Moody swore. “Michael Crick’s bailed on us.” He hadn’t bailed on us actually – he’s much too nice for that. It turned out he’d been delayed. All the same it felt like bailing as we returned to the tent. Ponces that we aspire to be, the two of us had sojourned to Gloucestershire for a spot of hob-nobbing at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. But it looked as if our plans, like the armies of Darius, would be trampled to dust in the Companion charge of Crick deciding to go back to London.
Told we could hang around for Jonathan Powell, we departed to a tea-tent. Immediately upon arrival we were told he’d gone home. So, we decided, would we. But at a table near us sat an elderly man who looked oddly familiar. “It’s Douglas Hurd” McGhee said warily. “I remember him from Spitting Image”. After briefly reminding Moody who he was (Cicero being the most recent politico the Lit. Humanist knew anything about), it was decided we’d angle Hurd for an interview. Bribed with the Baconian triptych of smiles, coffee and us being from Oxford, the Great Man stepped into the breach like a natural.
McGhee, aka the new Bob Woodward, was less than quick off the mark. “OK, so you were Foreign Secretary- I’m trying to remember off the top of my head…” Unstunned by ignorance in one so young, Hurd was utterly charming. “1989 to 1995”. Er, right. Was that his greatest achievement? “I really don’t know. I suppose I don’t think in terms of climbing up some mountain and planting your own silly flag at the top. I’d really just rather have steered the ship of state well, between the rocks- and there are many rocks to get caught on.” When Thatcher resigned in 1990 Hurd stood against John Major and Michael Heseltine for the Conservative leadership, coming a distant third. It doesn’t seem to rattle him- although, as he admits, “I would have liked to have been PM”.
Hurd does not consider himself a Thatcherite in terms of economic policy. “Nor would she regard me as such. But I was acceptable.” Hurd in the early seventies was political secretary to Edward Heath, who though a Conservative ran a noticeably left-of-centre government. How did Hurd reconcile this with the privatisations of Thatcher? “Margaret Thatcher knew that I’d worked for Ted and been loyal to Ted. She valued loyalty and thought there was a reasonable chance that I’d be loyal to her, which I was. It was not an issue which presented itself. The various things which she might have done which I’d have had to resign over were to do with Europe and other things like that. But she never crossed those boundaries.”
When asked of her greatest achievement, Thatcher famously responded “New Labour”. Hurd is not so clear about this, and the seventies man within him is most concerned with one defining problem of that era. “I think the sense in which she was right was that they left alone what I think probably was her main achievement, which was dealing with the trade unions. Blair always went sideways on that. So in that sense we persuaded them- she persuaded them- to leave that alone. That was absolutely crucial. And that’s now an established fact I don’t think any Labour government would try and sink things with the trade unions.”
But this is all politics for old men and young nerds. Hurd was at Eton and Trinity Cambridge; after a spell in the diplomatic corps he became a politician. “By knocking the direct-grant schools on the head, the Labour government of that time more or less destroyed one of the main avenues for people moving from the state education sector into politics. Ted Heath, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan… the avenue by which they rose is now shut off to people. We’re moving back to a world of Old Etonians.” Hurd is clearly concerned by what it says about social mobility. He is also worried about the impact on British democracy. “My father, who was an MP, said that if I wanted to do that I’ve got to go off and do something else first. So I went and became a diplomat. It’s a bad thing that we have a Political Class. Constituencies ought to give a fair run to people who may be in their fifties, who’ve got many years ahead of them as opposed to youthful professional politicians. So you need all people, you need a House of Commons with a good mix in. We’re in danger of forgetting that.”
His own education he didn’t find hugely important. Is Oxbridge useful? “Well it wasn’t a preparation for the real world. But it’s worth struggling for. What I most enjoy now is history- reading history, writing history. it’s been refuelling my interest in history. Since that’s now my main mission, an academic education was important to me. Though I don’t think it was important to me in becoming Home Secretary or Foreign Secretary. It gave me a certain balance though.”
His experience in foreign policy puts him in an eagle’s nest, able to look with detachment on the increasingly complex world. This applies to the big issues. He was opposed at the time to Iraq and remains, of course, opposed to it. “I was opposed on the basis of ideas and on the basis of pragmatism. The main problem was the junior partner of the United States has certain rights, one of the rights is not to dictate policy, but to insist on answers to some of the big questions. We failed to answer big questions. Blair should have done so: about what would happen when the statue of Saddam Hussein lay in the gutter, how we should run Iraq and on what basis. These were questions which were not put. I think that Margaret Thatcher for example, she would have been desperately anxious to help the Americans. That was her whole instinct. But she would also have demanded answers to these questions: she would have fished a list of things out of her handbag. In the Falklands she tried hard to get American support. That in her mind was a matter of principle, in the way the Iraq war was not. The Iraq war was not a necessary war, it was an option.”
Being a Tory makes Hurd rather optimistic about Britain’s role on the world stage. “Britain’s world position will always stay fairly high. I don’t say that we’ll be in the same league as India and China or the United States. But I think there will never be a time when people forget to worry about Britain’s stance or where Britain is. That’s partly a matter of history and partly a matter of present-day assets. It will be founded on achievement. We have been a successful society which has solved some of the main problems in our society, particularly the relationship between the people and the state, I think we’ve got that about right now. We also have assets: higher education is a big asset, as is the intelligence service, the armed services, the diplomatic services. We do these better than most people. We offer the example of how to run a state successfully, but we’re not going to ram that example down people’s throats. We do have a broadly successful experience.”
It is announced he is leaving; so he does. Randomly bumping into people seems us a good way of running a paper. And when the people are as intelligent, laid-back and just plain nice as Douglas Hurd, perhaps we should try it more often. He seems to be supportive of it. “Good hunting, gentlemen.”