorts) not an oarsman. Careful examination of all the available records shows him having perhaps only one outing on the water whilst at Oxford, and that with unforatnate results.

    Cameron was a member of a dining society at Brasenose known as the Octagon, for the fact it had eight members. Brasenose had a number of such clubs, including the Indolents, the Phoenix Common Room, the Octagon and the Aqua Vitae, amongst others. Unlike American fraternities, whose antics could best be described tawdry, most Oxford clubs favour gastronomic black tie dinners as the setting for their alcoholic excesses.

    The two most famous of the Brasenose dining societies were the Octagon and the Phoenix Common Room. The latter was the successor to the Brasenose Hellfire Club, which had reputedly been banned by Act of Parliament.

    In 1987, the Phoenix and the Octagon held a cricket match on the College playing fields opposite the boathouses on the Isis. The match over they decided to attempt a rowing race in two eights taken from the College Boat House. A member of the Phoenix related to me that the consequence was “messy”. An Old Etonian member of the Octagon (not David Cameron) persuaded both crews that they should stand up to present oars as they passed the College Boat House, as if they were at the 4th of June. A difficult enough task at the best of times, it was beyond the limited aquatic skills of the two clubs. Both boats capsized, leaving the Phoenix and the Octagon to swim to the bank.

    How lucky Merkel, Reinfelt and Rutte were!

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