How the modern Empire strikes back

On the eve of an international conference on the nation's global role, Douglas Hurd tells Donald Macintyre why post-imperial Britain still matters
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At 65, Douglas Hurd still seems almost impervious to his schedule. Having returned overnight from Swaziland after a week with the Queen in South Africa, he seeks only two indulgences. One is to pace around the room from time to time to rid himself of travel stiffness. And the other, a little more frustrating, is to refuse questions on the current political turbulence in the Tory party, on the grounds that he hasn't yet had time to catch up.

What is preoccupying him now is the conference which John Major will open tomorrow, on Britain's role in the world. He is now confident that no one regards the conference, long in the planning, as some party political stunt to boost the Government's flagging politicial fortunes.

While the Prince of Wales will address it tomorrow morning, Labour's Robin Cook will do so tomorrow afternoon; the others include a fair list of the British and international, business, diplomatic and academic great and the good, from Henry Kissinger to Howard Davies, director-general of the CBI. And if the Lagos regime yields to intense pressure to allow him to emerge from house arrest and attend, Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian head of state, will be there too.

As well as big figures there are big questions: a conference background paper by a senior Chatham House fellow, Vincent Cable, puts it succinctly: "Britain spends £1.3bn on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and £2.2bn on aid. It keeps 241,000 men and women under arms and a large intelligence-gathering operation. Why?

Also, the conference has co-incided with - and perhaps precipitated - a little well-aimed sniping at what some see as the obsolete pretensions of the FCO; at the fact that the bald figures in its annual report suggest that only £92.1m of the total spend of £1.3bn is directed specifically at helping exporting businessmen to sell their products; and at the grandiosity of some of its embassies and residences.

Some of this has come from a liberal press concerned that Britain is still living beyond its post-imperial role and means. But some of it, more woundingly, according to apparently well-sourced press reports, has sprung from the Treasury and in particular its Chief Secretary, Jonathan Aitken.

Most of it, Mr Hurd says, is "old-fashioned nonsense". A good deal has changed, he implies, since the the early years under Margaret Thatcher when the Government's counter- interventionism discouraged active DTI help with exports.

He gives handsome and repeated tribute to Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, and his team for what he says is the tireless help give to business, not least in export credit. But the Foreign Office, which recently created a raft of new commerical posts in expanding markets at the expense of 500 back home, has changed too. "And anyway, I think all these figures are all pretty suspect. You spend a couple of days with an ambassador. You can't separate what he does on politicial and what he does on commercial."

In the Third World, "for most of the big contracts you have to have the right product at the right price, but you also have to know the right minister. So the two in many of the markets are completely intertwined. All the work the embassy does in Washington on aviation - it's politics and commercial intertwined". Now, he insists, the FCO gets a lot more bouquets than brickbats from businessmen.

And on Mr Aitken's alleged depredations, he is his classically diplomatic self. "I don't know what it's all about. I can't trace this Jonathan Aitken thing. There's nothing on the record. The Treasury can't shed any light on it. He has always been a good friend." Of all the Chief Secretaries Mr Hurd has dealt with, Mr Aitken is the "one who most understands, because of his previous experience, the overseas effort".

But hasn't the grandeur of some of the biggest embassies sent out the wrong public relations message?

He counters that there are very few embassies like Paris, palaces which were bequeathed to HMG many years ago. "And we use them. If a British firm produces a product, it parades it in the courtyard of the embassy. If you really want to make sure that everyone important in France listens to a British minister, they all come to the embassy in Paris. You couldn't sell it and even if you could sell it and move to the outskirts of Paris, it wouldn't serve the purpose. So I don't feel in the least bit defensive. We are the only government department which has inbuilt inspectors who go round all the time. I'm amazed when some of my colleagues who discover bits of activity in their department which no one knew anything about. We have a rigorous process of inspection, market testing ... we have all the techniques familiar in Whitehall, and our own inspectors." There is, he says, "constant change" to get limited resources to where the effort is most needed: "We don't overdo it and we don't underdo it. I'm against underdoing it."

Some reports have it that when John Major opens tomorrow's conference, he will deliberately seek to "reassure Eurosceptics" by lifting the foreign policy debate beyond the boundaries of Europe to the wider world beyond.

His Foreign Secretary, who says Europe has been "over- debated", would welcome that. "We've got to get Europe right. It's debilitating to go on and on arguing about it. I'm sure we will get it right. I'm quite sure that in 10 years it will be totally clear that Europe is a Europe of nations. There will more nations and there will be a good deal of variety in it.

"There will be a single market and there will be supra- national institutions to make sure those rules are kept. I'm sure that will happen. There will be argument on the way, but that's what will happen."

But there is a world beyond Europe where Britain's links are vitally, and now increasingly, important, from India to South-east Asia, from Latin America to Australasia. And on aid, his views are definite. Of course he would like more - and he won a modest increase in the last expenditure round. But the important goal is to make more of it bilateral.

The attacks on the Pergau dam project damaged the image of the aid programme, but that was a "hangover" from the 1980s. A small-scale project to build a housing estate in Calcutta is the sort of project that makes him proud in the mid-1990s. Aid was not for building "palaces for dictators".

Just at the end, Mr Hurd gives vent to his exasperation at the conventional commentating wisdom that post-imperial Britain had ideas above its station.

"I do feel that for most of my life we were thinking in terms of how you manage decline. I think that decline ended in the 1980s." Some critics take as their staring point, he says, that "if you're looking at foreign policy you must think in terms of cutting. And of course you must give up your Security Council seat ... we are not going to be able to sustain these things any more and all this stuff about sustaining exports ... it's imperial grandeur".

Mr Hurd rebuts all this with a little uncharacteristic passion: "All this talk is for the birds; it's so old-fashioned. We're now making an effort in all these parts of the world ... an effort we can actually sustain. I'm not hugely one for flag- waving or `putting the Great back into Great Britain'. It's not one of my favourite phrases. But we don't have to pretend to be grand. We are important."