Political gift giving is like walking a tightrope: diplomats must find a way to flatter the recipient whilst ensuring the gift doesn’t create a PR disaster on the world stage. Add some erratic political egos into the equation and anything could happen. We take a look at the best and worst gifts given by politicians in recent times:
1. The Stuffed Kangaroo
Spare a thought for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. No sooner had they announced their pregnancy than a giant stuffed kangaroo was being thrust into their arms by Australian diplomats on their recent Royal Tour. We have all been in their shoes: opening an unwanted Christmas present and having to feign unbounded delight at what is inside, whilst simultaneously banishing thoughts of how much it might fetch on eBay.
Nevertheless the stuffed kangaroo was a fine example of a perfectly pitched political gift: designed to garner attention for the giver as well as flatter the recipient.
2. The DVD Boxset
With our 24 hour news cycle and drive for increased transparency, political gifts once given in secret as a way of winning trust are now almost always made public. I’m sure Gordon Brown would have rather kept to himself the present that Barack Obama cobbled together for him during his much anticipated 2009 visit to the U.S: nothing says ‘special relationship’ like a DVD boxset. It made Brown’s thoughtful gift of a pen holder carved from the wood of a Victorian anti-slavery ship seem catastrophically overblown and left everyone questioning whether The Special Relationship was alive and well.
3. Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’
Now that the cameras are always rolling, showmanship seems to be the defining feature of the modern-day political gift. President Donald Trump took great pleasure in announcing to the world’s media that he had given Kim Jong-un an Elton John CD that included the track ‘Rocket Man’. And, when Nigel Farage recently presented Jean Claude Juncker with a pair of union jack socks in the European Parliament, he knew full well the moment would be captured on TV. The media attention a gift will garner seems to be just as important as the message it sends.
4. The Statue of Liberty
But perhaps this political showmanship isn’t a new phenomenon. The 19th century French politician Édouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye must have stolen a furtive glance across the channel to see what Britain, still swallowing its pride after America’s declaration of independence, thought of his plan to present a giant Statue of Liberty to the U.S.A.
5. The walking stick
Even the ill-fated Brexit negotiations began with an exchange of gifts: Michel Barnier and David Davis attempted to bond over their shared love of hiking by swapping a hiking stick and a rare French book on mountaineering.You could say these gifts were somewhat prescient, given what an uphill struggle the Brexit negotiations have proved to be. By the time Dominic Raab stepped into Davis’s shoes, the gifts had become more pointed: Raab presented Barnier with an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin entitled ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ – a thinly veiled dig at the EU’s top-down rule.
6. The Giant Christmas Tree
One wonders whether a political gift can ever be completely void of cynicism. The Christmas tree that quietly arrives every year in Trafalgar Square from the city of Oslo is surely one such example of uncomplicated generosity. Given in gratitude for Britain’s support during the Second World War, each tree taking 50 to 60 years to grow. It is a truly time-consuming gift which, in our age of convenience, seems all the more remarkable. Perhaps in 2019, our diplomats should take inspiration from this 40 foot-tall Norwegian spruce in the heart of our capital city – a simple gift made beautiful by the time and effort it took to give and the quiet faithfulness with which it is always given.