Choose Your Weapons, By Douglas Hurd

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The Independent Culture

Douglas Hurd has done the impossible. Together with his co-author, Edward Young, he has produced a page-turning book about the history of British foreign policy. At the Chatham House launch party for this account of foreign secretaries since the end of the 18th century, Hurd was feted by John Major, Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine and Tristan Garel Jones.

Not a single member of today's Conservative foreign affairs team bothered to turn up. Perhaps the new puritans overseeing Commons expenses should allow copies to be bought for William Hague and his team of Europhobic isolationists.

The overarching lesson of Hurd's book is that there are no overarching lessons from history on the conduct of foreign policy. Everyone today condemns Tony Blair over Iraq - as does Hurd, while skating over the disasters of pre-1997 foreign policy like the appeasement of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, Britain's Pontius Pilate-like washing of hands as 8000 European Muslims were murdered at Srebrenica, or the alienation of America and loss of influence in Europe associated with the Major premiership.

But what to make of Castlereagh's decision to wage a terror assault on Copenhagen in 1807? Then thousands of innocent Danish women and children were slaughtered by the Royal Navy on the dubious pretext that Denmark might ally herself with Napoleon. Dodgy dossiers floated around Whitehall and Westminster to justify this savage assault. Or take Palmerston's blockade of Athens because a Gibraltar trader had been roughed up; or the ruthless imposition of British might on China when the hapless Chinese tried to ban the opium trade.

These acts were all hailed and won support in the Commons. In fact, as Hurd shows, public opinion has a major impact on policy. Sometimes for the good, as Britain sought to outlaw the slave trade by mounting a blockade of Africa in the early 19th century, even though the international lawyers of the day insisted there was no legal sanction. Hurd reveals how the FO hid, destroyed or re-wrote documents to secure Commons and press support for this bullying aggression.

On the whole, Hurd avoids judgementalism. This is fine narrative history but informed by Hurd's own experience. He was in the thick of government decisions, including Edward Heath's decision to join Europe.

Hurd has dug up a remarkable document: William Pitt's 1805 memorandum calling for a "general Pacification" of Europe based on a treaty to "establish a general and comprehensive system of Public Law in Europe." Some 150 years later, Pitt's vision of a pacified Europe under public law took shape in the Treaty of Rome. But no thanks to British foreign secretaries.

Labour's Ernest Bevin can lay claim to be the greatest 20th century foreign secretary, as he shaped Nato, the Marshall Plan, the Council of Europe and its human rights court, the OECD, as well as granting India and Pakistan statehood. But he failed to get in on the ground floor of European construction in 1950. His Tory successor Anthony Eden's two main foreign policy decisions were to collude in the overthrow of the elected Iranian government and to invade Suez in 1956. We are still living with the consequences of these blunders. Eden also dismissed British involvement in Europe. It took a further two decades for Heath, advised by his political secretary, Douglas Hurd himself, to bring Britain into Pitt's vision of what Europe might be.

The tension between intervention and isolationism runs through this book, with Hurd concluding that not every intervention is justified but that isolationism is always counter-productive. In the 1930s, Britain adopted a policy of non-intervention in Spain as the Royal Navy stopped oil from Mexico defending Spanish democracy from fascism. Hitler took due note.

Today, do we intervene in Iran or allow its leaders to develop a nuclear bomb and carry out their genocidal threat against Jews in Israel? Now Britain is more heavily engaged in foreign fields than ever before. Getting the policy right is tricky but worth the effort. With this book to hand, future foreign secretaries may achieve more and make fewer mistakes.

Denis MacShane MP was deputy to Jack Straw at the Foreign Office, 2002-05