I have just greatly enjoyed reading Douglas Hurd’s book
“ Choose your weapons….the British Foreign Secretary , 200 years of Argument , Success and Failure”.
Hurd has had a distinguished career, including as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is an excellent writer. He combines historical analysis with vivid sketches of political personalities.
Published in 2010, this book shows how the life experiences and assumptions of successive Foreign Secretaries influence the content and outcome of diplomatic policies.
There is a tension , throughout this long period , between two views of how Britain should conduct itself in its relations with its European neighbours.
One view was that the UK should seek to create , and take part in a structure of consultation which would help preserve peace in Europe.
The best exponent of this approach was an Irishman, originally an MP in the pre Union Irish Parliament, Lord Castlereagh. He helped to ensure that a defeated France was not humiliated in 1815. Arguably his work in the Congress of Vienna and afterwards helped preserve relative peace in Europe until 1914.
The other view was that the UK should be somewhat more isolationist, intervening to promote liberal causes, but not becoming entangled in Europe. Lord Palmerston was the best exponent of this approach. There were others who were less flamboyant.
Some figures that are forgotten today get due notice in this book.
The role of Ernest Bevin in helping found NATO, and thereby committing the US to the defence of Europe, is recalled and is very relevant to events today , and to the peace of Europe for the last 70 years.
Another figure who get deserved recognition is Austen Chamberlain, the author of the Locarno Pact which reintegrated Germany into good relations with its neighbours and could have kept peace in Europe but for the economic crash and the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s.
Unlike his half brother, Neville, Austen warned of the danger of Hitler before any other British leader, including Churchill.
The relative economic power of Britain peaked around 1870 and was in slow decline thereafter. But the fact that so many parts of the world were still coloured pink on the map as part of the British Empire led some statesmen to overestimate British power.
In the earlier periods the Foreign Secretary made policy under mild supervision from the Prime Minister. Nowadays the Prime Minister is more central, but a lot depends on personalities.
Anthony Eden was a good and methodical Foreign Secretary , who became a bad Prime Minister , because he had no strong Foreign Secretary to restrain him over Suez.
The UK today is isolating itself in a dangerous way. It is conversing with itself , rather than with its neighbours . None of the statesmen chronicled in this book would have allowed that to happen.