The Spectator's Notes

What would Thatcher have made of Putin?

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

When Sir Tony Brenton writes a letter to the Times, as he frequently does, it always says at the bottom that he was British ambassador to Moscow. The uninformed reader could be forgiven for thinking the sub-editors have got it back to front and he was actually Russian ambassador to London. Sir Tony’s message in every letter is ‘It’s all Britain’s fault’. In his latest, his particular target was the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, after her visit to Moscow. He said she ‘might usefully recall Margaret Thatcher’s wise message to Mikhail Gorbachev sent in 1985 as perestroika began to take off: “We know that you have as much right to feel secure as we do”’. It is hard to think of a less apt comparison. In 1985, Mrs Thatcher was offering Gorbachev some trust because she believed — correctly, though she exaggerated his power — that he was trying to reform the Soviet Union and wind down the Cold War. In 2022, Vladimir ‘Inky Poops’ Putin has massed 130,000 troops on the border of an independent democracy and is ready to invade it. It is not perestroika that is beginning to take off, but unprovoked war. If Gorbachev then had been like Putin now, Mrs Thatcher would not have uttered the words Sir Tony quotes. She did not tell the Soviets they had a right to security when they invaded Afghanistan. In 1976, she spoke so strongly against Soviet expansionism and subversion that they christened her ‘the Iron Lady’. They meant it as a mockery, but the name turned out well for her. Can’t Sir Tony see that Putin is taking Russia in the opposite direction from that which she welcomed?

Air Vice-Marshal Sir Erik Bennett, who has just died, was perhaps the last example of what used to be called an imperial loan officer. He exerted his greatest influence on behalf of Britain not when working for the RAF, but when setting up and running the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force (SOAF). In his young days, Bennett had helped King Hussein of Jordan learn to fly and had once, it is said, saved him from an assassination attempt in the air. Hussein made him godfather to his son, the present King Abdullah. In the 1970 coup in Oman, with help led by the British brigadier Tim Landon and private support from the British government, the old Sultan was replaced by his son, Qaboos, who was an ex-Sandhurst Anglophile. Young Qaboos asked the British politician Julian Amery for advice on how to get a proper air force. Amery, a good friend of Hussein, said he would talk to the King, and came back with the suggestion of Bennett to set up the SOAF. Appointed in 1974, Bennett quickly brought in 16 Hunters from the Royal Jordanian Air Force, soon followed by Jaguars and, much later, Hawk fighters. Bennett’s skills helped bring about final victory in the long guerrilla war in Dhofar against communist-backed insurgents. In 1991, Bennett refused the Sultan’s offer of becoming Chief of the Defence Staff, saying the post should be ‘Omanised’, but agreed to be, in effect, Qaboos’s gatekeeper. He exercised the role with an alert protectiveness which often enraged visiting British ministers. The Foreign Office wanted him moved out. But there was no doubt that this small, high-voiced airman was ruthlessly efficient, and inspired fear and respect among Omani pilots. He was also, like Qaboos, a bachelor, and the two were close in their dealings. Probably wisely, from an autocrat’s point of view, however, Qaboos kept in touch with Landon after the brigadier had returned to England. ‘It is always useful,’ he would say privately, ‘to let Erik know I have an alternative.’ Both Bennett and Landon were richly rewarded for their Omani work. Qaboos died two years ago.

It is surprising that no one has yet published a full historical account of Britain’s role in Oman. Most of it is semi-secret, and much of it — including the stories of Bennett and Landon — is very interesting. There is plenty of derring-do involved, with a big SAS role in Dhofar (including heroic Fijians) and the remarkable success in winning soldiers of the insurgent Firqat army over to the Sultan’s side. Along the way, lots of interesting British people have been involved, some central, some with walk-on parts — Lord Balniel (now Crawford), Jeremy Phipps, Peter de la Billière, Lord Inge, Lord Salisbury, Maurice Oldfield, the young Ranulph Fiennes and many more. The purpose of the whole thing was strategic, particularly during the Cold War. It mattered, for example, to ensure that the Musandam peninsula, overlooking the straits of Hormuz and cut off from the rest of Oman, was not in the wrong hands. The Oman story is one of British cunning and personal friendship well deployed at a time when, in theory, our writ no longer ran east of Suez. Readers expert in the subject may have spotted mistakes in my account. If so, that makes my point: I am partly in the dark because this tale has yet to be properly told.

When we lived in socialist Islington in the 1980s, cervical smears were all the rage. I received a notice from the council inviting me to come and have one. Assuming this was a mistake, I thought of accepting the invitation and then satirically kicking up a fuss about being denied my human rights if I were turned away on the grounds that I was male. Now I see that my smear notice may not have been an error, but a harbinger of Labour policy in the 21st century. Sir Keir Starmer maintains that it is ‘not right’ to say that only women have a cervix.

The dangers of using predictive text without checking carefully what it says are well known, but I have noticed a new phenomenon by which commercial names are interpolated into predictions. The other day, I was trying to type the word ‘memorial’ into my phone and found it rendered as ‘JPMorgan’.

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