cover story; Je regrette a thing or two, perhaps

Bosnia, Pergau - Eton's old school captain now feels there was room for improvement. As Douglas Hurd prepares for life outside the Cabinet, Bryan Appleyard bids for his memoirs
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Elegant. The word clings to the figure of Douglas Hurd like a good suit. There he always is, as familiar as an umbrella or a Doric column - slim, the ice-cream curl of snowy hair, the phlegmy voice, the demeanour of mild impatience with the world's refusal to be as ordered as it might be. Above all, there is the High Tory, post-colonial, realist manner, suggestive of an infinite capacity for dealing with things, no matter how exotic, no matter how distasteful. Here, surely is what we need at the FO, a man who, like the cavalry, adds tone to what might otherwise be a vulgar brawl.

Now, at 65, he's gone and the front bench - Ian Lang apart - already looks that bit more carnivorous, reptilian. At the next election he goes completely, stepping down as an MP, leaving the House to the Essex managers and Basingstoke estate agents.

But last week he was still occupying the Foreign Secretary's official flat off Pall Mall. There his wife, Judy, made us tea, and in a neighbouring room, Jessica, their nine-year-old daughter, scraped squeakily but with feeling through a violin lesson.

"We're pulling out in the next week or two," he explains. "We live in Oxfordshire, but there's a tiny house in Hammersmith that will be our London base."

In the flesh the elegance fades rather. Certainly the grey trousers are Savile Row slim, the pinkish shirt is OK, even the maroon socks look about right. But Hurd himself is a startlingly jerky and twitchy character. There is a lot of disconcerting leg-splaying and hip writhing and thrusting as he sits on the sofa and he stands up and strolls around repeatedly. He blames this on a bad back. But his hands also flutter and wave. There is definitely some inelegant tension in this man. Perhaps the impatience in the voice is the symptom of a deeper, darker frustration. Perhaps this former Captain of School at Eton and President of the Union at Cambridge senses that his type will no longer inherit the earth.

He is not one to dive in such pessimistic waters. But he is prepared to admit that the House of Commons is not quite as, shall we say, comfortable as it was.

"I like it less than I did at the beginning ... the atmosphere is somehow less attractive than it used to be, I don't know quite why."

He grows edgy when pressed on this. He doesn't want, he says, to seem old-fashioned - a big point this, throughout his conversation, though he does lapse a couple of times and call himself "old-fashioned". What he is really saying is he doesn't like the look of the new boys with their shiny suits and vulpine eyes. But, diplomatically, he conceals the point behind wider issues.

"I can't see the point of a great deal of the party point-scoring. I can't think who is impressed. There is more of that than there used to be. Prime Minister's Question Time has deteriorated as an occasion. I know the Prime Minister feels this very strongly himself - but it's not in his power to correct. We need more of the right type, the interested, the cultivated, the concerned. I'm in favour of the Nolan approach, because I think it will help clear up that aspect. I think MPs need to be paid more - not a huge amount more, but a bit more. It's no longer a profession which attracts people from a wide range of backgrounds."

He is nostalgic for the MP as amateur - in the highest sense of the word - rather than as hard-eyed party professional. And he would have preferred to be a politician in another age, an age that did not demand the interminable grind. "The difficulty about being a politician in this country is the sheer piling up of things to do. You come back from a dinner at 11 o'clock and you have two or three hours of work - some of it quite difficult - and only a small proportion of which you can postpone. Or you get home from a fairly gruelling week and there are four boxes waiting for you, each containing an hour or an hour-and-a-half's work, that's six hours out of your weekend. You plan a holiday in August, something happens and it's aborted. And this goes on and on."

He says there are two kinds of secretaries of state - the Leon Brittan/Geoffrey Howe lawyer type who, confronted with a pile of paper, calls for more, and the Carrington/Douglas-Home/Hurd type who is not capable of doing that and tries to glide elegantly over the details and find the simple heart of an issue. He does not say it, but it is clear that he regards the latter type as superior, a cultivated figure of wisdom rather than a grubber of details. But, equally, he is uncomfortable to find himself so defined: he writhes and thrusts with indignation when the politically loaded epithet "patrician" is attached to his name.

"Oh, the Economist did it again! Nobody could describe me as patrician who knows anything about this country or its structure. I despair of explaining that ... " He waves his hands to cut short the debate.

"OK," I suggest, "let's call you landed middle class."

He writhes. "Well, my father didn't own his own farm ... no, no, I'm not going into all this again." The problem is that his biography - Eton, Trinity, Cambridge, the FO - seems so ludicrously smooth and so flagrantly ruling class that it is impossible to avoid the feeling that he was born to inhabit the Pall Mall flat. Routinely it is said he "always wanted" to be Foreign Secretary. But this, too, he denies. "It's a myth. If you are in politics, you are at the beck and call of the telephone. I never sat down and said I wanted to be Foreign Secretary."

Perhaps he was simply predestined without knowing it. His history teacher at Eton got it right. Hurd went for a history prize and came second to the man who is now Bishop of Coventry. The examiner said the runner-up was extremely competent and would probably become a minister, but the winner had an extra element of emotion, of romanticism. From the beginning Hurd was obviously at one with his career path. The successive institutions with which he was involved seemed tailored to his slim figure.

His summaries of his political years are solid and optimistic. When he began, an empire was being lost and the only serious task seemed to be the management of decline. That stopped, he believes, in the Eighties. Once the unions and inflation were controlled, the decline bottomed out. Now things are improving, marred only by what he describes as "a bogus squabble" about Europe.

In his final months he became, of course, the primary target of the Euro- sceptics, identified as the malign Europhile forcing John Major to betray his instincts. It was, he says, absurd. For him, the new nationalism of the right - and of the out-of-power Thatcher - is based on weakness, a fear of foreigners, a fear that they are always outsmarting us. What we should be doing is talking and winning when we can.

"Most sceptics would know that we had a battle with the French about Orly Airport and most would assume we lost it. In fact we won, our planes are flying there every day. But the Mail, the Telegraph, the Times, the Sun don't report this, and those are the papers the Tories read.

"We should have pride in our achievements - that's a pride in strength. It becomes a weakness when you always feel you are being done down. We are not a naturally isolationist or xenophobic country. We have to get rid of that feeling of inferiority."

Hurd's immediate future will be taken up with the reading list he annually requests from Chris Patten, the culturally au fait Governor of Hong Kong - this is an annual summer rite that keeps Hurd abreast of contemporary writers such as Hilary Mantel. He will also spend August working on the skeleton of another novel. He has already co-written five and written two by himself. Judging by his Vote to Kill, published in 1975 and dedicated to Ted Heath, "from whom I have learnt so much", they are nice enough, if sadly prone to amateur - in the bad sense - sentences such as "It was past midday, and the chilly sun was full on the daffodils in the window box of No 16 Trevor Square." He thinks they were "rather good" and hopes a new one will bring the others back into print.

"It's fun," he says of the business of fiction, "novels don't need research and they stretch your mind and your imagination. You notice things more. I've got various notes of particular places I've been to - quite detailed notes. I've got my private secretary to do the same."

He also buys a WH Smith diary every year - an important touch, since it signals that he doesn't buy something fancy by Gucci or Smythson - and fills a page at night "after I do my teeth". Lately he has had nightmares about leaving one on a plane or in a hotel room. But, so far, they are intact, going right back to Eton and ready for the memoirs he plans in four or five years' time when the heat and pressure of office have ebbed.

What will they say? Well, I'm sure there will be a repeat of his defence of his mentor Ted Heath - already written in one form in his book An End to Promises. And there will be an insistence on the political continuity between what Heath tried and failed to do and what Thatcher succeeded in doing, a continuity concealed by the mutual loathing.

But any admissions of major cock-ups? He regrets Bosnia, but doesn't feel, had he done anything different, it would have been any better. He regrets spending only a year in Northern Ireland. But this is routine stuff: what about real blunders? He pauses for a long time, weighing the implications of confession at this stage. Finally, he feels he has to acknowledge the Pergau Dam affair.

"With benefit of hindsight I would not have honoured Mrs Thatcher's promise about Pergau. Because I think that didn't do anyone any good ... at the time it seemed relatively straightforward, with hindsight I wouldn't have done it."

Pergau and other matters will fuel the specific criticisms of Hurd's reign at the Foreign Office. In a wider sense it might also be said, as one Tory MP put it, that he never really had a policy, except "leave it to me and I'll sort it out". The point being that he never stopped being Captain of School, the level-headed, responsible type who knew best, the "safe pair of hands". He is, says this critic, "a victim of elegance", a man too committed to the graceful pose of suave competence.

Was this enough? Didn't we need a visionary, a genuinely cultivated Foreign Secretary with intellectual range and conviction? Maybe. All we know for sure is that, for a long time, we had Hurd the Fairly Elegant, not, perhaps, one of the world's great fascinators, but clubbable, a cool user of charm and amiability, a very English fixer and, perhaps, the last faint light of a vanishing political culture before the dark, cretinous night of management and expertise descends.

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