FHB Interview with HE Ambassador D. FELIPE DE LA MORENA, Honorary Vicepresident of the British Hispanic Foundation
“In the midst of an intense life between embassies in Beijing, Syria or Tunisia, Ambassador Felipe de la Morena arrived in London in 1990 to represent Spain and forged strong ties between the two countries; and he does so also from the Presidency of the British Hispanic Foundation that has held twenty years. In this interview he recalls those stages and the trajectory of a Foundation of which he says that “if it did not exist, it would have to be invented”
With a life as intense as yours …Is your latest book about China longing for what you lived then as Ambassador in that country?
That intense life to which you refer is a consequence of my profession as a diplomat. This profession has allowed me to be in contact with other cultures and other ways of life. Perhaps the most important conclusion to which these contacts have led me is to consider that the Christian and rationalistic humanism of our western civilization, by teaching us that we are a great family, makes us reject the reductionist identities, which impose barriers and try to separate what it represents a setback in our civilization.
As for my book, “Deng Xiaoping and the beginning of China today”, is not a book of longings, it is an account of what I lived in China between 1978 and 1982, having had the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time and having been able to see first-hand what an exceptional figure, Deng Xiaoping, achieved by lifting millions of people out of poverty and misery, passing over political barriers, leaving the Maoist orthodoxy, then prevailing, and laying the foundations of what is China today.
You arrived in the UK in 1990. What was your first impression and the first personality that struck you the most?
My first impression, on that occasion, was to become aware of the great honor represented by being Ambassador of Spain, which had been an old Empire, the Spanish, before another Empire, the British, who had just ceased to be.
Regarding personalities that impacted me, I met many. I could quote Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher or many other politicians or personalities from the world of culture, the economic world or art. But I will only quote someone who impacted me in a very special way, and for whom I have great admiration. I am referring to the professor, historian and Hispanist, Sir John Elliott. His human quality, his intellectual rigour, his investigative passion, meticulous, make him one of the most fascinating and humble personalities I have ever met.
How would you define the UK you found. Has the country changed in recent years?
I found a country that was beginning to realize that it had ceased to be the first world power, “The British Empire”, that had lived with great dignity and enormous sacrifices the Second World War, in which it had been victorious and whose memory was still valid . A country proud of its history and that was transforming. Waves of immigrants, mostly from the Commonwealth, were arriving in the UK and some customs were beginning to change. Integration in the European Union was viewed with suspicion. For many it was inevitable that one had to accept or be left behind in the career of History, for others it could lead them to lose their identity.
How did you explain what was happening in Spain?
With great candor and ease on my part, finding in the British a great interest in what was achieved by Spain, which had made an exemplary transition, going from dictatorship to democracy, with great regard for all its actors, from HM the King Don Juan Carlos – whom an Anglo Spanish author, Juan Pablo Fussi, had described as the engine of change – the political leaders of different signs, from Adolfo Suarez to Santiago Carrillo, passing through Felipe González or Manuel Fraga and ultimately to Spanish people. In those years, there was also political alternation, coming to power in Spain the Socialist Party, chaired by Felipe González.
Did you have to work on the relations between La Zarzuela and Buckingham Palace?
Relations between the two Royal Houses were excellent. There was great respect between both institutions and a very cordial relationship between our Kings and Queen Elizabeth II.
What leads you to contact the FHB?
Sir Roger Fry, who in the 1980s had created the British Hispanic Foundation in Madrid, offered me, on behalf of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees, the Presidency of the Foundation upon retiring at the Embassy in London. Offer corroborated by my good friend, Lord Nicholas Gordon Lenox, who was British Ambassador to Madrid. By the way, I remember, I said to the Ambassador, that I would accept the offer, if he, in turn, assumed the presidency of the Anglo Spanish Society of London, of which I was Honorary President. And so we did in 1993.
We are interested in you telling us about your memories of the projects, the events that most interested you, the achievements during your presidency and the personalities that participated in them…
First of all, I want to point out that during the twenty years that I was Chairman of the Foundation, I had, at all times, the enthusiastic support of HRH the Infanta Doña Margarita and the Duke of Soria, as well as that of the various British Ambassadors who they succeeded each other in Madrid, and most especially, with the support of the founder and main sponsor Sir Roger Fry and his wife Begoña. I also want to highlight the work carried out by the Executive Committee which, over those years, led the Foundation to occupy a position of excellence, in the effort to bring Spanish and British closer.
As for the strategy of activities to be developed, we focus it on four main blocks:
The first was the creation of a British Hispanic Doctorate Chair at the Complutense University, rotating between all the Faculties and attended by a British professor, at first from the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge, which we later extended to eminent professors from other British universities. The chair began in 1993 and two years later, in 1995, once consolidated, Her Majesty the King Don Juan Carlos granted us the name of “British Hispanic Queen Victoria Eugenia Chair”, in honor of her illustrious grandmother Queen Victoria Eugenia, British born and Queen of Spain.
Another block was made up by “The British Hispanic Forums” held annually in which more than four hundred Spanish and British personalities from the world of politics, arts and letters and more than a thousand participants acted as speakers in those twenty years. It is not possible to refer to the large number of personalities who went through the Forums. At the moment I remember ministers like Enrique Barón, Iñigo Méndez de Vigo, Angeles González Sinde, Josep Piqué, or Tristan Garel Jones and Michael Portillo, designers such as David Delfín or Ana González; professors, such as Sir John Elliott or Don Antonio Domínguez Ortiz, who his fellow historians called “master of teachers”, the professor and Academician, Don Manuel Alvar or the Ambassador Don Raimundo Bassols. We collected the contributions of the speakers in the twenty publications that we edit on the forums, dedicated to the most diverse topics: Europe, the Atlantic countries, migration or international terrorism, fashion, architecture or environmental or globalization problems.
A third block was made up of Concerts followed by Charity Gala Dinners, which were held in places as prestigious as the Prado Museum, the Reina Sofía, the Thyssen or the Reina Sofía Superior School of Music, in hotels such as the Ritz or the Royal Theatre. Acts that honored with their presence Her Majesty the Queen Doña Sofía, Her Royal Highness, at the time, the Prince of Asturias, Don Felipe, Her Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, Princess Alejandra de Kent and always our Honorary President, the Infanta Doña Margarita, as well as many other Spanish and British personalities. I must remember that for the organization of these charity concerts and dinners, a Committee of distinguished personalities was formed, which was always chaired by Sonsoles Diez de Rivera, with her usual dedication and efficiency.
And a fourth block was made up of events held in collaboration with other institutions such as the British Embassy, the British Chamber of Commerce, the British Council, the Oxford and Cambridge Alumni Associations, The Representation of the European Union, the Universities of Granada or Menéndez Pelayo of Santander, the Diplomatic School, the CSIC or the CESEDEN. In collaboration with them we organize lunches, colloquia, conferences and tributes to relevant personalities. To cite some of the latter, I will remember the tributes organized in honor of the Marchioness of Santa Cruz, Sir John Elliott, Fernando Pombo or Joe Gaggero. These acts allowed the Foundation to have an active presence at different levels of society: academic, economic, cultural or artistic.
I cannot fail to refer to the most relevant economic sponsors of the above described activities: in addition to the King’s Group, I must cite the valuable cooperation of BP Spain, the Barclays Foundation, Gómez Acebo y Pombo or G.B. Airways.
Which project would you highlight as the most representative of the Foundation?
I think I would highlight the Hispanic British Chair Queen Victoria Eugenia, which has created a stream of understanding and collaboration between Spanish and British professors and students in the university environment, with great consistency, given its quality and continuity. As the doctoral students and later Masters preparers, there has been a great sense of responsibility and interest. The scholarships that the British Council granted us for the brightest students also allowed many students to continue their doctoral theses at British Universities, with the professors they had had in Madrid. The figure of the “chair coordinator” (always a Spanish professor from the same Faculty) also allowed contacts to be developed between Spanish and British professors, who continued after the end of the chair.
How was that Chair started?
I will tell you an anecdote. When I took over the Presidency of the Foundation, I thought I would repeat what I had achieved in London during my Embassy. There we were able to create a Chair in Spain at the London School of Economics, which His Majesty the King granted us to be called “Prince of Asturias Chair”. But there I had the Cañada Blanch Foundation to finance it and here I did not find the financing I needed. Therefore, after a very pleasant and meticulous negotiation with the then Vice-Rector for International Relations of the Complutense, Professor Carlos Seoane, with whom I established a very warm friendship that lasts until today, we decided that a rotating Doctorate Chair would be created. This Chair would be attributed, each year, to a different Faculty and for which we would invite a professor from a prestigious British University. Together with him, the Faculty would appoint a Spanish professor, whom we would call “Chair Coordinator”. Thus began the British Hispanic Chair and the first professor was Professor Ian Michael, Regius Professor at the University of Oxford. Personalities of the stature of Sir Raymon Carr, Paul Preston, Larry Sidentop, Miles Reid or Valpi Fitzgerald have passed through the Chair, to name only those that I remember at the moment.
Any advice for years to come from the Foundation?
I do not usually give advice: each age has its challenges and must be faced with the instruments of each moment with rigour and dedication. And those who are in charge of this institution have both. The only thing I would add is that if the British Hispanic Foundation did not exist, it would have to be invented.