Richard Black is an undergraduate reading History at Lincoln College, Oxford.
On Thursday 16th May, we were fortunate enough to witness a talk by Douglas Hurd, Baron of Westwell, at Corpus Christi College. Lord Hurd spoke at length about his political life under three Conservative Prime Ministers – Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Being a patrician of the old guard of Tory politicians, his thoughtful insights were welcomed by us all.
Despite coming from a political family in which both his father and grandfather were Conservative MPs, Lord Hurd recounted that his father had told him not to get into politics too early. He agreed with his father’s advice and urged OUCA members to work for a reasonable income before rushing into Parliament!
Lord Hurd then began to chart his love affair with the Foreign Service in locations as diverse as Peking (modern Beijing), New Yorkand Rome. One thing became clear throughout his talk – in both his ministerial and official roles, Lord Hurd has met some of the most significant statesmen of the twentieth century including controversial (and as he put it, “highly unpleasant”) figures such as Mao Zedong and Hafez Al-Assad. Lord Hurd has clearly witnessed many extraordinary events and individuals. On one official trip to China, he noted the late Baroness Thatcher’s dismay at the quality of Chinese state education. In both Shanghai and a far flung province, pupils recited by rote how Comrade Stalin was “40% bad and 60% good”. Both she and Lord Hurd were appalled at this level of ideological brainwashing.
Yet in spite of his love of the international sphere, a telegram from the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, encouraged Lord Hurd to stand in Parliament for mid Oxfordshire in 1974 (the seat is now the current Prime Minister’s constituency of Witney). Lord Hurd also humorously remarked upon his brief interactions with a young and ambitious party member named Jeffrey Archer. He thought that Archer’s lack of humility would not have made for a very successful political career!
Lord Hurd’s analysis of the fall of the Heath government fascinated all of our members. Working from his own experience in No.10 at the time, he believed that the intransigence of both employers and employees, the widespread public sector strikes and the collapse of the Industrial Relations Bill left the government severely weakened. In very British style, he said the Heath government could only “put a best face on” and without the weapons to take on industrial action, resorted to dissolving Parliament. Despite gaining more votes than Labour, the Conservative Party failed to cut a deal with Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberals, and a Labour government was formed under Harold Wilson.
The rise of the Thatcher government in 1979 had seen him posted as the inaugural Minister for Europe, which Lord Hurd modestly labelled the “No.4” position in the Foreign Office. Under Lord Carrington, he had witnessed the events surrounding the Falklandsconflict which he would later call Lady Thatcher’s “finest moment”. According to him, people worked far harder and for much longer hours in the Commons than they did today. Following the 1983 election, Lord Hurd also said that he “grumpily accepted” his reassignment to the Home Office which he found less enjoyable than the Foreign Office. However it must be remembered that it was at this time that he replaced Jim Prior as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and pushed forward the historic negotiations that led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. He would eventually be succeeded by Lord King, who also gave a talk at OUCA earlier in Trinity term. With great diplomatic skill he overcame the “savage press corps” at Stormont as well as the reservations of his cabinet colleagues in the aftermath of the Brighton Bomb. Despite the shock and trauma, Lord Hurd affectionately recalled how Norman Tebbit kept quiet and didn’t allow his anger to hinder the political discussions from taking place.
Following a few years as Home Secretary, Lord Hurd had finally reached his favoured position of Foreign Secretary in 1989. At this point John Major had just been made Chancellor of the Exchequer and much of the cabinet had resigned – Lord Hurd seemed the natural candidate for the position, and served both Lady Thatcher and John Major in that capacity. Many of the questions posed by our members related to the international sphere, and Lord Hurd reciprocated by offering his thoughts on subjects affecting his own period such as Bosnia and Rwanda as well as modern issues such as Syria, Iran, North Korea and the European Union. As Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd had always prided himself on being more of a Castlereagh than a Canning – in that great duel between opposing personalities and theories of international relations, Hurd sided himself with the cause of moderation, dovishness and supreme caution. In each of his responses to past and present examples, I detected a key theme of isolationism.
Arguably whilst Lord Hurd may have been at his weakest in the Foreign Office (even now he admitted that he would have acted differently with the “benefit of hindsight”), he has had an extremely long and distinguished career in a diverse range of public offices. Despite my own political differences with Lord Hurd, it was a privilege to hear him pass on his wise advice. In his own words, Lord Hurd is now “twiddling his thumbs in the House of Lords whilst writing books”. After such a rewarding career, I believe he can well afford to do so.