Remarks to: Rotary International Presidential Peace Conference, at the International Maritime Organisation, Saturday, 10 February 2024, by the Rt Hon the Lord Mayor of London, Alderman Professor Michael Mainelli.

President, Distinguished Guests, Ladies & Gentlemen:

It is my great pleasure to be with you today for the Rotary International Presidential Peace Conference. I’m very grateful to Gordon and everyone at Rotary International for the invitation to speak.

For those who don’t know me, I’m Michael Mainelli, the 695th Lord Mayor of the City of London.

I’m also a very keen sailor – so it’s a delight to be here at the International Maritime Organisation, the sole, and treasured UN agency Britain is privileged to host.

The great gag writer Barry Cryer tells a marvellous story about the comedian Tommy Cooper.  When Tommy was on military service with the Horse Guards he was assigned palace sentry duty, but fell asleep standing inside his sentry box.  While in the middle of this court martial-able offence, he half opened one eye to see that his Commanding Officer was fast approaching to discipline him.  Closing his eye again he looked for a single word that might free him from this predicament. He shook himself, drew to his full height, opened both eyes and then said the one word that could save him:


For today’s conference, the team at Rotary International asked speakers to finish the sentence, with a single word, “there will be no peace or hope without…” X?

On Wednesday, I welcomed 18 leaders of different faiths to Mansion House for a private dinner and asked them to share their thoughts. We had a huge range of responses:

Harmony, divinity, restraint. … reconciliation, remorse, humour … empathy, entrusting, justice, ambition … love, faith, friendship, and we leant a hyphen to a few folk, inner-peace and constructive-ambiguity, and – interestingly – conflict and doubt.

I’ proposed another – Tolerance. Contrasted with the noble and challenging words a moment ago, tolerance is a humble word, but profound.

In his 1910 “Man in the Arena” speech, Theodore Roosevelt said that, “in a republic, to be successful we must learn to combine intensity of conviction with a broad tolerance of difference of conviction…

“Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth.”

200-odd years earlier, French Enlightenment thinker Voltaire made famous the phrase, “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. 

The City of London is the world’s oldest democratic workers’ and residents’ cooperative, nearly 14 centuries of commerce, community, and charity. From its earliest beginnings, the Square Mile has welcomed new people…myself included…and seen the dignity in difference.

The City of London has its challenges – that goes without saying – but I also consider it to be one of the most tolerant places in the world… And I think that can be traced back, in part, to the emergence of a new arena for public discourse in the seventeenth century: The Coffee House.

Early coffee houses were places of temperance and also of tolerance … where men, though sadly not women, of any status could meet for lively, rational and sober debates on diverse business, cultural and scientific matters.

To quote one contemporary publication, the “magnetic force” of coffee drew after it “great concourse / Of all degrees of person, even / From high to low”.

Or, as one historian writes, “whether a man was dressed in a ragged coat and found himself seated between a belted earl and a gaitered bishop it made no difference…he was able to engage them in conversation and know that he would be answered civilly”.

Caffeine, a stimulant, lubricated conversation in a way alcohol, a depressant, never could. New connections were made … new business deals were entered … and new ideas were developed.

Fearful these open and interesting discussions would lead to uprisings against his rule, Charles II attempted – and failed – to supress coffee houses entirely … and their survival has been seen by many historians as a victory against a dictatorial challenge to freedom of speech and individual liberty.

Indeed, having faced down the threat of closure, London’s coffee houses spawned several economically and culturally significant organisations that are still in operation today… Jonathan’s Coffee House (1680) grew into the London Stock Exchange. Lloyd’s Coffee House (1686) became Lloyd’s of London. The Virginia & Baltick (1744) became the Baltic Exchange, leadin to the IMO building we’re in today. And the Guardian, Spectator, and Tatler all emerged from these “penny universities”.

Though the coffee houses could get bawdy – one 1673 pamphlet called the coffeehouse “a Sympathetical Cure for the Gonorrhoea of the Tongue” – they changed the course of British history … they allowed Londoners of diverse backgrounds share to share their ideas and beliefs and refine the art of disagreeing agreeably.

Just as in the seventeenth century coffee house, our modern-day City is a place where all comers, speaking some 300 languages, are welcome, new ideas are embraced, and people disagree agreeably.

That difference of perspectives enriches the City in so many ways. Financial markets are underpinned by different views on the value of things. Financial commitments and trade bind people’s to peace.

My mayoral theme, “Connect To Prosper”, celebrating the Knowledge Miles of our Square Mile, seeks to revive our coffee house tradition, stimulating conversation between different groups, encouraging ideas and, ultimately, ensuring London can fulfil its potential as a global solutions hub that can address big issues like climate change, mental health, Artificial Intelligence, or junk in outer space. Connect To Prosper sits easily beside Rotary themes.

Because, to quote the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in November, “if we rediscover some of that original coffee house culture and have conversations that build community, common understanding, curiosity and civility, we might rise to this new era and its challenges together.”

American journalist H.L. Mencken said that “the more uncivilised the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong.”“The truly civilised man is always skeptical and tolerant…his culture is based on, ‘I am not too sure’.”

That spirit – “I am not too sure,” but I’m listening – runs through all our Connect To Prosper initiatives.

We’re running in-person networking sessions – “Coffee Colloquies” – where thought-leaders can come together to discuss the big issues of the day.

And we’re shining a spotlight on the Square Mile’s different areas of expertise – or “Knowledge Miles” – with an online lecture series on a diverse range of topics: from religious practice to quantum computing.

The Lord Mayor’s Show featured representatives from more nations than ever before this year.

And I am travelling across the world – to India, China, the US and many more places – to build and bolster our connections with international friends and partners.

Our customs and ideas may differ, but, if we approach discussions with the ability to disagree agreeably, opportunities for collaboration abound.

As Confucius asked, “yǒu péng zì yuǎn fāng lái, bù yì lè hū?”

…“isn’t it delightful to have friends coming from afar?”. 

During my year in office, we’re also aiming to get more people involved in the livery: a 50,000 strong movement powered by the idea of commerce, community and charity. 

While London is an accepting place, we cannot ignore the fact that troubling times test our tolerance. From the past, I visited Hiroshima last year and see you have an exhibition outside on the Hibakusha. Today, the horrific situation in the Middle East has left many feeling a range of emotions: confusion, despair, anger. It sometimes leaves me feeling helpless.

Speaking at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said that “when conflicts overseas create division at home, it’s more important than ever that we preserve the values we hold dear – tolerance, free speech, the rule of law, respect for our history.”

Through the City Corporation’s City Belonging Project, we hosted three online events related to the impact of the situation in the Middle East on our communities, which brought together the City Police, Jewish and Muslim workers and residents and charities dedicated to tackling antisemitism and islamophobia to share concerns and support one another.

In the first week of my mayoralty in November, we convened an interfaith event at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. Senior Rabbi Joseph Dweck, Chief Imām Dr Sayed Razawi and Revd Dr Alan McCormack led us in an exploration of themes ofheritage, culture, integration, and reconciliation. Guided by the idea that, if a profound gulf separates my neighbour’s belief from mine, there is always the golden bridge of tolerance to bring us together.

A further, larger interfaith event, which will include a much wider range of religious perspectives, is planned for later in the year. This summer’s “Global Faith Perspectives on Disagreeing Agreeably” colloquium will see religious practitioners and leaders, and representatives of civil society institutions come together to consider how the world’s religions can help increase “civility” and respect in public disagreement.

As Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former defence minister, pointed out just a few minutes ago, “Trust does no depend on disagreement.”

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Selfish Gene motif says that we compete and we cooperate, down the very core, the very DNA of our being. Thus we should be mutually tolerant.

Tolerance is an excellent fit to Rotary’s Positive Peace Framework, and a one-word guide for Peace Builders.

Orson Scott Card is a science fiction author who wrote a book – Ender’s Game – about a hyper-intelligent innocent boy learning alien warfare. The boy, AE Wiggin, provides a profound insight for all of us, “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” 

We need to learn constantly about each other, and through that thirst for learning about one another we become tolerant, even loving. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, to be tolerant doesn’t mean you’re not committed to your beliefs, it means you’re willing – and ready, like Voltaire – to condemn the oppression or persecution of others with views that are different from your own.

To return to where we started – there will be no peace or hope without tolerance. And, if we feel like we’re lacking, reviving the coffee house tradition, or the coffee break tradition, could help us all to disagree a bit more agreeably.

Let’s be optimistic; pessimism is for better times. Thank you.