There is some sort of tradition among leading British politicians of writing biography and history in their spare time – the new Foreign Secretary William Hague is for example the author of biographies of William Pitt the Younger and William Wilberforce. His predecessor Douglas Hurd, who was foreign secretary under Thatcher and Major, has written an acclaimed biography of Robert Peel and is now out with Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary: 200 Years of Argument, Success and Failure.
But it should be noted that, although there is no trace of it on the cover, this book is a joint venture between Lord Hurd and the historian Edward Young – I guess Weidenfeld & Nicolson’s marketing department may have been behind the choice of glossing over this fact.
The book is not a history of the position or its holder; Hurd and Young have rather chosen a number of foreign secretaries of the last two hundred years to take a close look at – Castlereagh and Canning, Aberdeen and Palmerston, Derby, Salisbury, Grey, MacDonald, Austen Chamberlain, Bevin and Eden. The authors offer no reflections on the choices they have made of who to include and who to leave out.
The choice to include some and leave out others has its disadvantages – for instance the gap between Lord Salisbury and Edward Grey means that one misses out on the Entente cordiale and some other rather important background information about the challenges facing Grey in the lead-up to World War I.
This is political history seen through the spectre of biography. Although the focus is on the politics, the authors also concern themselves with the individuals, some of whom are naturally more interesting than others. The book opens with the famous duel between two foreign secretaries – Castlereagh and Canning – two hundred years ago and somehow it never again reaches the same heights of drama.
The flow of major and minor issues and challenges of foreign policy and politics do occasionally become a bit tedious and I miss more direct comparisons between the foreign secretaries of different eras. The book is at its most interesting when the authors draw such comparisons between past and present, such as between Eden at the end of World War II and Castlereagh at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and on those rare occasions Douglas Hurd allows himself to draw directly upon his own experience as Foreign Secretary.
History shows that historians tend not to make great politicians, perhaps because they tend to see present challenges too much in the light of the past. But many politicians of today could do well to note Hurd’s and Young’s words on the correlation between history and politics: “Knowledge of history does not change politicians into statesmen. But ignorance of history is foolishness. The most dangerous form of ignorance is that smidgeon of shallow knowledge which lacks any understanding of the characters or context of past decisions. The false analogy can be more disastrous than the blank mind”.