Skip to Content


Cynics or idealists

There ought to be more mileage than there is in stories of diplomacy.

3 March 2010

12:00 AM

3 March 2010

12:00 AM

Choose your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Edward Young

Orion, pp.432, 25

There ought to be more mileage than there is in stories of diplomacy. Publishers long ago got wise to the memoirs of ex-ambassadors, which in a more servile age used to clog up their catalogues just as the ghosted anguish of reality starlets does now. I am a sucker for the autobiographies of politicians, however atrociously written, self-serving, drab or ‘humorous’; but I draw the line at the memoirs of ex-foreign secretaries.

The subject of diplomacy sounds much more fun than it really is. Negotiations make for dull reading; Lord Salisbury, thinking about Castlereagh at the Congress of Vienna, said: ‘There is nothing dramatic in the success of a diplomatist. His victories are made up of a series of micro- scopic advantages.’ It might act as a warning to anyone proposing to write a book about it, or publish one.

Douglas Hurd’s book, written with the under-advertised collaboration of Edward Young, is lucid and pointed in its opinions as it goes through the merits of various foreign secretaries from Castlereagh onwards. But somehow it lacks the quality of fun which would mitigate the lurking tedium of the subject. Roy Jenkins wrote a very entertaining book about chancellors of the exchequer, not an obviously more promising subject; but then Jenkins was much more interested in human nature at its most freakish.

You will gather what sort of book Lord Hurd’s is from the single fact that it passes up on the glorious opportunity to write about Harold Wilson’s catastrophic but richly enjoyable foreign secretary, George Brown (subsequently George George-Brown and then Lord George-Brown). You will not hear the (discredited) story of Brown propositioning the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima here. Nor is Hurd tempted by the tale of the Washington radio station asking Sir Oliver Franks what he wanted for Christmas, and getting the answer ‘a box of crystallised fruit’ (the French ambassador had hoped for world peace).

Hurd’s nearest approach to levity has Eden and Hitler discovering that they had

been stationed opposite each other at La Fère in March, 1918, during Ludendorff’s last offensive . . . they drew a map together on the dinner card, marking in the different military positions.
    Afterwards, the French ambassador asked Eden if this was true and commented, ‘Et vous l’avez manqué? Vous devriez être fusillé.’

I tried to amuse guests with this gag at the weekend; it is fair to say it didn’t grab their attention.

From the long line of holders of the office, Hurd has selected names that still have some resonance. He begins with Canning’s and Castlereagh’s duel in 1809, and continues through Aberdeen, Palmerston, Derby, Salisbury, Edward Grey, Austen Chamberlain and on to Bevin and Eden. It’s striking that many of these are now remembered for a single observation, not always of their own making. Grey sticks in the mind for his line at the outbreak of the Great War: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’ We know when and where he made the remark, but not to whom he made it — and it seems most peculiar that it was Grey himself who recorded the comment. To this impression of Grey, Hurd chiefly adds a sense of a countryman driven by duty, and not much enjoying the post.

Castlereagh, on the other hand, is Memorable, in the manner of 1066 and All That, for having cut his own throat in despair — many foreign secretaries must have thought of this way out in dark moments of frustration. But Shelley’s judgment, after the massacre at Peterloo, will always represent him to posterity:

I met Murder on the way —
He had a mask like Castlereagh.

Canning had a low opinion of Castlereagh’s gifts. A modern biographer has found a table drawn up by Canning, ‘charting the motley abilities of his colleagues’. Castlereagh came bottom. It was a little more complicated than that; in the rivalry between them we can see the conflict between a pragmatic, even cynical foreign policy and an idealistic one. Robin Cook’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ was a very long-contemplated one.

Over Palmerston no one will agree. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert loathed him, calling him ‘Pilgerstein’ and other more insulting names, referring to his amorous propensities. Hurd, too, seems somewhat immune to his power and fascination; certainly he was the foreign secretary here who sailed closest to the wind, whose concern for liberty and the spread of freedom had some surprising ethical consequences. Robert Peel’s last speech before his death asked what Palmerston really meant by spreading liberty throughout the world. ‘There were millions of oppressed people in China: perhaps Lord Palmerston would free them next. And what about Britain’s subjects in India?’

Well, Palmerston’s vision has indeed spread, and it is easier to admire his energy and beliefs now than Hurd seems to acknowledge. By comparison, Aberdeen seems a bit of a prig. Hurd relates that, late in life, he refused to rebuild the parish church on his Scottish estates, to general bafflement. After his death, his family found numerous scraps of paper among his effects with the Biblical text:

Thou hast shed blood abundantly, and has made great wars: thou shalt not build a house unto my name, because thou hast shed much blood upon the earth in my sight.

One thing to think that; another to leave it about in numerous copies for posterity to find.

Eden’s failure goes on haunting politicians. As Hurd says, he was a competent foreign secretary who, once elevated to prime minister, failed in exactly the area of his supposed expertise. The comparison with Gordon Brown is all but inescapable. Mussolini’s comment — ‘I never saw a better dressed fool’ — is harsh and incomplete, but there was something of the tailor’s dummy about Eden; he was that most unlikely thing to find, too, in an English politician, a Proust-loving aesthete.

I warm to Bevin and his bold flood of ideas — and his doctor’s observation that every single part of his body had failed, apart from his feet. It seems amazing to me that historians are still quoting him as dropping his aitches when his view of the world to come seems so visionary:

Elsewhere, he is reported on the subject of Palestine as saying:

I want to avoid an explosion on the part of the Arabs, and to check what I regard as a positive danger, the development of Pan-Islamism.

That shows some acuity in the 1940s.

The hero of the book is Lord Salisbury, who was one of those rare prime ministers who was not First Lord of the Treasury, but hung on to the Foreign Office. He had a caustic, detached view of his own trade, saying very truly that ‘the constant study of maps is apt to disturb men’s reasoning powers.’ It was not him but his nephew Balfour who said that ‘nothing matters very much and few things matter at all’, but it has the ring of Salisbury. Almost comically laid-back in person, he was nevertheless not remotely diffident, complaining about the admirals who resisted any suggestion of military action:

If our ships are always to be kept wrapped in silver paper for fear of their paint being scratched, I shall find it difficult to go on defending the Naval Estimates in Parliament.

This solid, accurate book is not very exciting; but occasionally an observation from the past leaps from the page, and here again is Salisbury on the all-too present subject of Afghanistan: ‘We cannot conquer it; we cannot leave it alone. We can only spare it our utmost vigilance.’

Show comments