The natural diplomat. Patient, courteous and highly respected, Douglas Hurd was a moderating influence throughout his years in government. But he was considered too much of a toff to be prime minister. Malcolm Rifkind remembers life at the Foreign Office


Douglas Hurd <em>Little, Brown, 534pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0316861472

These memoirs are unusual for a cabinet minister. They really are about the life of the author. They are neither a political apologia nor a potted history of our times. Douglas Hurd devotes less than half of these 500-plus pages to his 11 years as a cabinet minister. Yet no fewer than 33 pages cover his schooldays at Eton, while 136 deal with his time as a young diplomat and then as a backroom aide to Ted Heath.

I became an MP on the same day as Hurd, in 1974, and left on the same day in 1997 (although in his case the departure was voluntary). We were junior ministers together at the Foreign Office under Francis Pym. We were close colleagues for more than three years when he was foreign secretary and I was minister of defence. I was his preferred successor as foreign secretary in 1995. But it has taken these memoirs for me to begin to understand this intensely able but rather shy and very private man.

In public, he has always come across as slightly stiff and very reserved. Even in private, breaking through the carapace has been difficult. And yet this gives an inadequate picture of the man. He may have been an austere classical scholar at school and university, but he is also the author of several, rather good, political thrillers. He may be formal but he has a splendid sense of humour. He may have little small talk but he has also, it is clear, a capacity for intense friendship.

His time at Eton was clearly one of the most powerful influences on his future life. Most of us have only one or two close friends from our schooldays. Most of our real friendships are made when we become more mature, during our university years or at the beginning of our careers. Hurd remarks that he has ten or 12 close friends and that half of these friendships were formed at Eton 60 years ago.

Being an Etonian has been a mixed blessing to his political fortunes. Combined with Cambridge, it gave him an impressive academic and intellectual training for which he was highly suited. But it also gave him the manner, bearing and reputation of a toff. This did him no favours in 1990 when he stood for the leadership to try to succeed Margaret Thatcher, the grocer's daughter, and beat John Major, the lad from Brixton.

In vain did Hurd protest that he was merely the son of a hard-working tenant farmer and had won a scholarship to Eton. The public insisted on seeing him as the grandson of an MP, the son of a peer, and an archetypal public schoolboy. Hurd's background was far more modest than most people realised, but Wiltshire was a long way from Brixton and Hurd never had a chance against Major.

If he had won, he would have been a highly respected and thoroughly competent prime minister. He would have been spared the unfair accusations of those who doubted John Major's fitness for the office throughout his tenure. But he would have been less likely than Major to have won the 1992 general election and Britain would have lost an outstanding foreign secretary.

Hurd was a natural diplomat: patient, courteous, thorough, and well aware that foreign policy rarely develops by leaps and bounds. He was acutely conscious that Britain was no longer a Great Power; indeed, that there weren't any great powers apart from the United States. But on a range of issues, from Hong Kong and the collapsing Soviet Union to Bosnia and the Middle East, he maximised British influence and combined a world vision with dogged attention to detail. He was a doughty pugilist for a Britain that, in his own words, "punched above its weight".

Throughout his time in government he was a force for moderation but he does sometimes, in the book, make himself out to be more saintly than he actually is. For example, referring to his first job under Margaret Thatcher, as a shadow minister for Europe in 1976, he says that he could not have served under her "had she held then the views about Europe which she professes now". He forgets that this is precisely what he did do when he became her last foreign secretary in 1989. He spent the following year trying to mollify the rest of Europe as she became increasingly strident in her denunciations of Brussels.

Likewise, did he really feel only a "tinge of jealousy" when, in July 1989, Geoffrey Howe was sacked from the Foreign Office and John Major was appointed to replace him? By Major's admission he was totally unqualified for the job and Hurd was the obvious candidate. It must have seemed then that he would never be foreign secretary. He would have been entitled to have been furious. In his own polite, restrained way, I bet he was.

Europe and Bosnia were the two issues that caused him most pain during his time at the Foreign Office. A pragmatist on European union, he was an indispensable ally to John Major during the Maastricht years, determined to prevent British isolation but also able to negotiate the crucial compromises that are an unavoidable part of international diplomacy. He is entitled to be proud of what was achieved, under his tenure, in protecting British interests but even Hurd occasionally allows the wish to be father to the thought. Thus he claims that the "subsidiarity clause", agreed at Maastricht, and allowing the Europeans to act collectively only where action at the national level would not meet the need, "has shaped the course of Europe ever since". That may have been the aspiration but it does not seem to have made much difference to Giscard's Convention, nor to current French and German policy.

Bosnia was the most demanding problem, and one we worked on together. It is ironic that most of the criticism one hears today accuses the British and other Europeans of doing too little to end the war. At the time, we spent most of our time - in the cabinet, in the House of Commons and in the media - fending off the allegation that we were doing too much; that we were gradually being sucked into someone else's civil war. In retrospect, my only serious doubt is whether the arms embargo should have been sustained so long, given the disproportionate damage it was doing to the Bosnian Muslims who had, unlike the Bosnian Serbs, no arms of their own. But whatever judgements others may make, Hurd deserves much of the credit for the presence of thousands of British peacekeepers in Bosnia which ensured that tens of thousands of lives were saved by humanitarian supplies.

I began by saying that these are unusual memoirs because they combine the grand affairs of state with the intensely personal events that live with us for ever. Sometimes, these two come together rather memorably. On one visit to Saudi Arabia, Hurd was in the shower when he received an urgent message that Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, would see him at once. He quickly got out and began to dress. As he pulled up the zip of his trousers it broke. No other trousers were available. Duty called.

As a result, in his own words, he "conducted (with Prince Saud) a rather important conversation in a posture which experts had told me was rather offensive in the Arab world: one thigh firmly clamped over the other. It seemed to me that the gaping alternative would be considerably more offensive."

Such are the trials and tribulations of a foreign minister.

Malcolm Rifkind was foreign secretary from 1995-97

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