Death of the last of the Diplomatic Superstars

‘Diplomatic Superstar’ is how a friend described Nicko Henderson in e-mailing to me the website addresses of the obituaries in the Times and the Daily Telegraph of Sir Nicholas Henderson, GCMG KCVO, who died yesterday aged 89.  For my money, however, the best, most penetrating and most personal of the obituaries in the heavies (not counting The Independent which hasn’t yet published one) is in today’s Guardian, by Fiona MacCarthy, the biographer and cultural historian.

    Sir Nicholas HendersonBut there is a quite remarkable lacuna in the Guardian’s obituary.  Ms MacCarthy, alone among the obituarists, omits to describe the circumstances in which Henderson (universally known as ‘Nicko’ even by those, like me, who didn’t know him personally) was appointed British ambassador in Washington, the plummiest of all plummy diplomatic posts, after he had reached the mandatory Diplomatic Service retirement age of 60 and had indeed formally retired.  His last posting before retirement had been as ambassador in Paris, and in accordance with then standard practice (one foolishly abolished by those currently in charge of our diplomacy) he wrote a final valedictory despatch from Paris summing up his impressions and experiences in 40 years as a star British diplomat, offering general thoughts about the place of Britain in the world and what could be done about it.  Also in accordance with invariable practice, the despatch was classified ‘confidential’, enabling Henderson to write with great frankness about what he saw as Britain’s sad decline in the world.  However, the despatch was leaked to The Economist magazine, which published it in its entirety.  The appearance of the despatch — formally declassified years later and now available in facsimile on the Web (PDF file) — caused a rumpus;  Margaret Thatcher, just installed as prime minister, read it and liked it, despite its strongly pro-European stance; and it has always been assumed that it was Mrs Thatcher’s admiration for the despatch which caused her to send this retired, 60-year-old former diplomat as Britain’s representative in the United States in 1979 — although according to Wikipedia, “It is now known that Mrs Thatcher had first asked Sir Edward Heath to take up the post, but he had refused the offer”).  As it turned out, Henderson’s was an inspired appointment:  Nicko laid on a bravura performance in defence of British interests when Argentina invaded the British colony of the Falkland Islands in 1982, appearing all over the American media, exploiting his excellent personal relations with everyone who counted in Washington DC, tirelessly setting out the British case for recovering the islands by military force, winning over nervous US public opinion, and thus enabling the US government (which included several powerful figures who sided with the Argentinians for the sake of US relations with Latin America) to provide Britain with indispensable intelligence and hardware without which the recovery of the Falklands would almost certainly have been impossible.

It seems curious, against this background, that the Guardian obituary should have omitted the story of the leaked despatch, even going so far as to assert that it was the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, who had “asked Henderson to take over in Washington”:  no mention of Mrs Thatcher, no word of the despatch.  So far as I know, no-one has ever revealed who was responsible for this major leak, nor, despite intense speculation, whether Henderson had himself been privy to it or even perhaps had personally engineered it.  There seems to have been no formal leak enquiry.  Under the 30-year rule the relevant official documents should be made available this year in the National Archives at Kew.  Perhaps some diligent researcher will then be able to unearth the answers; or with Henderson’s death, perhaps the Economist will feel free to reveal who had passed that famous document to them, giving them what must be their most celebrated scoop.  Meanwhile we can only speculate about the significance, if any, of this striking omission from the Guardian’s obituary.

I didn’t know Nicko Henderson personally, although his was an almost tangible presence in the British ambassador’s residence in Warsaw where J and I lived many years later:  he and his Greek wife Mary were exceptionally fondly remembered by the Polish staff there.  Before his time in Poland (and later as ambassador to Germany and then France) Henderson had been for a time the number two in Madrid, during the Franco era.  At that time I, much more junior and younger, was doing the decolonisation job in the UK Mission to the United Nations in New York.  One of the great issues at the time was the future of Gibraltar, with Spain continuously angling for a UN resolution calling on Britain to give back the Rock (and simultaneously giving the Gibraltarians a hard time in the apparent belief that this would eventually persuade them to ask to be handed over to Madrid), while the UK asserted that its legal title to Gibraltar was impeccable and above all that a huge majority of the people of Gibraltar wanted no change in their status as citizens of a British colony.  I (and others in the British Mission to the UN) had considerable correspondence with Henderson in Madrid on the tactics to be adopted at the UN on the Gibraltar issue.  Some British diplomats succumb to the temptation to see the world through the eyes of the government of the country where they are serving, and it wouldn’t have been too surprising if Henderson had deployed to London and to us in New York the arguments for handing over the Rock to Spain, thus greatly improving Anglo-Spanish relations and so promoting British interests in Spain.  But my recollection (possibly faulty — the files in the National Archives may either show otherwise, or confirm my impression) is that Nicko was robust in his support for the principle that the wishes of the inhabitants must be paramount and that they should not be delivered like cattle into the hands of Spain whether they liked it or not, whatever the consequences for Anglo-Spanish relations.  Fiat justitia, ruat coelum! I sometimes wondered whether his equally robust defence of the rights and wishes of the Falklanders, years later when he was ambassador in Washington, might have owed something to his dealings with Spain over Gibraltar.

Fortunately post-Franco Spain has adopted a rather more far-sighted attitude towards Gibraltar, and without in any way giving up its claim to the territory, has moved to a policy of cooperation and dialogue as a more promising route to an eventual decision by the Gibraltarians to consent to the territory being transferred back to Spain — if the famous apes ever give their consent as well.


4 Responses

  1. As a former colleague in the foreign service of our country I am sorry to see you perpetuating the thesis, as if it were pretty typical, of ambassadors going native (promoting their host rather than their own country’s policies), to the extent even of suggesting that Nico Henderson deserves credit because a lesser man might have advocated the handing back of Gibraltar to Spain in the interests of improving Anglo-Spanish relations. Going native in your sense is always a danger, but I never found it in my own career. Rather the contrary. So it is surely very much the exception rather than the rule, as you imply by giving credit where it really isn’t due (at least for that reason) as if in contrast to some other more typical behaviour. 

    Which is not to say that we all always thought HMG’s policies the best ones or even right, but on other grounds than having gone native, ie a very different kettle of fish. There can of course be legitimate differences of opinion about what is in the UK interest without thereby being seen as, let alone being sold out to, the other side. Integrity demands that ambassadors should sometimes run the risk of being seen as sold out by ideologues back home. That of course is what Nico did over the EU (then EC). Was he sold out or intellectually convinced? Should he have not done it on the grounds that that wasn’t the policy of the government of the day (especially during the perido of renegotiation of our terms of membership in 1073, before the referendum)?

    Brian (B) writes: I am grateful to Sir Brian Crowe, a distinguished former colleague, for expressing in such fair terms his dissent from one point in my piece, above, about Nico (or Nicko?) Henderson. I am replying soon in a separate comment which will appear below.

  2. Brian says:

    Sir Brian Crowe, in his comment above, has perhaps read rather more into my blog post than is actually there, or anyway more than I intended.  I wrote that:

    Some British diplomats succumb to the temptation to see the world through the eyes of the government of the country where they are serving, and it wouldn’t have been too surprising if Henderson had deployed to London and to us in New York the arguments for handing over the Rock [Gibraltar] to Spain, thus greatly improving Anglo-Spanish relations and so promoting British interests in Spain.

    I certainly wouldn’t claim that “seeing the world through the eyes of the government where they are serving” is or was typical of British diplomats’ behaviour, or even that it happened or happens other than very rarely.  But it does happen, perhaps more often in the case of other countries’ diplomats than our own (one example of a senior American diplomat, now long since retired, comes to mind), and sometimes more over minor than significant issues.  Sir Brian Crowe puts his finger on it when he writes that —

    There can of course be legitimate differences of opinion about what is in the UK interest without thereby being seen as, let alone being, sold out to the other side.

    Thus in the case of British diplomats’ positions on Gibraltar while serving in Madrid and quite properly concerned with British-Spanish relations, there might have been a case for arguing that the British interest in promoting better trade and investment relations with Spain should override the British obligation to respect the wishes of the Gibraltarians to remain citizens of a British colony and not to be handed over to Spain. This would not necessarily, or even probably, have been a symptom of going native or selling out to the host country, as the words I used I think made clear. That’s why I pointed out that it wouldn’t have been too surprising — nor, I might have added, necessarily discreditable — if Henderson, as No.2 in the British embassy in Madrid at the time, had advanced such an argument, based on an assessment of British interests and obligations, not as a symptom of selling out to a (then fascist) Spanish government.  Some British diplomats based in Latin American countries did in fact argue that the then dispute with Spain was damaging British commercial and other relations with Latin American countries and that the lesser of the two evils might be to yield to Spanish demands for the return of Gibraltar, perhaps with lavish safeguards for the Gibraltarians.  Whether such arguments flowed from an objective attempt to weigh conflicting British interests, or reflected a natural desire for cosy relations with the host governments’ officials with whom they had to share many a dinner table, it is impossible to say. Both, probably.

    Similar arguments from the same sources were also advanced for terminating the damaging dispute with Argentina over the Falklands by ceding them to Argentina, rather than perpetuating the damage inflicted by the dispute on British interests in central and south America by continuing to bow to the wish of a handful of Falkland Islanders to remain British.  This was, perhaps, a legitimate argument about where the balance of advantage to British interests, or between British interests and British obligations, really lay.  But in some cases the British diplomats concerned undoubtedly had ‘gone native’ to the extent of allowing their judgement to be distorted by sympathy with the host governments’ aspirations, and by the desire to foster ‘good relations’ with them as an end in itself, rather than making a dispassionate assessment of purely British interests and obligations.  I continue to believe that Nicko Henderson deserved credit for recognising that Britain’s obligations to the Gibraltarians had to be paramount, even if that complicated and hampered the equally legitimate task of promoting British interests in Spain.

    In general, my experience (like Sir B. Crowe’s) was that the overwhelming majority of our British colleagues unwaveringly and single-mindedly committed themselves to the defence and promotion of British interests, occasionally indeed to a fault;  and that they loyally sought, as no doubt they still seek, to ensure the success of British government policies, even when they had privately argued against them in their recommendations to their political masters in London.  It would be difficult to identify a British diplomat in my or Sir Brian Crowe’s time who had deliberately sought to claim precedence for his own personal views and values over the declared policies of elected ministers.  The question raised by Sir B Crowe — whether Sir Nicholas Henderson’s strongly pro-European views constituted a kind of disloyalty to the policies of a more Eurosceptical British government — is perhaps more complex.  I would argue that it’s legitimate to distinguish between, on the one hand, a diplomat’s right to colour his policy recommendations to his government with his own values and perceptions of his country’s long-term interests, provided that he does so openly and explicitly, and on the other hand his duty to accept and promote his government’s policy decisions after his recommendations have been properly considered and, on occasion, rejected.  Whether the great Nicko Henderson, serving later as ambassador in two of the great European capitals (Bonn and Paris), loyally observed that distinction in his Europhile enthusiasm, I have no idea.  It would be nice to think that he did. 

    Finally, I entirely endorse Sir Brian Crowe’s view, expressed elsewhere, that British diplomats enjoy a much higher reputation and often exercise a much greater influence internationally than public opinion at home seems to recognise.  Why this should be it is perhaps for others to speculate.  The high reputation isn’t invariably deserved, but the influence is invariably valuable, and a serious British national asset.  The pity is that in recent years successive British governments have too often neglected that asset, sidelining the private advice of their professional diplomats and ignoring their warnings.  Some at least of the disastrous failures of British foreign policy of recent years might have been avoided if it had been otherwise.


  3. Oliver Miles says:

    It is often alleged that the “Camel Corps”, the Arabists of the British Diplomatic Service (of whom I was one) are an example of going native, meaning that they sympathise with and support Arab causes not only at the expense of Israel but at the expense of British interests. This was the subject of a recent book “Loaded Dice” by Dr Neill Lochery, a lecturer in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish studies at UCL, which I reviewed for the Guardian. It is an academic study mainly based on Foreign Office papers released under the 30 year rule covering the period from 1948 to 1976. As I wrote in my review, broadly speaking the verdict is not guilty. Subordinating British interests to Arab interests would “have almost been considered to be treasonable action among Foreign Office officials . . . The Foreign Office is not guilty of being systematically anti-Israeli. It is equally clear that it is not institutionally pro-Arab either.” But this verdict is qualified by the observation that British interests have been identified as mainly on the Arab side, and that “Israel has, as a result, come a pretty poor second.”
    Lochery quotes a couple of examples of reporting about Israel which I would consider anti-Semitic. They are both by British ambassadors in Tel Aviv who were not Arabists, thus exemplifying another fault to which some members of our profession are liable, running down the locals.
    A widespread and slightly different form of going native which can also lead to poor judgement is to imagine that the matters with which one is dealing in a given country or region are more important to Britain than is really the case. I plead guilty; I remember very well my surprise, on taking up a post with responsibility for export promotion worldwide, to find that our exports to Saudi Arabia (for example), which I had always regarded as a very high priority British interest, were actually less than our exports to – say – Belgium or Ireland. Such errors are not of course confined to diplomats: Lochery writes that Israel is Britain’s largest trading partner in the Middle East region, which is not true today and has probably never been true.

    Brian writes: This interesting comment raises two very suggestive points: first, the tendency of some diplomats (not only British) to become emotionally committed to one side or another in a conflict or adversarial situation, which is subtly different from “going native” in the sense of lapsing into working for your (i.e. one’s) host country’s interests instead of for your own, but may be almost equally liable to warp your judgement, damage your ability to be reasonably objective, and reduce your capacity to report impartially to your capital with balanced policy recommendations; and, secondly, the opposite of ‘going native’ — what Oliver in this comment tellingly calls “running down the natives”. Diplomats serving in disagreeable countries, often in harsh physical conditions, conducting relations with dictatorial or oppressive governments, communist or otherwise, innately hostile to their own, or in countries plagued by corruption, incompetence, and insecurity (as often in the third world), may tend to blind themselves to any positive features of the situation, potential common ground, opportunities for supporting democratic elements in civil society, or any openings for constructive dialogue or support such as development or humanitarian aid. They may vent their contempt and disgust in damning reports to their governments, replete with illustrations of local failings and injustices. These are often elegant and very funny; but such attitudes warp judgement and perceptions as surely as going native, or taking sides. Truly, the temptations that beset innocent diplomats are many and seductive!

  4. Interesting exchanges.

    My problem with the FCO Camel Corps is not their political sympathy with Arab causes, although some were pretty obvious about that. Rather I found depressing their collective failure down the decades to dwell sufficiently on the accumulating political impoverishment and associated human rights disasters in the Arab world, and to push forward options for doing something about it. The roots of much post-WW2 Arab national socialism in the Nazi movement and consequent rampant anti-semitism in much of the official Arab media also seemed not to appear as much of a theme in the standard FCO analysis of ‘Arab’ (and indeed Israeli) attitudes.

    Thus what did we do about the Hama massacre in Syria when that vile regime wiped out and tortured some 20,000 of its own citizens, a crime against humanity far exceeding Srebrenica? How hard did we really press to force that subject up the international agenda and to try to bring the perpatrators to justice? Not hard enough, I suspect. There seems to have been an implicit feeling that Arabs were ‘different’ and so had to be left to their human rights abuses (the more so if the violence was being done to teach radical islamists a lesson). Oddly racist and/or patronising? But, worse, unwise for our interests in the longer run?

    Of course the policy imperative binding all this together has been our (Western) own reliance on Saudi oil, which in turn created a powerful tendency in many Western capitals to do nothing to challenge the intellectual roots of that form of Islamic intolerance, and to back down when confronted by periodic Saudi outrage. Hence (in part) the moral and political confusion we see today on many domestic and international policy fronts simultaneously.

    Brian writes: Thanks to you for this and to the other old soldiers who have contributed the equally stimulating comments above. On the specific points you make, I am (happily) too inexpert and inexperienced in middle east affairs to be qualified to comment, but I hope other cavalrymen of the Camel Corps, and others, will do so.