Arresting a Diplomat, 1717

Recent events have provoked disquiet about the concept of diplomatic immunity: in the early eighteenth century, the British government was considerably less fastidious in its definition.

1984 saw controversy over the status and privileges of foreign diplomats in London: an Iranian diplomat sacrificially slaughtered an animal in the street, Nigerian envoys were suspected of complicity in a kidnapping, and a policewoman was killed by a shot fired from the Libyan embassy (or nearest Libyan equivalent thereof). On these matters, Her Majesty's Government sought to act, towards the actual diplomats involved, with a combination of firmness and restraint. It then set about discussing with friendly governments how to preserve diplomatic immunity while at the same discouraging its abuse. The 1961 Vienna Convention on the subject, the end-product of lengthy negotiations, could not lightly be discarded.

These events recall almost the only occasion in the last 300 hundred years when a British government totally departed from the normal courtesies towards a diplomat. It occurred in George I's reign, when the papers and person of Karl Gyllenborg, Swedish envoy in London, were seized. The government's action on that occasion may have been excessive: but let us examine the evidence.

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