Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


Douglas Hurd
London: Little, Brown, 2003.
£20.00, x-534 pages, ISBN 031-86147-2 (hardback).

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

Political memoirs always present a difficulty for the reviewer. Their purpose is not always clear. What is the degree of self-justification? Why is what is said said? What goes unsaid? Why? To answer these (and other equally tricky) questions, the reviewer would have to know at least as much as the author himself, and possibly more. Now, this situation may arise with “regular” history books and biographies, but autobiography is a special genre, in which the reader or reviewer is constantly trying to decipher the sub-text. This is even more the case when the author of the memoirs was a diplomat: we know that many official and non-official rules of raison d’État apply. Also, the conventions of the genre lead the reader to expect portrayals of the “great men of the world” with whom a former Foreign Secretary like Lord Hurd of Westwell (as he is now known) was inevitably in frequent contact. Thus the poor author has to skilfully navigate between the indiscreet, sometimes prurient curiosity of the “general public” (if he wants to enjoy good sales) and the dignity expected of an elder statesman (if he wants to acquire the respect of the academic community).

Douglas Hurd (born 1930; Eton; Trinity College, Cambridge) is of course fully aware of these pitfalls, as is made clear by his preliminary profession of faith:

Some of the matters with which I dealt will always be controversial. For as long as academics write, there will be no unanimity about the Suez campaign, the General Election of 1974, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the Treaty of Maastricht in 1991 or Bosnia in the early nineties. Professors of hindsight will continue hard at work disputing one another’s portraits of Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and dozens of others whom I knew well. […] I am not interested in manufacturing hates in order to give extra flavour to this dish. I hope there will be enough entertainment and interest in its natural ingredients without the need to add such artificial sauces. [p. vii]

Also, although he “received day by day a flow of confidences from him on all subjects, personal and political” during his Premiership, Douglas Hurd refuses to disclose what John Major actually told him: “It is not difficult to decide how to handle John Major’s confidences in this book. They were given to me precisely as confidences. They relate to people still alive and active, notably himself. It would be wrong to set them out week by week as they poured in on me” [p. 414]. Let us hope that a full record of these “confidences” is locked up somewhere, with a provision on Hurd’s will whereby they should be made public in, say, 2097—one hundred years after John Major’s General Election defeat.

As for “intimate details,” early in the narrative Douglas Hurd has a dismissive sentence which definitively puts an end to any speculation which the buyer may have entertained: “No one, I hope, will be reading this book in expectation of detailed romance, let alone bedroom excitements” [p. 78]. We do learn, however, that his daughter was conceived in Northern Ireland [p.  310].

Still, all the expected conventional passages on his “formative years” are here: his days at Eton (“The reality is different from the tabloid reputation of snobbery and foolish exclusivism.” [p. 30]), his National Service (“We expected little of the army, but quickly found that the army expected even less of us.” [p. 62]), Cambridge and the birth of his political activism (“Nowadays students are still interested in political issues, but not in the political parties. In those days [1950-51] the two amounted to the same thing.” [p. 72]). The hinge with his future career is provided by a reflection on the change in the composition of the House of Commons which in a way is typical of the “distinguished elderly [who] discuss mournfully the state of the world for which they are no longer responsible” [p. 522]:

But what to do after Cambridge? My father wisely warned me against plunging from undergraduate politics to the relatively grown-up version at Westminster. Indeed, in those days there were no jobs for passionate, ambitious politicians in their twenties. Now the Palace of Westminster is full of important young men and women, hurrying from one meeting to another, clutching their files and laptops, as they ply their trade as research assistants, political consultants or special advisers. The House of Commons is increasingly composed of Members with that background. Such apparatus hardly existed fifty years ago. [p. 77]

After toying with the idea of joining the Secret Service, Hurd took and passed the Diplomatic Service examinations, with a first post in London in the great tradition of the gifted amateur: “There was no training for new entrants to the Foreign Service, except for those who were to learn one of the specialist languages. Generalists such as myself were simply allocated to a department and expected to learn the trade” [p. 92]. Then postings abroad: Peking (“Our contacts with the rulers of the new China were confined to bureaucratic and often bad-tempered exchanges with junior officials in charge of travel and customs permits” [p. 105]), followed by New York, at the United Nations at the time of the Suez crisis, which goes a long way towards explaining his later attitudes to Anglo-American relations:

I have often pondered on this American ruthlessness towards us. […] In 1945 and 1946 […] Keynes was treated by the Americans with the sort of ruthlessness which we experienced in 1956. No sentimental recollection of our lonely stand against Hitler, no rhetoric about a special relationship influenced on either occasion the chilly American calculation of US interests. Too often we British clothe the Anglo-US relationship in a warm, fuzzy haze. Its basis is the real usefulness of one country to the other. If that usefulness dries up, no amount of speech-making will prevent the relationship from withering. [p. 140]

Back to London, his job was something of a put-down: “Whereas in New York my superiors had been interested in my advice on UN matters, now my input was not sought on anything” [p. 152]. His next posting, in Rome, was hardly better: “Very occasionally during the three years I spent in Rome I was involved in something politically exciting. […] In short, nothing much happened” [p. 158].

Then (1966) came the great turning-point in his life, when Douglas Hurd decided to leave the Foreign Office and enter politics, at the Foreign Affairs Section of the Conservative Research Department. For those who are interested in the mechanics of the Conservative Party under Edward Heath or in the uphill struggle potential candidates for adoption have to face, the book will provide fascinating information, culminating in Hurd’s diary entry for 29 February 1974: “MEMBER FOR MID-OXFORSHIRE. The one really consistent aim of my working life realised, and I don’t really want to go any higher” [p. 224].

Of course, Douglas Hurd was lying to himself: what politician does not want “to go any higher?” Unambitious people do not enter politics. His personal success contrasted with his party’s disaster, repeated at the October General Election, which also brought about the downfall of his mentor Edward Heath. Hurd sees in the disputes of 1974 the first signs of the strife which has plagued the Conservative Party ever since: “The division within the party began to deepen, and to collect the poison which has never since then entirely dissipated” [p. 230].

Yet, in 1975 the animosity between Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher—and their respective followers—remained subdued, and Douglas Hurd was promoted to the Opposition Front Bench by Margaret Thatcher, the new Leader, as Shadow Minister for Europe. But the job did not include a seat in the Shadow Cabinet. The task was not easy since she “was moving slowly from the vague enthusiasm for the EEC which she had shown during the referendum campaign of 1975 to the almost total hostility to Europe which she has shown in recent years” [p. 244]. Fortunately for Hurd, the Conservatives won the 1979 General Election and he became a junior Minister of State at the Foreign Office, under Lord Carrington and later Francis Pym. From then on the Memoirs inevitably begin to read like a chronicle of (world) events.

But the tedium for the readers who are not enthralled by the minutiae of British foreign policy is most opportunely relieved by passages which infringe the conventions of the genre, as when Hurd “collects [his] courage and write[s] what [he] came to believe about Israeli policy […], gradually over the years” [pp. 271-272]. His opinions, though couched in the most even-handed language, as one might expect, are irremediably negative.

Then followed a stint at the Home Office, “the only job in my political life which I did not enjoy” [p. 292]. Real power—and real excitement—actually began with his appointment to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (1984). Among the “revelations” contained in the Memoirs is the antithetical confession that he “never accepted the assumption shared by more than one of my predecessors as Secretary of State, and common among officials in the Foreign Office, that the unification of Ireland was in the long run in Britain’s interests” [p. 304]. Most uninformed people believe that the British Foreign Office wants to keep Northern Ireland, and Hurd’s “personal preference” (as he calls it), by being in line with that popular belief, was therefore “politically incorrect” in his own elite circles.

Moving to the Home Office (1985), he found that “The life of a Home Secretary is dominated by crime” [p. 337], and he has excellent pages [pp. 338-342] to justify his unshakable belief that the death penalty should not be restored, pace the wish of Conservative Party Conference delegates—and of many of his one-time constituents. He also found that the “Home Secretary does not control the size of the prison population [but] is expected to provide whatever prison places are needed” as a result of decisions taken by the judiciary [p. 344], and has an extensive discussion of penal policy, repudiating “the liberal tendency to excuse crime because of the circumstances of the criminal” [p. 350] but listening sympathetically for a re-examination of the sentences given to IRA terrorists [pp. 352-357].

In 1989, at last, he got the Foreign Office. This allows him to give another caveat about all memoirs:

If the book is not to stretch into intolerable length, I must miss out many matters altogether. That will vex some specialists but I hope not the general reader. More worrying is the fact that this subject-by-subject structure will disguise the reality of everyday life: namely, the tangle of meetings, paper submissions, telephone calls, journeys, surprises, hours of boredom, anxiety or relief all mixed together in the Foreign Office. I find this tangle hard to describe nowadays to pleasant academic students who write about once a month to ask for comment on particular events or policies. I almost always try to help, but they are surprised, even scandalised, if it emerges that in my memory or my diary there is only some tiny vestige of the particular matter to which they are devoting a year or more of study. […] The pell-mell of modern diplomacy has to be lived through to be understood. [p. 377]

In the middle of this “pell-mell,” the chronicler becomes a moralist, when he reflects on the Conservative Party (Chapter 19), and especially when he discusses “The Departure of Margaret Thatcher and a Leadership Contest” (Chapter 23) and gives us his retrospective thoughts: “Would I have made a good Prime Minister? Who can tell? I would have enjoyed it more than John Major did” [p. 406].

The chronicle of (world) events is inevitably resumed when he describes his life as Foreign Secretary, 1989-1995. The “purple passages” are the unification of Germany (Chapter 21), the first Gulf War, British internal and external difficulties over the Treaty of Maastricht and European integration generally (Chapter 24), international operations in Bosnia (Chapter 25) and the Hong Kong handover (Chapter 26).

In the great tradition of political memoirs we are given the views of a major actor, both at the time (there are many illuminating quotations from Hurd’s diary, speeches and letters—and, unusually, his published “political” novels) and with hindsight. Just as in Chapter 23 Douglas Hurd appeared as a middle-of-the road Conservative in the great party rows (he describes himself as being at the centre-left of the Conservative Party), in these pages he appears as a moderate—and moderator—between the extreme proponents and opponents of “Europe.” Here again he implicitly plays the moralist, on the if-only-senior-Conservatives-continued-to-behave-like-me theme. This will no doubt irritate the current Conservative Front Bench. But then Douglas Hurd is no ordinary politician: he left politics voluntarily, some would say at the height of his glory, not waiting like most until he was ousted by the voters (he had a very safe Conservative constituency anyway) or by the schemes of the “bastards,” as John Major once described his more difficult colleagues in government (an episode which, characteristically, is not recounted in the Memoirs).

The book makes it obvious that Douglas Hurd was not of the type to join the “bastards,” as the old-fashioned ideal of decency somehow pervades its pages. On pages 404-406, he speculates on the reasons which made him come a poor third (with only 56 votes) in the leadership election of 1990—the other contenders being John Major (185 votes) and Michael Heseltine (131 votes). He largely attributes his “disappointing” result to the fact that he was seen as “an out-of-date sort of candidate—a patrician, upper class, a toff”: if his Memoirs are of any use in setting the record straight, this is probably where their greatest value lies. Indeed he was “an out-of-date sort of candidate,” not so much because of his “patrician” personality in the literal sense (the label could equally well be attributed to Michael Heseltine), but because of the “gentlemanly,” figurative dimension of his “patrician” personality. As the Conservative Party was to show in the following years, “gentlemen” (especially if pro-European or uncommitted) are no match for the Eurosceptic (Europhobic, in fact) “bastards” in the leadership.

Unusually—though this will no doubt become increasingly common—the book has colour photographs of his recent travels, on top of the expected black-and-white snapshots of Douglas Hurd as a baby, a student, a soldier, etc. Whether this will be of any value for posterity is another matter. For instance, was he sanguine or pale in the face? Much depends on the colour balance adopted by the printers: facing page 406 he has red cheeks and a rosy forehead, but four pages later he is almost white... The book has no footnotes, but it has a comprehensive index.

As a stone to the general edifice of our knowledge of British political and diplomatic history since the 1950s, especially between 1979 and 1995, this substantial volume is naturally a “must-have” for any University Library, even if Douglas Hurd only tells us what he chooses to tell us. All the more so as students should be encouraged to use the same clarity of style in their essays. Not one typo was detected: a remarkable feat of proof-reading—also an “out-of-date” feature?



All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.