First Thoughts: The real lesson of the Darroch memos, memories of the moon landings and Bonar Law

The furore about the British ambassador's leaked cables on the Trump administration ignored the exposure of a deeper, more enduring truth about UK foreign policy.

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In presenting its exclusive on the leaked cables to Downing Street and the Foreign Office from Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to Washington, the Mail on Sunday chose to highlight the scathing comments about Trump and his administration. Other media followed suit. Trump was “inept”, “insecure” and “incompetent”, Darroch wrote. The White House was dogged by “vicious infighting and chaos”.

This was hardly news. Darroch was telling his employers in London nothing they could not have gleaned from countless media reports. Nor were Mail readers being told anything surprising. But the cables contained something more revealing, which the paper buried on an inside page: Darroch’s advice to ministers and officials on how to deal with Trump. First, they should “flood the zone”, cultivating the president’s friends to ensure they all gave him the same messages on issues involving British interests. Second, Theresa May should personally telephone Trump “two or three times a month if not more”. Third, Darroch advised: “You need to start praising him for something that he’s done recently. You need whenever possible to present them as wins for him.”

My guess is that ministers followed this advice. When Christopher Meyer was appointed ambassador in 1997, Tony Blair’s aide Jonathan Powell reportedly instructed him “to get up the arse of the White House and stay there”. That remains British policy whoever is president and, by largely ignoring Darroch’s expression of it, the media, I think, missed the more important story.

The Downing Street bubble

When I say ministers could have gleaned Trump’s failings from media reports, I do not mean that they necessarily did so. One should never underestimate the extent to which prime ministers in particular live in a bubble, oblivious to what is common knowledge outside Downing Street. In his memoirs, Meyer records that, when President Clinton faced impeachment over his sexual misdeeds, Blair asked: “What exactly is the charge against Clinton? I mean, what is he supposed to have done?”

Prime-ministerial parallels

If Boris Johnson, born on the Upper East Side, New York, wins the Tory leadership contest, he will be only our second prime minister born outside the UK. The first was Andrew Bonar Law, born in New Brunswick, then a British colony, and brought to Scotland, the country of his mother’s birth, when he was 12. Johnson, who came to England as a baby, may turn out to have something else in common with Bonar Law. After becoming Conservative PM in 1922, the latter served for just 211 days, making his tenure in Downing Street (ended by a diagnosis of terminal cancer) the shortest of the 20th century. Many commentators predict that Johnson won’t last as long as that.

Is there another, more surprising, analogy? Bonar Law has been called “the unknown prime minister”. He served as chancellor and leader of the House of Commons, and began his first spell as Tory leader as early as 1911, but to contemporaries he remained mysterious because he was an outsider: his family was Scots-Irish, he didn’t attend an English public school (he went to the selective Glasgow High School, which now charges fees) or university, and his money came from an ironworks business.

Dour, provincial, Presbyterian, melancholy, conscientious, upright, honest and modest, Bonar Law was unlike Johnson in almost every respect. But who knows what Johnson really thinks?

Is he at heart a Remainer or Leaver, a One Nation Tory or a Thatcherite, a liberal or a reactionary? Would he send British troops to fight in US-led wars? What would a Johnson government do about schools, health and social care? Beyond his lifelong habit of doing and saying whatever he
reckons will advance his career, nobody has the answers to these questions. If Johnson is out by October, as some predict, he too could go down in history as an unknown prime minister.

Space oddity

Before humans walked on the moon, 50 years ago this month, writers including Lucian (a second century Syrian), Jules Verne, HG Wells, John Wyndham and Arthur C Clarke envisaged mankind’s first landing. But I don’t think any predicted that the world would watch on live TV, as I did, seeing the “one small step” at 3.56am with 22 million fellow Britons. Even more impossible to predict was David Frost’s ten-hour Moon Party on ITV, featuring Cliff Richard, Engelbert Humperdinck, Lulu, Cilla Black and the science fiction novelist Ray Bradbury. The all-purpose American entertainer Sammy Davis Jr and the historian AJP Taylor discussed the ethics of space exploration. Humperdinck, unaccustomed to such marathon broadcasting, passed out twice and had to see a doctor. Bradbury, distressed by such lightweight company, stormed out and went to the studios of America’s CBS where, by then rather emotional, he explained: “This is an effort to become immortal. We’re going to take our seed… and… plant it on other worlds and then we won’t have to ask ourselves the question of death ever again.”

Half a century later, our seed remains earthbound. As someone once said, predictions are dangerous, particularly about the future.

Business as usual

There is something rather comforting about British sport reverting to normality: England out in the semi-finals of the Fifa Women’s World Cup, all Britons out of the Wimbledon men’s singles. If England win the cricket World Cup for the first time – I am writing before the semi-final – I shall be astonished. To be sure, they have beaten all-comers in one-day internationals over the past four years. But all my life, English cricket success has lasted just a few years before ending in spectacular collapse, usually on a tour of Australia. Maybe it will be different this time, but I shall find it unsettling if it is. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in