Hurd and Young: Choose Your Weapons

At the Hay Festival this year one event that I went to was Douglas Hurd and Edward Young talking about their book Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary 200 Years of Argument, Success and Failure. It was a brilliant discussion, with Hurd showing a level of knowledge and understanding of foreign affairs that was impressive, and also making his arguments with great clarity and thought.

One nice moment was when the panel were asked if they felt that the Iraq war was still damaging the United Kingdom in Eurovision. Edward Young replied that he felt we lost this year because the song wasn’t very good to general murmurs of approval.

More poignant was Hurd’s response when the New Labour “ethical foreign policy” (or “foreign policy with an ethical dimension”) was raised in the discussion. This is also included in the book. The authors make the point that “it is sometimes the duty of a Foreign Secretary to deal courteously with villains” (p312) and observe that meeting and talking is not “an act of surrender but of good sense” (p369). It should be noted that the UK engaged with people that could be described as villains throughout the Labour government. I do remember feeling that change was needed in 1997, but looking back I can’t see a great improvement that Cook claimed he could make. Hurd was quite clear at Hay that he felt the Conservative foreign policy had an ethical dimension, but that this is not a simple matter.

I found the book very interesting. Hurd and Young’s style is very readable. It could be said to be dry, but there is enough human interest to make up for this.

I would strongly suggest that you don’t drop this book on the foot of your wife (or anyone else you care about). I think I’ve been forgiven, but the book hasn’t.

The centrepiece of the book is a comparison between (Conservative) constructive diplomacy and (Liberal) interventionism and adventure. Or to put it another way between Castlereagh’s attempt to create a system of treaties after the Napoleonic war and Canning’s wish to intervene. Hurd looks at appeasement as sometimes positive.

The initial discussion at Hay set up Hurd as the defender of quiet diplomacy, and Young as the advocate of loud interventionism. In fact reading the book, although it is clear that Hurd has a preference for joint working and avoiding conflict, and a suspicion of intervention and threat of intervention, it is clear that both authors see the need for both strands of foreign policy. The epilogue which looks at recent developments and events makes this clear.

On a small scale I learnt the origins of the word Jingo (p145), and came across the original meaning of filibuster (p195; odd this I hadn’t ever heard it in the freebooter sense until about a week ago, and then I heard it several times). At a more significant level I found the discussion of the role of the British, and in particular Canning as then foreign secretary, in the origins of the Monroe Doctrine very interesting. The fact that the US could only issue this due to the power of the British is neatly compared to later situations where the British needed US support.

The chapters usually set up a contrast between two people, usually rivals for the position of foreign secretary. This is usually seen as a variation on the two strands outlined above, sometimes more convincingly than others. The problem with this is that, as the authors make clear, it often isn’t that simple. Lord Aberdeen seems to be destroyed by the failure of his quiet policy leading to the Crimean war, whilst louder interventionists might have their bluffs called.

Another theme that is looked at quietly, and perhaps could have been made louder, is the role of the cabinet and the Prime Minister. Derby used the cabinet to block Disraeli over intervention in disputes between Russia and Turkey. Eden resigned in 1938 when he couldn’t persuade the cabinet to block the PM’s (Chamberlain) personal diplomacy with Italy. The unspoken message is that the Cabinet should be powerful enough to check the PM, and that the PM should give the Foreign Secretary space to run foreign policy is clear. The latter belief would appear to come from, or be strengthened by, Hurd’s time under Thatcher, the latter from experiences under Blair. We can but hope that coalition might have the effect of reinvigorating cabinet.

This book has made me consider what should be included in foreign policy, and there are several points raised by it that I shall return to in other posts. A good read. Can anyone suggest any other books about British foreign policy to compare and contrast with?

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1 Comment

Filed under books, edward young, foreign policy, Hay, hay festival, hurd, Tories

One response to “Hurd and Young: Choose Your Weapons

  1. Anthony Nutting's "No end of a lesson" gives a view of a particular episode that went badly wrong and in which the then PM misled parliament. More general is "Splendid Isolation" which deals in the main with Lord Salisbury's foreign policy (keep away from foreign interventionism, with the exception of the Empire!). What about hurd's "The Peacemakers"?

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