Boris Johnson's admission in Parliament yesterday that he would be happy to see protestors outside Russia's London embassy drew a swift and stinging response. Moscow isn’t accepting blame for the Aleppo bombings which prompted the debate, and its defence spokespeople made clear their displeasure at the words of Britain’s Foreign Secretary. Johnson is no stranger to controversy, and questions linger over his use of diplomatic language.
How important is precision in cross-border communication? Any emissary or legal professional can answer that question. Exhibit A? Berwick upon Tweed.
Due to a legal technicality, this tiny village has been at war with Russia for the past 160 years. As it didn’t escalate into open conflict during the Cold War it’s unlikely to do so now, but it’s an interesting reminder of what can happen when we fail to follow the letter of the law.
Located just three miles from the Scottish border, Berwick is the northernmost town in England and its residents have historically had to endure an identity crisis over their nationality. The local football team plays in the Scottish League, and football fans are not alone in their confusion. Reigning monarchs have also struggled with the issue. When Queen Victoria made her official declaration of war against Russia in 1853, she signed herself as “Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions”.
When the Treaty of Paris ended the Crimean War three years later England’s northernmost town wasn’t named, leaving it in a stand-off with a nation whose population of 142 million people would have a slight edge in any clash with Berwick’s plucky 12,000.
In 1966 the Soviet Union offered their enemies an olive branch, sending an official delegation to meet the Mayor of Berwick. Accepting the hand of friendship Mayor Robert Knox famously reassured them: “please tell the Russian people that they can sleep peacefully in their beds.” But he had no official authority to end the conflict, and no record of the meeting exists. So this cold war – perhaps we might call it this tepid war - drags on, with no official end in sight.
The right communication partner will help you navigate the minefield of legal language and deliver the result you need. The right linguist might even be able to broker peace between Russia and Berwick upon Tweed. If you’re reading, Mr Putin, we’re only a phone call away.