Never mind the clear blue water

It is `dotty' to choose a policy just because it is different from your opponent's. The Tories should act for the nation and not be driven off course, Douglas Hurd tells Donald Macintyre
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Douglas Hurd is baffled. An outraged Sir Yehudi Menuhin is quoted in a newspaper diary as complaining bitterly that a "senior Tory", confidently identified as Hurd, has been rudely referring to the "Germans as if they were present-day enemies". This is supposed to have happened at a ritzy lunch at Menuhin's music school in Gstaad. But it is a case of mistaken identity. The former Foreign Secretary has sent a postcard to the young man - "I presume he's a young man" - who wrote the item. He laughs. "Good heavens, what would I be doing in such a galere, a choice lunch with music teachers in Gstaad?"

And it hadn't sounded quite right. Hurd is one of the few senior Tories inclined to understand foreigners a little more and condemn them a little less.

He is angry about xenophobia in his own party. And especially about the lie that Germany is trying to do through the EU what it failed half a century ago to do by military means. Helmut Kohl's project, whether you agree with it or not, is the opposite: to make, as Kohl himself has frequently put it to Hurd, "Germany European and not Europe German".

Such "very disagreeable" nonsense, he says, "weakens" Britain: it means our ability to make legitimate criticisms of Germany "is reduced greatly by this kind of rubbish which of course is reported back in their own papers".

"Our influence in Europe would be much greater if we spoke about France and Germany as they are. They've got problems. They are both larger economies than we are and they're trying to do, albeit rather belatedly, the things we had to do. And it's in our interest that they should succeed."

Hurd himself has "never been a fan of the single currency". But he defends to the hilt - against their strident Eurosceptic Tory critics - the right of businessmen such as Unilever's Niall Fitzgerald to call for British EMU membership. And in a speech to LSE students today he will launch another strike against the party's Europhobes by insisting on the paramount importance to Britain - inward investment included - of the single market.

Hurd is busy. NatWest director. Chairman of the liberal Prison Reform Trust from November. Writer (he has just finished another novel). And maker of a BBC television series interviewing international figures. So who most interested him in his time as Foreign Secretary?

"Mitterrand, Delors and Gorbachev were all outstanding people. People of substance who had thought and studied and acted. That's quite compatible with disagreeing with them. Mitterrand had a mixture of courage and guile, in which the guile sometimes predominated."

What about Boris Yeltsin? "Whereas Gorbachev moved by reason from one position to another, Yeltsin doesn't appear to move by reason. He's in one position and he bangs - literally bangs - on the table. And then time passes and talk continues and suddenly he's in another position - with equal emphasis, with no recognition that he's shifted. He's swayed by political instincts which are very shrewd. So he's formidable in Russian terms but quite different."

Which brings us back to Kohl. At one time Margaret Thatcher got on so badly with Kohl that she judged it better if it Hurd dealt with him directly. So he knows him well. Was Kohl's authority in Germany, beleaguered by rising unemployment and doubts about the single currency, now on the brink of terminal decline? "I do feel he's been at this stage before - when he's been written off. He's a man of great resilience. One of the demeaning things about the British debate is the caricaturing and sending up of Helmut Kohl. Everybody who knows anything about Germany knows it's nonsense."

But, says Hurd, Kohl "doesn't see the reefs under the water ... the continuing attachment of people to their nation. He doesn't see the rocks below the surface and I think he's getting quite close to them. Pushing for the single currency with such vehemence ..."

Margaret Thatcher had views about Germany "which were plain wrong". She had been, Hurd thinks, partly "gulled" by Mitterrand and Gorbachev into opposing German reunification. "She is a genuine searcher after truth ... But she started with, and perhaps still has, views about the Germans which were actually mistaken. And he had views about her which were mistaken. So they weren't made for each other."

What were Kohl's mistaken views about Thatcher? "He thought, wrongly, that she hadn't sufficiently studied history."

But had Britain ever really understood the Franco-German vision of the EU keeping the European peace? Hurd says it is a plus rather than a minus for Britain "that these two countries - after all their enmity has done us all a great deal of harm - should now be permanent friends. But that friendship doesn't confer hegemony. It was right to block the appointment of Mr [Jean-Luc] Dehaene because it was hatched out of the Franco-German nest. And that was not the right way to choose the President of the European Commission." Hurd says we are closer to France than Germany is on foreign policy and defence, and closer to Germany than France is on trade. France, he says, still has "protectionist longings".

"So we should have different partners for different dances, but the nature of our debate makes us a wallflower too often. Our economy is clearly in a good state compared to the continental ones. And they know that they're having to do things which once they would have denounced as Thatcherite. We should be able to make something of that, but not if we keep yah-booing about it."

Working for Thatcher could be "maddening" because she started discussions "with a statement which might or might not be well-founded". But it worked fine on the whole, he says. She had the "humbling" effect of showing Hurd and others that "it was possible to do those things which I had really despaired of". Like dealing with the unions and curbing inflation. And her mind could be changed if you made the effort. She largely left Hurd alone at the Home Office - except to promote her free-market views on broadcasting. But all prime ministers are active on foreign affairs.

"By the time I became Foreign Secretary she knew everybody, she knew all the issues. She was on top of the job and fascinated by it.

"I suppose Margaret Thatcher came to grief because her style of leadership was out of date. I'm still surprised by what happened in 1990. I had deceived myself. All that adulation. All those fearful ovations at party conferences - I believed in it. It made me cringe but I believed in it. I was very surprised. I suppose the reason was that people had had enough of that style of leadership. John Major had a naturally different style, for which the time had come."

Hurd laments the decline in political culture over the past 20 years - exemplified by the vacuous bear garden of Prime Minister's Questions. He has just been reading Leo Amery's life of Joe Chamberlain, and is struck by how 12,000 people would turn up to meetings in the tariff reform struggle.

"Politicians tore into each other. And people enjoyed that. But they don't any more." Talking to young audiences, he invariably gets asked the "same baffled question: `why do you behave like that?' And it's not much of an excuse to to say that the Daily Mail or The Daily Telegraph tell us that's how to behave."

He is quite preoccupied with the press. "It's a pity that the five papers that Conservatives usually read have all gone sceptic [on Europe]. I wouldn't mind that so much if it was just their leading articles and their commentators. But it's the slanting of factual reporting that's so serious. It's a pity that it is so difficult to get an actual account of what was said and done yesterday in Paris, Bonn or Brussels. In most cities - New York, Washington, Bonn or Paris, you can get that. But it's extremely difficult to get here and that used not to be the case."

He claims the Tories can still win the election. And he dismisses the idea Tony Blair has changed the soul rather than just the image of his party. Blair has "winded" his own party and "one effect of being winded is that you are rendered temporarily speechless". That would all change, he insists, after an election victory.

The best answer to New Labour, he says, is to criticise the "bogusness" of its climb aboard the Tory ship. "I think the dottiest answer is the clear-blue-water answer. You choose a policy because it's in the nation's, or the party's best interests, your opponents pay you the compliment of climbing aboard, and then the first thing you do is to take to the boats and row off you don't know where just to be distant."

But hang on. Isn't this just what Michael Howard has been doing on crime? Well, crime is one of those issues "not best suited to the ordinary comings and goings of partisan, party political warfare".

But surely that is just what Howard has been waging? Taunting Labour at every turn? "Yes I think he has." Hurd agrees with a "lot of things" Howard has done, including the restrictions to the right to silence. But he adds: "I just think we should be a little careful of treating the criminal justice issues as essentially partisan ones which can best be carried forward in an adversarial way."

He was invited to take the Prison Reform Trust post - in succession to Jon Snow - at just the moment that he was taking flak for his moderate criticisms of Howard's Crime Bill. Prison, he says, is certainly about punishment, deterrence and incapacitation. But the incapacitation isn't for ever. If you lock more criminals up, then more, in time, are going to come out and on to the streets. "So the fourth point of prison is rehabilitation."

This is hardly a new idea, though he is surprised how many people think it is. "It won't always work. But there are enough prisoners who are illiterate and innumerate and are on drugs, to make you think that an effort should be made. They've got a better chance of going straight afterwards which is better for them but also better for the public safety."

He is "nervous" about what would happen to either Labour or the Tories in defeat. The Tories have to guard against, first, abandoning their one- nation past, and, second, their xenophobic tendency, which "when I started was mainly an anti-immigrant tendency. But some of the same media, some of the same institutions are now turned against the Germans or the French."

And in a last magisterial rebuke to those on the Tory right relishing the prospect of a post-defeat ideological struggle, he says: "I think the idea that parties behave best in opposition, and that you need time to sort yourself out, is a very improbable thesis."