Monday, January 19, 2004

"Memoirs" by Douglas Hurd

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The end of "Noblesse oblige"

Former British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd had the sort of career for which the phrase “noblesse oblige” could have been coined. Not that Hurd regarded himself as being of particularly noble origins and he was clearly irritated by those who thought him to be a toff. “I was far from patrician” he says, “…my suits were made in Swindon rather than Saville Row.” The implication is that if he had been more proletarian then it would have been he, rather than John Major, who would have been elected Prime Minister in 1990 after the fall of Margaret Thatcher. He seems to think that the fact that hewas an Old Etonian scuppered his chances. I rather doubt this not because Hurd was not up to the task but because I am not persuaded by his “memoirs” that he really, in his heart, wanted the top job.

As you would expect from a man who benefited from the very best of English education (Eton, and Trinity Cambridge) who was a scholar and who graduated with a “First” in History this is a beautifully written book. The language is elegant, readable and never pretentious and here Hurd’s apprenticeship as a novelist has clearly helped. It is also not a purely politicians autobiography and he rarely sounds off portentously about the great affairs of state. Where he was directly involved or responsible for policy then that is described. But where he was not involved directly in the decision making he forswears comment – even though he must have been very close to the action. The memoirs are blessedly free of economics – Hurd was never Chancellor of the Exchequer, no doubt to his great relief. This makes his post politics venture as a Bank director slightly odd, but he no doubt acted as a skilled diplomat and had the highest level contacts which is presumably what the Nat West Bank wanted.
Hurd was one of the few career diplomats actually to become Foreign Secretary and one can see that he must have been very popular amongst the Foreign Office mandarins as “one of us”. He really understood the system in a way that few of his predecessors and none of his successors have managed to do. He claims throughout the book to have politics of the centre left rather than the mainstream centre right of his party. I do not doubt that this was how he saw it – but I see few signs of a really radical streak. He was more likely to keep his more liberal thoughts to himself than to fight the boss – Mrs Thatcher was rather ruthless with those that challenged her too much from the “wet” left leaning wing of the party. But Hurd was solid in his principles and his life long opposition to Capital Punishment is both honourable and a sign that he generally put principle before short term populism.
When you have read a biography or an autobiography ideally you feel not only that you know what the subject did, but also what he or she was as a person but Douglas Hurd’s “memoirs” leave many questions unanswered. He is very uncomfortable with revealing any of the more personal details of his life. For example there were two traumatic events which get rather reserved treatment. When Hurd was twenty-one his two years younger brother Julian committed suicide. This terrible and inexplicable event must have been harrowing, but even today Hurd does not describe it in his own words. He quotes form his mother’s diaries rather than say what it meant to him. Similarly his divorce from his first wife Tatania after fifteen years of marriage is not really explained. He talks of disagreements and storms but what they disagreed about and why it was all so stormy is not explained. I think that the failure to express his feelings about his brother’s death is that it was an event too painful to put into words – even for as accomplished wordsmith as Douglas Hurd. The decision not to describe the reasons for the breakdown of his marriage to Tatania is good manners – she is still alive and Hurd no doubt feels that it is really none of anybody’s business why their marriage failed and that it would be out of order to explain. No doubt Tatania will be pleased to see that their courtship is described in the short sentence “The two of us fell in love.” This contrasts noticeably with the more convoluted description “on my part one set of feelings grew into another, warmer and stronger” in respect of his second marriage to Judy. At the end of the book he writes movingly of Judy’s battle with leukaemia and it is clear that theirs has been a loving and successful marriage.
Hurd is, in the main, discrete about his colleagues and about his family partly to protect his reputation and partly, as I have said, out of good manners. Regrettably he does not tell his side of the story about the oft repeated anecdote that at Eton he was a notoriously avid doler out of corporal punishment which lead to his nickname being “Hitler Hurd." Many Britons in public life today, for instance, have recalled being flogged by Hurd and often mentions these canings as a mark of pride!Looking at today’s bunch of British politicians one wishes that there were a few more like Douglas Hurd. His memoirs tell the story of his life and times with honesty, discretion and at times with an air of almost diffident commentary on his success. To know more about Hurd the man, however, we will have to wait for a more penetrating personal biography. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.