After a classic education and diplomatic career, Douglas Hurd (born 1930) turned to English Conservative Party politics. He became home secretary in 1985 and, under Margaret Thatcher (and later John Major), foreign secretary of Great Britain in 1989.
No prominent Briton since Benjamin Disraeli has so successfully combined careers in Conservative Party politics and novel-writing as Douglas Hurd. Hurd also shares with Disraeli a romantic fascination for the workings of politics and the conduct of foreign affairs, and, like Disraeli, has written cleverly about both. Unlike Disraeli, however, Hurd was never an outsider to the British political elite; indeed, his background, education, and career molded him into an almost archetypal English parliamentary gentleman.
Born on March 8, 1930, in Marlborough, England, Hurd was the eldest son of Sir Anthony (later Baron) Hurd and his wife Stephanie. Anthony Hurd pursued a farming career during Douglas' boyhood and wrote on agricultural developments for the London Times. The elder Hurd later became both the director of several major companies and a Conservative MP (Member of Parliament). The Hurd family had a strong connection with Conservative politics: Anthony Hurd's father was himself a Tory MP.
Douglas Hurd attended public school at Eton, where he excelled both in sports and in academics. After leaving Eton in 1948, Hurd performed his military service in the British Army, becoming a second lieutenant. In 1949 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he once again excelled in his studies, in particular history. He also participated in extracurricular activities, becoming president of the Cambridge Union (the university debating society) in 1952 and chairman of the University Conservative Association.
Although he had long since decided on a political career, Hurd followed his father's advice against doing so immediately after Cambridge, and instead entered the Diplomatic Service. As a diplomat Hurd was posted to Peking (1954-1956) and to the United Kingdom mission to the United Nations (1956-1960), served as private secretary to the permanent under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office in London (1960-1963), and then was posted again, this time to Rome, where he served as first secretary from 1963 to 1966. Hurd found Rome a dull place for diplomacy in the mid-1960s, and in his spare time wrote his first novel, the political thriller Send Him Victorious, with one of his colleagues, Andrew Osmond. He and Osmond also wrote three other novels between 1969 and 1982. At about the same time he decided to leave the Diplomatic Service, in which he felt his career had stagnated.
A Rising Star in the Conservative Party
Accordingly, in 1966 Hurd resigned and joined the Conservative Party's Research Department. He did very well in this new job, rising to head of the Foreign Affairs Section in 1968 and greatly impressing party leaders, in particular Edward Heath. In 1968 Hurd resigned from the Research Department to become private secretary to Heath, then leader of the Conservative Party, which was out of power. In 1970, when Heath became prime minister, Hurd was made Health's political secretary, a position which he found both fascinating and frustrating.
By 1974 Hurd was tired of politics behind the scenes and determined that he would try to enter Parliament himself. His close connection with Heath proved to be a disadvantage, and he was rejected by five constituencies before being adopted as the candidate for the Conservative Party for Mid-Oxfordshire. Hurd won this seat in the February 1974 general election, but Heath and his government lost the election, and within the next year Health also lost the leadership of the party to Margaret Thatcher. As a Heath protegé, Hurd was not in favor with the new order and could not hope for rapid political advancement. Nonetheless, to enhance party unity Thatcher appointed him opposition spokesman on European affairs in 1976. In 1979, when the Tories returned to power, he was appointed to the sub-Cabinet post of minister of state at the Foreign Office, where he enjoyed working with Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington and where he became the effective deputy foreign secretary after Carrington's resignation over the Falklands War. From 1983 to 1984 Hurd served as minister of state at the Home Office, another sub-Cabinet post.
Perhaps because of Hurd's solid performance in his sub-Cabinet posts, and perhaps in part because of Lord Carrington's enthusiastic support, Hurd at last reached the Cabinet when Thatcher appointed him secretary of state for Northern Ireland on September 10, 1984. At the time of his appointment, Northern Ireland was experiencing renewed violence. Hurd's most important achievement in the job was his promotion of the peace process: in May 1985 he was appointed to oversee British talks with Ireland on the Northern Ireland issue. The talks culminated successfully in November with an agreement which allowed Ireland to serve as a consultant on Northern Irish affairs.
Meanwhile, however, on September 2, 1985, Hurd had been appointed to one of the three most important positions in the British Government, the secretary of state for home affairs, or home secretary. This appointment was something of a surprise, not only because he had been in the midst of the Irish negotiations as Northern Ireland secretary, but also because it was a sign of Thatcher's ultimate approval. As the Cabinet officer in charge of domestic affairs, Hurd was responsible for a wide range of issues, and his tenure at the Home Office was characterized by a firm adherence to the principles of law and order. The week after his appointment he was faced with the problem of serious race riots in Birmingham. Hurd refused to rationalize the destruction because of the rioters' poverty: at a news conference he said, "There is no justification why those conditions should lead people to loot, burn, and put people's lives at risk." Hurd responded to the problem with the Public Order Bill of 1985, which provided additional authority to the police to deal with race riots and other sorts of violence, such as labor unrest, street demonstrations, and "football hooliganism."
In 1986 Hurd served as chairman of an emergency meeting of European Community interior ministers to deal with international terrorism. The meeting resulted in an agreement to coordinate efforts to "harry and disrupt" terrorists. Hurd also combated terrorists at home by banning radio and television appearances by members of the IRA (Irish Republican Army), the Sinn Fein, and the Ulster Defence Association. During the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989, Hurd attempted to defuse high tension in the British Muslim community with a speech at the Central Mosque in Birmingham. He was sensitive, he indicated, to the pain Muslims felt because of the perceived sacrilege in Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, and they had every right to express this pain through protests. "But to turn such protests towards violence or the threat of violence," he stressed, "is wholly unacceptable."
An Exemplary Foreign Secretary
In October 1989 a reshuffle in the Thatcher Cabinet allowed Hurd to achieve what he described as his life-long dream when he became foreign secretary. His appointment was nearly universally applauded because of his vast experience in foreign affairs. One of his first duties as foreign secretary was a November 1989 visit to the Berlin Wall after East Germany had opened its borders. Hurd used this visit to emphasize the need for Britain and its Western allies to develop new policies to cope with the fast-breaking changes in Eastern Europe. In January 1990 he visited Hong Kong, where he assuaged the concerns of residents about the 1997 Chinese takeover. During the Persian Gulf crisis commencing in August 1990, Hurd proved to be a coolly authoritative foreign secretary and a staunch supporter of U.S. policy, working for a UN resolution about the Kuwait invasion, keeping the British embassy in Kuwait open despite Iraqi demands, and leaving the military option open.
A continuing and pressing challenge to Foreign Secretary Hurd was Britain's role in the impending European Community economic union. Such a union clearly had strong political overtones, and many Britons, including Thatcher, remained highly suspicious about the possibility of infringement on Britain's national sovereignty. Although cautious on this matter, Hurd was much more pro-European than Thatcher, and it was through the tactful influence of Hurd and then Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major that Thatcher agreed to allow Britain's entry in the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System—the first step toward economic union—in October 1990.
The Tory leadership struggle in November 1990 solidified Hurd's reputation as a perfect English gentleman. He deplored former Cabinet minister Michael Heseltine's November 14 challenge to Thatcher as a "mistake—from the point of view of the government, the party, and the country," and he loyally supported his leader during the first vote on November 20, 1990. When Thatcher resigned on November 22, he entered the race for the party leadership (and the prime ministership), issuing a joint statement with fellow candidate John Major which emphasized their desire to have a "friendly contest so that our party colleagues … can choose which of us is better placed to unite the party." Hurd was viewed by many as the candidate with the best credentials because of his knowledge of foreign affairs, experience in the Home Office, broad base of support, and freedom from ideological narrowness. His opponents, however, decried his lack of charisma, lack of knowledge of economics, and the fact that he, the son and grandson of Tory MPs and an Eton and Cambridge graduate, would represent a return to the sort of Tory politics that Thatcher's revolutions had overthrown. When he lost to Major on November 27, he good-naturedly conceded to the victor, who immediately re-appointed him as foreign secretary.
In a surprise move, Hurd offered his resignation as foreign secretary after six years in the post and just a day after then Prime Minister John Majors announced that he would move the party leadership election from November to July. Hurd said he wanted to "disentangle" himself as a possible target in the leadership fight. Hurd said he will not resign his parliamentary seat and will remain an active "backbencher." In the past, Hurd had emerged virtually unscathed from scandals—the British government's indirect support for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, a massive aid and arms deal for the Suharto regime in Indonesia—that would have left a less canny politician bruised or beaten. Bosnia, it appears, was Hurd's Waterloo.
More than any other European politician, Hurd shaped the disastrous European policy toward the former Yugoslavia, and perhaps the best postmortem on that policy is a close look at Hurd's career since 1991. That was when Hurd took a leading role in staving off recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, well after Yugoslavia had irretrievably collapsed. Hurd agreed to their independence only after Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic had acquiesced on the condition that a UN presence in the Serb-held areas help to safeguard the interests of the Serb population there. That UN presence was later secured through the Vance Plan, an arrangement in which the British Foreign Office took full part.
Hurd personally crafted the British, and ultimately the European, policy of eschewing military intervention. As early as September 1991 he announced that Europe would offer no military deterrent in the former Yugoslavia. That same month, he led the way to imposing, through the Security Council, a blanket arms embargo that handicapped the victims and helped the aggressors. The next year he masterminded the dispatch of UN troops, inadequately equipped and on a fudged mandate, into a war zone.
What was Hurd's strategy, and what lay behind it? Hurd and his colleagues in the Foreign Office said that a solution could not "be imposed by force," rhetoric that led, in turn, to the tortuous reasoning that force should not be used at all and that a negotiated political settlement, backed by humanitarian aid, was the only way to end the Balkan conflict. This position was partly based on the perceived strategic interest of allying Britain with the Serbs as the natural successor to Yugoslavia and as a counterweight to any possible extension of German influence in the Balkans. Through this policy, Hurd hoped to bring Russia on board and to help open economic opportunities within Russian markets. An off-the-cuff remark made by someone close to the Foreign Office is illuminating: "It would be better to have the Russians in the Adriatic than the Germans." It may also have been in the nature of the former foreign secretary, the old Etonian and the son and grandson of Tory MPs, to prefer dealing with Milosevic, "the strong man of Europe," or with the "irrepressible" Radovan Karadzic than with Bosnian "Muslims."
For all these reasons, Hurd opposed the major European powers, including France, Germany, Italy, and Holland, when they supported a European Community initiative to send a peacekeeping force to Yugoslavia in the summer of 1991. In light of what followed, the significance of this stand cannot be underestimated. At a time when the casualty toll was still in the hundreds (as opposed to the hundreds of thousands) and the battlefield confined to Croatia, the British foreign secretary "led the consensus" at the European Community Foreign Ministers' meeting on September 19, 1991. It resulted in the terse communiqué: "No military intervention contemplated."
Within days, Serbian forces, fortified by word that Europe would stay neutral, unleashed a massive onslaught by land, sea and air. They blockaded Croatia's main ports, sent dozens of tanks to the Croatian border and began a large-scale attack on Vukovar and Dubrovnik. The same week, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 713, which banned arms imports to Yugoslavia. The ban left Croatia, whose territorial army had been dismantled earlier in the year, unable to defend itself against the onslaught of the Serb-led Yugoslav national army and Serbian paramilitaries. Most Bosnia watchers know that Britain's government has been the most consistently opposed to lifting the arms embargo. What they are less likely to know is that Britain, again in September 1991, went to the Serb-dominated Yugoslav government and quietly suggested it request a blanket arms embargo on all Yugoslav republics—a move that ratified the imbalance of arms between the Serbs and all other ethnic groups. Hurd then resisted lifting the embargo; he was reluctant, as he put it, to create "a level killing field," a phrase whose ironies seemed lost on him.
The foreign secretary has often stated, in parliament and elsewhere, that the other major powers back Britain's policy in former Yugoslavia. But this is not quite the case. True, in the summer of 1991, as Hurd stood out in opposition to his European colleagues, the U.S. took a back seat and let the Europeans get on with it. But at other times the British Foreign Office actively slowed momentum to intervene against the Serbs. In the summer of 1992, for example, with the exposure of Serb-run concentration-type camps and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands from Bosnia, the U.S. and many European states called for a tougher stand against the Serbs. Just in the nick of time, Hurd came up with another concept: "protective support." That meant providing armed escort, including 1,800 lightly armed UN troops from Britain, for UN aid convoys in Bosnia. In the short term, this policy had advantages. It staved off world pressure for firmer action, and it endorsed British policies established the previous year. With UN peacekeepers on the ground, it was unthinkable to bomb from the sky or to lift the arms embargo and escalate hostilities between the "warring factions."
The British decision to dispatch UN troops as aid escorts to a war zone might have been viewed as a mere misreading of the ground situation were it not for a decision of British UN Commander Lt. General Michael Rose. In April 1994 Rose dispatched to Gorazde 168 British soldiers whom the Bosnian Serbs had stripped of their ammunition and personal cameras. To send a battalion of British troops, minus much of their equipment, into an enclave totally surrounded by Serbian General Ratko Mladic's forces could only be interpreted as an unequivocal signal to the Serbs of British support. For, without the acquiescence of the Serbs, these troops would be unable to exit safely from the "safe" area. (French President Francois Mitterrand, on the other hand, opted at the last minute to pull back the French troops about to be dispatched to Gorazde and let the British soldiers continue without them.)
Throughout the Balkan conflict, the support of the French has been vital to Hurd, who feared that Britain would be isolated in Europe by its Bosnia policy. One of the foreign secretary's frequent gambits in the House of Commons was to insist that the French and British were at one on Bosnia. But this has never been entirely true—and has been still less so since the election of Jacques Chirac as president. Indeed, the tension between the two countries over Bosnia can be linked with Hurd's policy. The first hint of rupture in Anglo-French Bosnian policy came during the hostage debacle, when the British and French announced the joint decision to send in a Rapid Reaction Force to Bosnia. It soon emerged that, while Britain's intention was merely that the force protect the UN soldiers on the ground, Chirac had hoped it would also establish a protected route for aid to Sarajevo and the enclaves. This would have involved combat action, of course, a prospect the British government resisted from the outset. While the French partly retracted from their more ambitious plans and appeared reconciled to the British proposals on the role of the Rapid Reaction Force, the two countries' views on the way forward in Bosnia seemed, at the time of Hurd's resignation, to be seriously at odds. Chirac's explicit charge that Britain was engaging in Chamberlain-like appeasement cut too deep to be deftly parried, though Hurd's chosen successor, Malcolm Rifkind, tried to do so at the July 17 European Union meeting. In the British press, Hurd's resignation had been accompanied by none of the usual accolades for a departing figure of his stature. That may be an indication of the long-term judgment to come on his Bosnia policy.
Hurd married twice. With his first wife, Tatiana, whom he married in 1960, he had three sons. They separated in 1976, Tatiana Hurd saying, "Really, politics don't mix with marriage," and divorced in 1982. In that year he married Judy Smart, his former parliamentary secretary. They had two children, a boy and a girl.
Hurd was a polite, charming, witty man of great intelligence. Loyalty, however, was the hallmark of Hurd's political career. He was loyal to Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, and John Major. For Hurd's loyalty transcends mere personalities and is indicative of anunshakable adherence to more profound matters: the Conservative Party and what it stands for—courage, steadfastness, individual freedom, and responsibility—all, in short, that is in his view best and worth preserving in the British way of life.
Further Reading on Douglas Hurd
There are no biographies of Douglas Hurd. For an important profile of Hurd's career, achievements, and characteristics to 1985, see Patrick Cosgrave, "The Diplomat with a Touch of Acid," in the London Times (September 12, 1985). For a revealing view of Hurd as seen from the Left, Andrew Roth's "Thatcher's Second XI" in the New Statesman (September 14, 1984) is excellent. Another New Statesman portrait, "A Flawed Vision" (April 29, 1988), is critical of his "Hobbesian" views while being sympathetic to Hurd as "one of the few humane and flexible intelligences remaining on the Tory front bench."
Hurd's own writings—his seven novels and, to some extent, his two historical works—provide a great deal of information about Hurd's ideals and values. Although Hurd's first book, The Arrow War (1967), is a simple history of a brief Anglo-Chinese confrontation in the 1850s, his next three books, thrillers written with Andrew Osmond, are much more revealing. Send Him Victorious (1968), The Smile on the Face of the Tiger (1969), and Scotch on the Rocks (1971), a series of novels with continuing characters, are all clever, witty novels with a piquant dollop of cynicism regarding the civil service, the military, politicians, and the media, as is his novel Truth Game (1972). They nonetheless show Hurd's idealism and his belief in the basic correctness of the Conservative Party. The best of Hurd's novels, Vote to Kill (1975), clearly based on his experiences as Edward Heath's political secretary, like his others is clever, cynical, well-written, and well-plotted. In An End to Promises (1979), Hurd describes his activities as Heath's political secretary and indicates his great admiration for Heath and what Heath attempted to achieve. The Palace of Enchantment (1985), written with Stephen Lamport, reiterates his feelings about the addictive nature of politics and takes a strongly Disraelian and romantic view of Parliament and the role of the MP.