Book review: Behind Diplomatic Lines
Patrick R H Wright documents the obsessions of Margaret Thatcher and has some wonderful observations about her ministers.
There is a certain irony that diplomats who wish to publish diaries or memoirs frequently have a more difficult time than the ministers they served. Patrick R H Wright is not the first PUS at the FCO to publish his diaries which are shorter and less acerbic than his wartime predecessor Alec Cadogan. But the diplomatic service in those days, and probably still today, is like a large family whose members keep meeting at work and play. Wright relates how a young thrusting diplomat became engaged to his daughter in the 1980s – and now Simon McDonald is the PUS at the FCO and guardian of its feisty cat Palmerston.
Wright was permanent secretary and head of the diplomatic service from 1986 to 91 before going to the House of Lords as a cross bencher. He The author's background and career might almost be a caricature of a certain kind of diplomat – Marlborough, Oxford and an arabist, private secretary to Wilson and Callaghan. And yet Wright would object to being caricatured as part of the Foreign Office “Camel Corps” and through these published diaries shows a rounded figure, keenly aware of the need to defend the FCO, and with an acute observation of all his colleagues.
These are edited diaries and one assumes that repetitions or mundane entries have been left out but perhaps more stringent observations as well? They cover the period 1986 to 1991 and are an easy read. If one person dominates the diary it is Margaret Thatcher. Wright shows Thatcher’s contempt for the Foreign Office as an institution, but not individual diplomats, and her contempt for Geoffrey Howe as Foreign Secretary. Thatcher hated what she perceived as the FCO’s idea of compromise and consensus.
Through this period Wright documents the increasing power and influence of Charles Powell, a diplomat seconded to No 10 who exercises real power and influence on Thatcher. Wright suggests that many memos and ideas to Mrs Thatcher failed to get past Powell the gatekeeper.
Increasingly Wright documents the obsessions of Thatcher and her love of major rows and her inability to hide her hostile views on foreign leaders, especially Helmut Kohl. She became obsessed with the EU and German reunification.
On ministers Wright has some wonderful observations. He shows all the strengths and weaknesses of Geoffrey Howe, notes that John Major’s brief period as Foreign Secretary was an uphill task, but greatly admired Douglas Hurd, a former diplomat and junior Foreign Office minister. He found that one junior minister, Tim Eggar, was a rather macho figure who “later developed a strong interest in diplomatic car parking and non-payment of parking fines.”
Lynda Chalker, the Overseas Development minster, needed constant cosseting and support as she lacked confidence and yet was desperate to be made a Cabinet Minister – she never was. Wright tried to cheer her up by reminding her that by far the most popular and successful Foreign Secretary since the war had been Ernie Bevin, who had commented on a marginal reference to the phrase “mutatis muntandis” : “Please do not write in Greek;’ I have never learned it”.
The downfall of Mrs T was a car crash waiting to happen as she had bullied and insulted most of her ministers and senior civil servants and just stayed on too long. At one point Wright describes her as an “extraordinary mix of dottiness and good sense”.
These diaries are an excellent read and give a good perspective of the last years of Thatcher and the first of Major. Someone like your reviewer is familiar with all those named, but it would have been helpful to have had a brief summary for those who are not.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and books editor for Total Politics.