Unlike many political autobiographies Douglas Hurd's autobiography is not self serving - he sets out with good humour and clarity to show how it really was. He was Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Northern Ireland Secretary and served as a minister of state in the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. He was also political secretary to Edward Heath for four years from 1970.
These positions gave him an unrivalled insider view of British politics at a critical time as the country shook off the catastrophe of Marxist Socialism. The Conservative government took the lead in implementing the free market ideas of Hayek and Friedman.
Of course Margaret Thatcher is the main character here and he greatly admires her talent and hard work. He supported her stand against abusive trade union power while at the same time being uncomfortable with her lack of inclusiveness or sympathy for "caring" Conservatism. He is more in tune with Edward Heath's ideas, despite their failure at the time to fix Britain's serious problems, and their resulting defeat at the hands of the miners.
Hurd stresses that his father was only a tenant farmer and that a scholarship paid for his Eton education, but nevertheless he did go there, and was a model pupil, moving on seamlessly to Trinity College Cambridge and the foreign office.
He had ambition and ability. As scholarships, prizes and promotion came within reach he would go for them and win - a notable victory being the Newcastle Scholarship in the classics at Eton. This may give the impression of a sharp elbowed swat, but what (surprisingly) appears is a general niceness and good humour that is confirmed independently by his political colleagues and opponents.
Eton provided him with lifelong friendships, and he sees it as the most formative period in his life along with his youth in the idyllic setting of Rainscombe Farm, his family home on the Wiltshire downs. Douglas Hurd's true vocation was politics, rather than the foreign office, and when, after some difficulty, he finally became an M.P,. he followed in his father's and grandfather's footsteps.
The "political" parts of the story covering the period when he held office (chapters VI and VII) are probably the most interesting, although I love all of this book. He has a good eye for detail, and it is a surprise to hear how someone can become a cabinet minister with virtually no hand over and be expected to get on with it.
The constant pressure on government ministers is also described very well together with, for example, the different ways of being a cabinet minister; "One set are useless and kept going by their civil servants: they do not last long. Another set are centralisers. Loving detail, they gather it relentlessly into themselves. Such ministers can thrive only if they have trained their minds to absorb formidable quantities of facts and figures and transmute them into decisions. ...Geoffrey Howe and Leon Brittan....both lawyers... . The third set prefer to delegate responsibility to others. They try, never with total success, to push most of the detail away from their desks and concentrate on the core of the problem....Willie Whitelaw and Peter Carrington ..." - and Douglas Hurd himself.
A book like this will be of more interest to people who who lived in the U.K. through this period and who know something about British politics, but nevertheless it still has a strong general appeal. Douglas Hurd lived and worked in Peking, New York, London and Rome and you get a talented writer observing these cities along with top level E.E.C. and U.S. diplomacy including German reunification and Iraq.
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Former British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd had the sort of career for which the phrase “noblesse oblige” could have been coined. Not that Hurd regarded himself as being of particularly noble origins and he was clearly irritated by those who thought him to be a toff. “I was far from patrician” he says, “…my suits were made in Swindon rather than Saville Row.” The implication is that if he had been more proletarian then it would have been he, rather than John Major, who would have been elected Prime Minister in 1990 after the fall of Margaret Thatcher. He seems to think that the fact that hewas an Old Etonian scuppered his chances. I rather doubt this not because Hurd was not up to the task but because I am not persuaded by his “memoirs” that he really, in his heart, wanted the top job. As you would expect from a man who benefited from the very best of English education (Eton, and Trinity Cambridge) who was a scholar and who graduated with a “First” in History this is a beautifully written book. The language is elegant, readable and never pretentious and here Hurd’s apprenticeship as a novelist has clearly helped. It is also not a purely politicians autobiography and he rarely sounds off portentously about the great affairs of state. Where he was directly involved or responsible for policy then that is described. But where he was not involved directly in the decision making he forswears comment – even though he must have been very close to the action. The memoirs are blessedly free of economics – Hurd was never Chancellor of the Exchequer, no doubt to his great relief. This makes his post politics venture as a Bank director slightly odd, but he no doubt acted as a skilled diplomat and had the highest level contacts which is presumably what the Nat West Bank wanted. Hurd was one of the few career diplomats actually to become Foreign Secretary and one can see that he must have been very popular amongst the Foreign Office mandarins as “one of us”. He really understood the system in a way that few of his predecessors and none of his successors have managed to do. He claims throughout the book to have politics of the centre left rather than the mainstream centre right of his party. I do not doubt that this was how he saw it – but I see few signs of a really radical streak. He was more likely to keep his more liberal thoughts to himself than to fight the boss – Mrs Thatcher was rather ruthless with those that challenged her too much from the “wet” left leaning wing of the party. But Hurd was solid in his principles and his life long opposition to Capital Punishment is both honourable and a sign that he generally put principle before short term populism. When you have read a biography or an autobiography ideally you feel not only that you know what the subject did, but also what he or she was as a person but Douglas Hurd’s “memoirs” leave many questions unanswered. He is very uncomfortable with revealing any of the more personal details of his life. For example there were two traumatic events which get rather reserved treatment. When Hurd was twenty-one his two years younger brother Julian committed suicide. This terrible and inexplicable event must have been harrowing, but even today Hurd does not describe it in his own words. He quotes form his mother’s diaries rather than say what it meant to him. Similarly his divorce from his first wife Tatania after fifteen years of marriage is not really explained. He talks of disagreements and storms but what they disagreed about and why it was all so stormy is not explained. I think that the failure to express his feelings about his brother’s death is that it was an event too painful to put into words – even for as accomplished wordsmith as Douglas Hurd. The decision not to describe the reasons for the breakdown of his marriage to Tatania is good manners – she is still alive and Hurd no doubt feels that it is really none of anybody’s business why their marriage failed and that it would be out of order to explain. No doubt Tatania will be pleased to see that their courtship is described in the short sentence “The two of us fell in love.” This contrasts noticeably with the more convoluted description “on my part one set of feelings grew into another, warmer and stronger” in respect of his second marriage to Judy. At the end of the book he writes movingly of Judy’s battle with leukaemia and it is clear that theirs has been a loving and successful marriage. Hurd is, in the main, discrete about his colleagues and about his family partly to protect his reputation and partly, as I have said, out of good manners. Regrettably he does not tell his side of the story about the oft repeated anecdote that at Eton he was a notoriously avid doler out of corporal punishment which lead to his nickname being “Hitler Hurd." Many Britons in public life today, for instance, have recalled being flogged by Hurd and often mentions these canings as a mark of pride!
Looking at today’s bunch of British politicians one wishes that there were a few more like Douglas Hurd. His memoirs tell the story of his life and times with honesty, discretion and at times with an air of almost diffident commentary on his success. To know more about Hurd the man, however, we will have to wait for a more penetrating personal biography.
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I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in recent British politics. Douglas Hurd was at the heart of British politics throughout the seventies, eighties and into the early nineties. He describes this period, as seen from his point of view, in a compelling, yet also endearingly self-effacing way. This is one of only a handful of political memoirs which have also made me chuckle out loud. The early part of the book is also endearing. Having grown up in rural Wiltshire, Hurd describes a way of life that belongs to the past. His description of tea and fruitcake by the fire makes you long for a time when things were simpler. All round, a good read from a fascinating figure of the twentieth century. Regardless of whether your sympathies lie left or right, you cannot helpt but like Hurd.
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I found this to be a fascinating and well-written account of of a man who lived much of his life at a variety of important places and times in British public life. After you have got a little way into the book you realise what an accomplished author has secured your attention - and has made you keep on reading. I like the way that he can sometimes write "in code". There are only 2 references to the late Alan Clark, but Hurd's disdain is evident. I was very interested to read his balanced views on three Prime Ministers - Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher & John Major
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