Two views of British Foreign Office politics and personalities

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Inside the Private Office: Memoirs of the Secretary to British Foreign Ministers, by Sir Nicholas Henderson. Chicago: Academy Chicago. 138 pp. $15.95. Illustrated. Descent to Suez: Foreign Office Diaries 1951-1956, by Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh. New York: W.W. Norton. 380 pp. $24.95. Illustrated. Both Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh and Sir Nicholas Henderson had distinguished careers in the British Foreign Office: Each served as private secretary to foreign secretaries, and each finished his career as an ambassador. But the books they have written are remarkably different.

Sir Nicholas's book is on the light side, but without in any way seeming self-important, he illuminates the functions that make the private secretary to Britain's foreign ministers a significant player in the formulation and execution of policy. Free with anecdotes about the great personalities, notably Ernest Bevin, whom he served so ably, Henderson is also free from a need to justify his patriotic and governmental services. He must have impressed his foreign secretaries as suave, articulate, sensible, and eminently fair-minded.

Sir Evelyn leaves a different impression. At the conclusion of the section of his diary dealing with his period as Sir Anthony Eden's private secretary, Shuckburgh is constrained to add the following disclaimer: ``In spite of some of the harsh words contained about him in the diary, I admired Eden and had enjoyed the experience of working for him. But it had been a tiring job and I was glad to move.''

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Posterity knows all too well that Eden's handling of the Suez affair was a personal disaster for him and a national one for Great Britain, but he has continued to enjoy a good reputation as foreign secretary, a post he held from 1935 to 1938, from 1940 to 1945, and again from 1951 to 1955. Thus, it is rather shocking to read Shuckburgh's portrait of a mincing, affected, moody, tyrannical prima donna. Never has the phrase ``No man is a hero to his valet de chambre'' seemed more apt, but after all, Shuckburgh is a British civil servant of the highest rank, and one might have expected more of him.

``Descent to Suez'' includes about half the actual diary kept by Shuckburgh in these years. Many large sections have been omitted, including some that deal with interesting-sounding and important foreign visits, so that the book seems at times to be, in the words of the great Victorian lyricist W.S. Gilbert, ``a thing of shreds and patches.'' Only the acrid quality of the diarist's character gives the book as a whole a unifying thread as he goes from the private office to the Middle Eastern Affairs division of the foreign office and then out of the ministry to the Imperial Defence College. By the time of the Suez crisis, which figures so prominently in the title, Shuckburgh is far from the corridors of power and has little to add to the all-too-well-known and doleful tale of the affair.

``Put that down on your tablets, Evelyn,'' a remark made by Eden, serves as the epigraph to ``Descent to Suez.'' These ``tablets'' are surely not the last word on Eden, but one still cannot help wishing that there had been less backbiting and more generosity from someone graced with so uniquely close a vantage point to history. This book invites obvious comparison to John Colville's ``The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries'' (1985), but the comparison, alas, is not flattering to Shuckburgh. Whereas Colville cast a glow of appreciative admiration that illuminated his portrait of Sir Winston Churchill without in any way whitewashing his flaws, Shuckburgh seems obsessed with Eden's defects. Both men are diminished by this unworthy attitude. And this, despite the fact that Shuckburgh shares Eden's diplomatic and ideological viewpoint: His criticisms are essentially personal.

Perhaps the best thing to note in both Henderson's and Shuckburgh's books is the impartiality with which the foreign office civil servant serves ideological opposites as one government is succeeded by another. Whether it is Shuckburgh's transition from the Labourite Morrison to the Conservative Eden or Henderson's from the Conservative Butler to the Labourites Gordon Walker and Stewart, the staunchly apolitical attitude of the civil servant is most impressive. Henderson warns, however, that this was dependent on the degree of bipartisanship in foreign policy that existed from the end of World War II until recently, except in the Suez crisis.

In an age when Margaret Thatcher proudly boasts of abandoning the politics of consensus and the Labourites respond, regrettably if understandably, with increasingly radical posturings of their own, one has good reason to be concerned about the traditional code of conduct for civil servants that has served Britain so splendidly for so long.

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