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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 January 2006, 06:14 GMT
Secret retreat marks 60 years of diplomacy
William Horsley
By William Horsley
BBC European Affairs correspondent

A diplomatic hideaway in the south of England, scene of decades of international deals, is marking its 60th anniversary - quietly.

Winston Churchill travelling through the French town of Metz on Bastille Day, 1946
Wilton Park began as part of Churchill's post-war peace initiative
You won't find Wilton Park on a map. It has rarely made media headlines. Yet it can claim to have been a nerve centre for global diplomacy for 60 years.

Some would claim it has changed the course of history.

What is it? A country house in a rambling estate near Brighton on England's south-east coast.

It doesn't look much like a place for brokering high-powered international deals - more like the setting for an old-fashioned Agatha Christie thriller, with its comfortable English furniture, picturesque churchyard beside the front entrance and misty views from its bay windows.

But the management of Wilton Park, whose funds come largely from the UK Foreign Office, claims it is one of the world's leading institutions for international policy debate.

Dr Richard Mayne, the author of a book charting its history, decribes the big idea behind it - "to reconcile rivals and enemies".

Lord Dahrendorf, a leading German-born political thinker and now a British Liberal politician, called it a "school for democratic citizenship".

Enigma

Wilton Park began in 1946 as part of Winston Churchill's initiative to rebuild peace and democracy in Europe after the war. Its first task was to screen German prisoners of war and introduce West German civilian leaders to the idea of free debate.

The success of those efforts was no foregone conclusion. Members of that generation of Germans, brought up under Nazi tyranny, said they found the experience of free speech a revelation.

Wilton Park conference centre (Wiston House)
Politicians are encouraged to overcome differences at the centre
The place is an enigma in many ways. Wilton Park is not even its real name. That is taken from another elegant mansion, the original "Wilton Park" in Beaconsfield, west of London, where the story began. But the army demanded it for their own use in 1951.

The present building and grounds in Sussex are properly called Wiston House. When the Wilton Park operation moved there, the prestigious name moved with it. This year it will host more than 60 international conferences.

Today Wilton Park remains one of the unsung secrets of UK diplomacy. Insiders say its discreet "off the record" rules make it all the more valuable to the international figures who go there.

In the quiet old manor house politicians are encouraged to overcome their differences. A full English breakfast is laid on, and other meals consist of hearty country fare. The bar is often the scene of animated discussion, and it stays open late.

Wilton Park is quintessentially, even eccentrically, British. Yet... its core principles are to keep strict independence, not to promote British policies
Visitors in recent years have included Israelis and Palestinians, Serbs and Croats, Americans and Libyans, and Europhiles and Eurosceptics from different parts of Europe. They could mix, debate, or walk round the sprawling grounds - and sometimes end up agreeing to take action with rather than against one another.

Wilton Park is not like the Rose Garden of the White House, or G8 summit venues, where world leaders strain to announce breakthrough deals in the glare of media attention.

Yet real results sometimes emerge. Wilton Park's directors believe that one gathering in 1999 hastened an accord among fractious Serbian opposition groups to join forces to oust Slobodan Milosevic from power. They did so soon afterwards.

Another claim is that Russian military commanders agreed to end the chill which followed the showdown with Moscow over Nato's intervention in Kosovo, after taking part in an ice-breaking session at Wilton Park.

This week, top Nato military and civilian representatives from many nations are meeting there for a brainstorming debate about the shake-up of the alliance now under way.

Future conflicts

Wilton Park has survived many threats to its funding from a thrifty British Treasury. And its 60th birthday is being marked in its own gentlemanly style - with a formal but private dinner in its out-of-the-way site in the bosom of the English countryside.

A Foreign Office Minister, Lord Triesman, is giving a speech about future conflicts - more exactly, about how new threats to global security call for smarter ways of predicting and preventing them.

Wilton Park is quintessentially, even eccentrically, British. Yet, as the message on its website insists, its core principles are to keep strict independence, not to promote British policies.

As Richard Mayne wrote in his history, entitled In Victory, Magnanimity, In Peace, Goodwill, "Wilton Park was a house, and is an institution," but it is really about an idea - the age-old mission of the peacemaker.

It may be an old-fashioned idea, but given the right environment it can work.


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