The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s notes

14 October 2017

9:00 AM

14 October 2017

9:00 AM

The Catalan nationalists surely chose this October deliberately for their attempt, now faltering, at UDI. It is the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and the separatist vanguard is the hard-left party, the CUP. Even more vivid in their minds will be Barcelona’s own ‘October Revolution’ of 1934. The then Catalan Nationalist leader, Luis Companys, announced that ‘The monarchical and Fascist powers which have been for some time attempting to betray the Republic have attained their object’ (by the entry of the Catholic party CEDA into the Spanish government). He accordingly proclaimed ‘the Catalan State of the federal Republic of Spain’ and called for a provisional government of all Spain in Barcelona. This revolt failed. The associated miners’ strike in Asturias had the opposite of the desired effect. It gave General Franco his bloody chance to build the reputation which eventually enabled him to position himself as the saviour of Spain. The civil war came closer. So the illegal referendum in Catalonia last week was a long-meditated revenge by the left and an attempted coup d’état. It affected the rights not only of all Catalans, but of all Spaniards. Once they realised what was happening, almost all Spaniards (even on the left), and a narrower majority of Catalans, rejected it. That is why King Felipe was right to broadcast to the nation. The restored monarchy in Spain is there to defend the democratic, constitutional order which prevents civil war recurring. That is why Felipe’s father, Juan Carlos, publicly intervened to crush the ludicrous army coup in the Cortes in 1981. Now this Catalan coup, shrouded in a cloak of democracy, has overreached. This October, we have been living through ten days that (nearly) fooled the world.

Nick Clegg has an ingenious solution to the Brexit problem. He wants Parliament to throw out Brexit and then get the Netherlands Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, and Sir John Major to negotiate how the United Kingdom can be recaptured and bound inside the ‘concentric circles’ which he sees as the future of the EU. I call this the Royal Dutch Shell solution to our national destiny. Certainly, if, as Mr Clegg implies, we are not fit to rule ourselves, it would be preferable to be, like Shell, headquartered in The Hague rather than in Brussels. The idea appeals to Mr Clegg because, with a mother who carries the magnificent name of Hermance Eulalie van den Wall Bake, he is half-Dutch. Perhaps he sees himself as Nick of Orange, leading our Glorious Revolution.

I have been to the more obvious ones — Washington, Moscow, Paris — but I had no idea of their variety and splendour until I opened James Stourton’s new book British Embassies (Francis Lincoln). It appears at just the right time. For years, spending on our embassies has been cut back because of our enslavement to the ‘ring-fenced’ international development budget. Embassies have suffered from the Tony Blair legacy in which lovely buildings and diplomacy itself were seen as ‘elitist’. It is true that, when the fashion for multilateral negotiations carried all before it, some of our embassies and residences became little more than bed-and-breakfast operations for visiting ministers. But with the approach of Brexit, we urgently need to restore bilateral diplomacy. In this cause, the swankier the buildings are, the better. Particularly when, as Stourton’s book shows repeatedly, the swank reflects well not only on Britain, but on the host country. The architectural range — so well acculturated, yet usually so distinctively British — is a history in itself of our unique engagement with the whole world, whether in Brasilia or Bangkok, Athens or Addis Ababa, Tehran or the astonishingly lovely residence in Tunis.

If bilateralism is to work, however, these buildings must be made to live again. For this to happen, ambassadors and their spouses need to regain control from managers who have too often institutionalised the building and relegated them to upstairs flats. For that, in turn, to succeed, we must appoint a greater diversity of ambassadors. The rising generation is strong on geeky negotiators, weaker on people with panache and the capacity to make influential friends. It would be good if there were a few more appointments from outside the Foreign Office. In the past, a key political appointment — Ormsby-Gore in Washington, Soames in Paris — has made a great difference. It would help, too, to put in one or two rich ambassadors ready to splash out their own money on promoting Britain abroad. The story and the stones (and brick and even concrete) of our wonderful embassies show the many ways in which this task can be accomplished.

One living ex-ambassador who did diplomacy which really mattered is Christopher Mallaby. He was ambassador to West Germany when the Wall came down, and so moved from Bonn to Berlin. His memoirs (Living the Cold War, Amberley) are also out this week. He has an arresting story from his boyhood, when his father, in 1945, commanded a British brigade of 6,000 Indian troops helping restore part of Indonesia to the Dutch after the Japanese occupation. His work was unpopular with Indonesian nationalists: ‘The BBC announced on the six o’clock news on 30 October that my father had been assassinated in Indonesia. The War Office had not told my mother. The shock was terrible.’ The nine-year-old Christopher was sent home from prep school. A few days later, the postman handed him a letter. When he looked at the envelope, he realised it was from his father. ‘My mother was resting in bed. I took her the letter and asked whether she could bear to read it. She managed a smile and read it there and then. My father had written it three days before he died.’ His mother was a widow for 53 years. Christopher did not see his father’s grave in Jakarta until 2013. His tombstone carries lines from Wordsworth: ‘More brave for this,/ That he hath much to love.’ This story, and the way it is told, show so powerfully what a life of service meant.

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