David Hannay: A clear-eyed assessor of British power

Britain’s Quest for a Role - review.

David Hannay and Madeleine Albright at the UN in 1995
David Hannay and Madeleine Albright at the UN in 1995. Photograph: Getty Images

Britain’s Quest for a Role: a Diplomatic Memoir from Europe to the UN
David Hannay
I B Tauris, 320pp, £30

David Hannay provides a sure-footed guide to his professional career in which he established himself as one of our most clearsighted diplomats. Reading again his succinct prose, I was reminded of distant days when, as foreign secretary, I would enter my office in King Charles Street with a question on my lips: “Anything in from New York yet?” Since leaving the office the previous evening, I’d have sent Hannay a set of instructions or, just as likely, a request for advice on what those instructions might be to deal with the current crisis.

By happy accident of the calendar, David would have had time to work out his answer while I was asleep. His reply would be on my desk the next morning. I knew in advance that he would answer my questions in whatever detail was needed but never wandering far from the critical issue. Sometimes I needed to read between the lines to unearth any point on which Britain’s permanent representative to the United Nations believed that we were in danger of straying from that central issue. Always his advice would be based on a thoroughly professional analysis in which any point of disagreement would be skilfully presented so as to reveal his own mind without any open or blatant challenge to mine.

Hannay’s whole career had been a preparation for those moments in New York. It had begun with postings to the embassies in Tehran and Kabul. The photographs in this book reveal a young Hannay never far from the point where a decision might be required. And it seemed inevitable that his career should be centripetal, at each stage bringing him nearer to the places where the big decisions were taken.

In the old days, these might have been the embassies in Paris or St Petersburg. By the middle of the 20th century, they were more likely to be in New York or Brussels; so the two posts for which Hannay will be best remembered are head of the British Mission to the UN in New York and permanent representative at the EU in Brussels. The exception that proves the rule was his time at the embassy in Washington in 1984-85. Washington is different from other overseas postings because there one is never far from the centre of the world. Hannay deals neatly with the essential question around which work at that embassy revolves. He accepts that Britain has a special relationship with the US, but insists that this is not the special relationship. We should have learned this by now.

At present, that relationship is reasonably robust and it is overwhelmingly in the UK’s interest to keep it this way. However, any crisis on a global scale provides a test of Anglo-American relations; in practice, this means that crises such as those in Libya or Syria raise the question of our usefulness to them. One thing seems certain: if we insist on erecting notices saying “Special relationship – keep out”, that will be a formula the US can never be expected to recognise. When it comes to the crunch, the question is never about American usefulness to us but about what we offer them. This test is applied by the Americans at least once a decade.

So far, after some difficult times, we have managed to adapt our policy to suit the needs of the alliance, though sometimes paying a heavy price (the American loan negotiations in 1946, Suez in 1956 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003). The outcome in Afghanistan is still unclear, though the price in terms of British casualties has certainly been heavy.

All this is relevant to one of Hannay’s main themes, namely our relationships in Europe. As the years have passed our attitudes within Europe have become steadily more negative. Anyone interested in the subject should read Hannay’s meticulous account of the negotiations, in which he took part, for British entry to what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). Britain’s fatal mistake in his view was the failure of successive postwar Labour and Conservative governments to take seriously the move towards European unity. If, in those early days, we had taken a full part in the discussions among the six signatories to the Treaty of Rome on agriculture and fisheries, Ted Heath would not have been confronted with an unwelcome fait accompli when he began his negotiations on behalf of the Macmillan government that culminated in Charles de Gaulle’s veto of British membership in January 1963. On fish, in particular, Hannay believes that Heath’s settlement of 1972 was inadequate.

After Britain’s entry to the EEC in 1973, the main battleground was the question of the British contribution to the European budget. Heath had achieved an undertaking during his negotiations that if the budgetary arrangements produced an “unacceptable situation” for a member state, then the EEC should meet to find a remedy.

Margaret Thatcher invoked this clause negotiated by her predecessor in the summer of 1979. There followed nearly five years of argument, which fell into three phases. In the first, Peter Carrington and Ian Gilmour managed to achieve an interim settlement, winning a rebate for three years. By chance, I happened to be at Chequers for a meeting on the Middle East when the two ministers reported back to Thatcher and was a dumb but fascinated witness to her initial resistance followed by her agreement that this could be treated as a notable victory for her own persistence. The second phase ended with the collapse of the effort to achieve a long-term system. The third, from 1982 to 1984, culminated in the final agreement on a British rebate at Fontainebleau in June 1984. Although he questioned her timing and tactics, Hanny believes that none of the other British prime ministers for whom he worked could have got a better deal than Thatcher, “and several would probably have settled for something inferior”.

In September 1988, Thatcher set out her own views on Europe in a speech at Bruges. Rereading that address nearly 25 years after it was first delivered, Hannay wonders what all the fuss was about. That was exactly my feeling at the time. As he points out, it was not the content of the speech but the spin put on it by Thatcher’s spokesman Bernard Ingham that caused the trouble. Ingham stressed the passages in which the prime minister criticised the European Commission’s plans for the future and represented them as an attempt to create a socialist Europe and roll back everything that she had achieved during her years as prime minister.

“And so,” he writes, “I sat in the medieval splendour of Bruges Town Hall surrounded by a galaxy of commissioners and permanent representatives and watched my hopes of presenting Britain’s European policies in a positive rather than a negative light going up in smoke”.

Hannay’s native caution holds him back when he discusses personalities, and the most vivid sketches are of those of whom he approved. Chief among these are Geoffrey Howe, foreign secretary from 1983 to 1989, and Christopher Soames, for whom he served as chef de cabinet during Soames’s tenure as a European commissioner. “What Soames lacked in detail of knowledge of the instruments of trade policy . . . he more than made up for with his political flair, the warmth and persuasiveness of his powerful personality and his capacity to absorb complicated issues and to cut through them to the essential points”. Soames had his critics, but he remains the model of a modern British commissioner.

Is it all now to do again? Are we aged veterans required to look for our armour and put it on to defend positions we thought we had conquered years ago? It sometimes seems so. I am somewhat surprised to read the current Chancellor of the Exchequer urging our partners to take further steps towards economic integration, while taking it for granted that Britain would not join any such enterprise. I follow his logic but marvel at his conclusion. It has been an unspoken principle of British foreign policy since the days of Castlereagh that we should be present whenever Europeans discuss matters that could affect vital British interests.

Hannay reminds us of the causes for which we struggled in his time – completing the single market, liberalising world trade with Europe in the lead, strengthening foreign policy co-operation, encouraging the enlargement of the European Community, reforming the Common Agricultural Policy. They need updating in detail but the principles that underlie them remain valid and add up to a coherent and defensible programme.

In particular, it is not too late to argue for a united European policy to cope with the problems created for us by Russia under the rule of Vladimir Putin. What is at stake is Britain’s influence in the world. The institutions of Europe may seem bedraggled and incoherent today but they often did in the past too. And in the past we – both Britain and Europe, that is – have shown strong powers of recuperation that are badly needed today.

Hannay goes on to describe his time as the UK’s chief representative at the United Nations. The beginning of his tenure there was dominated by the success of the US-led coalition in expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. This operation was conducted with the full support and co-operation of the UN, which passed the specific resolution authorising the use of force. I look back on this exercise as the most striking example of an effective world coalition in action under the leadership of the US.

There is a vivid contrast here with the long-drawn-out effort by the United Nations to bring to an end the fighting in Bosnia that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1992. Despite numerous efforts at peacemaking, the war dragged miserably on until it was ended by the agreement reached at Dayton in 1995. No one can be sure whether a more robust attitude, including the use of military force against the Serbs, would have brought the war to an earlier end. Hannay believes this is likely and he may be right.

However, the appetite for armed intervention in such cases ebbs and flows with the success or failure of the most recent attempts. We are now living in the aftermath of the messy American-led intervention in Iraq in 2003. The unpopularity of this adventure casts a shadow over any attempt to intervene now in Syria to stop the killing there. Hannay traces the efforts of the UN, in which he was involved, to produce a more systematic set of rules on intervention. The result has been the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect”, which holds the field today, though it is ominously challenged by the Russians and the Chinese.

Hannay played a gallant part in the task of updating the international institutions on which the peace and prosperity of the world to a large extent depend. He understands the danger of these institutions rusting away and becoming unfit for purpose. We shall need plenty of new Hannays if the opportunities of this century are not to be thrown away.

Douglas Hurd, a Conservative peer, served as foreign secretary from 1989 to 1995