Men From the Ministry

Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary — Two Centuries of Conflict and Personalities by Douglas Hurd

Books History UK Politics Westminster
Pistols at dawn: In 1809, two early Foreign Secretaries, Viscount Castlereagh (left) and George Canning, fought a duel over on Putney Heath. Castlereagh wounded Canning, but in 1822 Castlereagh cut his own throat and it was Canning who later became Prime Minister

If only they would leave it to the experts. There must be many a Foreign Office mandarin who has entertained such thoughts over the last decade. Indeed, against the backdrop of Iraq, the tut-tutting, headshaking senior diplomat frowning at the hot-headed idealists playing sorcerer’s apprentice with international statecraft has become one of the defining political images of the moment.

In that sense, the time was perhaps ripe for a good, old-fashioned exercise in Foreign Office nostalgia. Enter Douglas Hurd, or to give him his full title, Baron Hurd of Westwell CH, CBE, PC — the latter, I hasten to add, denoting membership of the Privy Council rather than being a statement about his Lordship’s views on international affairs.

His entertaining new book, Choose Your Weapons, looks at the lives and impact of British Foreign Secretaries from Canning and Castlereagh in the first decades of the 19th century to Eden and Bevin in the middle of the 20th, introducing his readers to a world of British foreign policy-making. One could almost forgive a man who began his career as Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher for lamenting its passing.

Quite early on, in 1814, just after Napoleon’s exile to Elba and in the long run-up to the great Congress of Vienna, which foreshadowed in embryonic form the League of Nations, the United Nations and the system of international diplomacy that governs the world today, Viscount Castlereagh is in Paris. Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister, is in London, but he might just as well have been on the moon. For such was the latitude granted to the Foreign Secretary of the day, that his PM was all but reduced to begging simply to get a sense of what he was up to.

Hurd illustrates the point well, quoting a letter from the PM to the Viscount Castlereagh:

“We have heard nothing from you since the 5th, but I conclude you are too hard at work to have much time to write…As YOUR treaty is to be definitive, there would be some advantage if it were possible that we could see it (to guard against minor errors) before it was actually agreed.” 

If Tony Blair ever wrote letters like that to Jack Straw before the invasion of Iraq, both men have been keeping quiet about it. As Hurd notes, Castlereagh’s dominance over the formulation of foreign policy was such that his Prime Minister and the cabinet had been reduced to the status of proof-readers.

We do things differently now. Partly, this is down to technology. Lord Liverpool could hardly pick up the phone or send an email from his BlackBerry. Partly, too, it is due to the interlocking social and political changes in Britain over the last two centuries that have shifted the balance of power away from a tightly-knit aristocratic elite whose members had largely been educated at the same public schools. Primus inter pares — the principle of cabinet government in which the PM is held to be merely the first among equals — came much more naturally to prime ministers and foreign secretaries in an era when both were independently wealthy. Neither would really leave the establishment even when they left office, and both possibly had their first sexual experiences with each other at Eton or Harrow.

Mass democracy and the advent of mass communications have changed all that — or most of it. From London, through Paris and Berlin to Washington, the buck now stops with the head of government. The foreign ministers and their teams may do the heavy lifting but it is the premiers and the presidents who sign the big deals, do the photo-ops, make the big speeches and take the credit, as well as the flak. 

The era of the big personality (in Britain as elsewhere) stamping his authority on a country’s policies towards the outside world from the foreign ministry is over, as Hurd perhaps hints to us by ending his survey with Anthony Eden in 1955. But there is another dimension to consider. If the growing importance of the PM has tended to pull powers away from the Foreign Secretary from above, there has been a corresponding force pulling powers away from below as the professional diplomats who run our foreign ministries have accumulated unprecedented influence and, one might add, the celebrity that goes with it. 

They have been able to do so in the context of the increasingly bureaucratic nature of international affairs as the UN, the EU and the institutions of international law demand the ceding of ever more powers from the nation state. With the growing power of such institutions we are witnessing nothing less than what the dissident Yugoslav Marxist writer Milovan Djilas referred to in a different context as the emergence of a “new class”, which sees international diplomacy as both an end in itself and a means to exercise power for themselves. It is they, after all, who form the natural constituency from which the leaders of the global institutions are drawn.

With the emergence of this new class has come an ideological edifice to sustain it. Hence the Foreign Office’s ill feeling towards the US, the one Western power that international institutions cannot easily contain. Hence its support for the EU — a counterweight to the US and a handy option for jobs and security. 

Hence its propensity to side against Israel in order to preserve good relations with the dictatorships and tyrannies whose co-operation is essential for the effective pursuit of multilateralism — the Holy Grail of the new class’s global ambitions.

How the world has changed from the one Lord Hurd describes. Two centuries ago, Castlereagh, then Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, and Canning, then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, stood opposite each other, pistols drawn on a damp September morning on Putney Heath. They had disagreed over the Walcheren expedition to Holland, which Canning had seen as an unnecessary diversion from more pressing matters on the Iberian Peninsula. Even in those days, the two men’s behaviour was considered scandalous. Today, it would just seem pointless.