Martin White: Behind the public face

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Lord Lieutenant Martin White has retired. But it’s not retirement as we know it, as he tells Roz Whistance

Sometimes, when you’re interviewing the great and the good, it’s best to be honest. “I don’t know what a Lord Lieutenant does,” I confessed. “Neither do I,” was the rejoinder, from the Lord Lieutenant. “I’ll be doing it for another ten years, I’ll let you know then!”

Change and adaptation has been a characteristic of Martin White’s life. We left him last in the early 1990s, in the first Gulf War, where, as a Colonel and during the conflict promoted to Brigadier by General Sir Peter de la Billiere, he had the responsibility of overseeing the movement of UK forces into Saudi Arabia and commanding the logistic support to the ground war.

He had witnessed the almost daily advance of technology, which, hand in hand with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, represented a watershed for international relations.

“The armed forces were at the leading edge of all that, trying to manage the repercussions: the growth of terrorism, which in turn led to changes in equipment, a change in what we were required to do, the explosion in communications and the impact of the media set against a background of reducing budgets.”

Following the Gulf War, Martin after a further stint in Germany was sent to the Royal College of Defence Studies in London. As with all the other changes in his life to date, Martin relished the move. Moving from the thick of the action to the relative tranquillity of the College in Belgrave Square appealed to his sense of comradeship, and to his intellect. “It was an international college, and it took people at a senior level from all three Services, the Civil Service, defence industry and the police,” he explains. “You learn how the Nation functions at the strategic level from those involved.”

What particularly appealed was the fact that the 80 or so officers, many of whom he is still in contact with, were from almost 40 different countries. “That in itself is an amazing experience, and establishes a worldwide network based on friendship and shared study. Having exposure at that level stands you in good stead whatever you do,” says the Lord-Lieutenant.

What he did next, on promotion to major general, was a job he describes as ‘unforgettable.’ He was working for Nato, in Heidelberg, a place of great beauty. “We lived right down by the river looking across at Heidelberg castle. The boys were just about at the end of University and Anna was starting. I was working in a headquarters with seven different nationalities.” Again, you feel that the fairytale setting and the truly international company are factors of equal importance.

Martin then went on to run his own Corps, the Royal Logistic Corps.  With a budget in excess of £400M he was the professional head of an organisation of 16,000 regular and 11,000 TA soldiers, the largest Corps in the Army. And after two and a half years, in 1998, he retired.

Maybe a new word should be coined when talking about the sort of retirement lived by people such as Martin White, something that doesn’t suggest feet up or daytime telly.

He went to work as military adviser to consultants Deloittes, and Ernst & Young, helping with their national and international defence businesses. He wasn’t free of regimental responsibility: he was a Colonel Commandant of the Royal Logistic Corps (a sort of non-executive director) and Honorary Colonel of a TA Regiment, based both on the Island and in Marchwood on Southampton Water. “So I still had quite a lot to do,” he says, with masterful understatement.

He was based at home on the Island during this time and the then Lord Lieutenant, Christopher Bland, asked him to be a Deputy Lieutenant, and a year later in 1999, to be his Vice Lord Lieutenant.

The transition from there to becoming Lord Lieutenant is far from a foregone conclusion, however. Every county in England has a Lord Lieutenant, there are 98, and for each appointee there is a public consultation process which was then run by the Prime Minister’s senior appointments secretary. He will consult a wide cross section of 20 or 30 people in the county about the sort of person who should hold the office as Her Majesty’s Representative. Eventually the person is asked if he or she is prepared to do it – as well as being honorary it is also of course non-political and lasts until the incumbent’s 75th birthday – and the PM seeks Her Majesty’s approval to make the appointment. Martin was appointed in 2006. “It is a huge privilege to be asked to do it – especially for someone whose roots are here and who has always had a home here,” Martin White says proudly.

The reason Martin affected vagueness about the role at the start of our chat was because it is not cut and dried. “Everyone does it in a different way, and it is within certain guidelines, very personal,” he says. “Part of the role can overlap with that of the High Sheriff, although their responsibilities are historically with the judiciary, but I have the continuity afforded by the longer time in office.” Since the spring of 2009 he and Gillian Phenix, his Deputy Clerk to the Lieutenancy, have organised visits from the Duke of Kent (twice), the Duke of Edinburgh (twice), the Countess of Wessex, The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall and The Princess Royal. They sketch out the programme for each visit, but expect to alter it as necessary while consulting and coordinating all the time with the Palace and other agencies.

Come the day, Martin’s is the first face the particular dignitary will see when they arrive on the Isle of Wight, usually by helicopter. “Every time a member of the Royal Family or foreign head of state comes I introduce the person, in line of precedence, to my wife, the High Sheriff, their spouse, Chairman of the Council and spouse, the MP and spouse, the chief policeman, and so it goes on. I’m the first to say hello and the last to say farewell.”

This is just one aspect of his job. He is also chairman of the Advisory Committee on Magistrates. Four or so posts become vacant each year, but around 30 people are interviewed for each appointment. This year two magistrates have joined the Island Bench.

One of his favourite parts of the job is to champion the honours and awards system. “I’m really keen for people who go that extra mile for their community to get national recognition. So I encourage people to nominate those kinds of people for a national award (Details on the Honours website or contact Deputy Clerk to the Lieutenancy). So we got three MBEs in this years Birthday Honours, two from the Voluntary sector. For us, that is a really excellent result.”

Moreover, if the honoured person can’t go to the Palace for their award, the Lord Lieutenant will bestow it here on the Island. Last year John Smith of Newchurch was honoured for his amazing work in the community. Martin recalls: “He said ‘my community are the people who should be with me when I get it’, so we did it there in Newchurch, which was wonderful.”

Similarly, he champions the Queen’s Award for Business Enterprise, as well as the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the latter very much regarded as an MBE for groups (again details of both on the Honours website). This year saw recognition for Green Gym, and for Ryde Inshore Rescue, both presented by The Prince of Wales in July. “I’m on the national committee on behalf of Lieutenancy Association and there were 200 nominations across the country. These two were as good as any voluntary group in the country – I was really pleased and very proud.” Business excellence on the Island was also recognised this year by awards to A J Wells and Sons, RF Engines and PhysE.

In short, the Lord Lieutenant supports the whole community life of the Island from business life through uniformed groups and Reserve Forces to youth, the voluntary sector and charities. “I have no direct responsibility, no authority, but what one can do is guide, support, encourage and just occasionally influence! And you make it your own, just like commanding a regiment or squadron. The role will be a reflection of you within six months.”

To say his life is full hardly hints at the reality. He has four children, three daughters-in-law and one son-in-law, and eleven grandchildren, whom he and his wife Fiona try to see as much as possible. Fiona is Chairman of SSAFA Forces Help – the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen Families Association on the Island who look after ex members of the Forces and their families who are in need.

Martin White remains irrepressibly enthusiastic about the job in hand. No military posting has been a disappointment, each one enjoyable, and yet he is now able to say he doesn’t miss that life a bit.

“Somebody pays you to go round the world all your working life serving your country! Marvellous! But you move on and life changes. I don’t miss the army. Not for one second do I miss it, but I do miss the many friends we made along the way.”

He pauses as he contemplates his life, then and now. “I’m doing another important challenging thing, and it’s in support of the community where I was born and grew up. I’m extremely fortunate.”

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