Vol. 38 No. 17 · 8 September 2016

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Failures at the Foreign Office

I was employed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until 2010, long after Oliver Miles left, and there is to my mind a lot of force in his assessment of its failure to speak truth to power over Iraq (Letters, 11 August). Returning in 2005 after eight years abroad, I quickly came to understand that this was not the FCO I knew and (almost) loved – an institution traditionally full of the most talented, eccentric and outspoken individuals. The new atmosphere of conformity and demoralisation was palpable, aggravated by the rapid turnover of foreign secretaries and junior ministers.

Firmly in charge were the Blair collaborators, underpinned by a new generation of liberal interventionists propelled to stardom by the Yugoslav crisis of the 1990s – some having arrived sideways from politics, the UN, charities or the media. Longer-serving diplomats formed a passive resistance, or a silent majority at any rate, and seemed to be regarded with suspicion, as if fatally infected with the scepticism and circumspection learned during the long conflicts of the Cold War. Now, career advancement was expressly linked to volunteering for (futile but preferably repeated) stints of duty in war zones like Baghdad, Basra, Kabul and Lashkar Gah, a willingness to be shot at seemingly trumping all other qualifications.

At the same time, in response to mounting pressure on resources from 2007 onwards, the FCO fell victim to a cult of managerialism that seemed to regard foreign policy as an inconvenient side-issue. Under a faddish doctrine of providing a ‘facilitating platform across government’, the FCO stopped trying to do anything well on its own, and was soon known to the general public only for its travel advice. The FCO entered the coalition years as a hollowed-out shell, symbolised by the scrapping of the diplomatic service language school and David Miliband’s dismantling of the splendid Victorian library.

Some think that Thatcher started the rot by sucking foreign policy away to Number Ten. But it was Iraq that decisively ended the FCO’s position as a great – once the greatest – department of state. Where was it, for instance, in the EU referendum debate, the biggest foreign policy issue for generations? The appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary might be seen as the final sick joke, a nadir of institutional humiliation. Ever the optimist, I cling to the thought that the same was probably said of Ernest Bevin, who turned out an unexpected success.

David Roberts
West Horsley, Surrey

Killed by Tigers

Katherine Rundell’s article on Saki mentions the story that ‘an ancestor was killed by a tiger while on a hunting expedition’ (LRB, 11 August). That was Hugh Munro, son of General Sir Hector Munro of Novar, who died on Sagar Island, Bengal, in 1792. Many Europeans, including at least one other Munro, were killed by tigers in India; a Calcutta silversmith called Dawson had died in the same place and manner six years earlier. Hugh’s death differed in that he had a famous father and the graphic account of his death by his companion Captain Consar was published in numerous British newspapers and magazines at the time and has been frequently reprinted since.

The story has come also to be associated with the mechanical organ built for Tipu Sultan, the self-styled ‘Tiger of Mysore’. The first description of the device found in Tipu’s palace following his defeat at Srirangapatna in 1799 was by James Salmond in 1800, and includes a drawing ‘taken from a piece of mechanism representing a royal tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European’, an ‘emblematical triumph’ of Tipu over the English. The tiger itself was exhibited in London not long afterwards. Whether or not Tipu had any specific British enemy in mind, Salmond’s illustration seems the likely inspiration for the Staffordshire porcelain models depicting ‘The Death of Munrow’ that appeared about this time. It has also been suggested that Tipu’s tiger inspired Saki’s avenging polecat-ferret Sredni Vashtar.

The unfortunate Hugh is sometimes said to be Saki’s great-great-uncle. However, despite the shared surname, there is no good evidence that they were closely related. Saki’s paternal grandfather, Charles Adolphus Munro, was born in Calcutta about 1787, so his father would have been Hugh’s contemporary. All four of Hector of Novar’s natural children were openly acknowledged, Hugh himself had no known issue, and his half-brothers were too young to have fathered Charles. (Both of these half-brothers also died young; one killed by a shark off Bombay, and the other at sea on the journey home.) In any case, Charles Adolphus would have been an unlikely name in the Novar family. Just as the death of Munro has been grafted onto the image of Tipu’s Tiger, Munro himself may have been posthumously adopted into Saki’s ancestry, or indeed the association may be authenticated only by repetition.

Colin Munro

Throwaway beat Zinfandel

Is it possible that horse-racing does not count among Andrew O’Hagan’s many interests (LRB, 28 July)? He mentions the episode in Ulysses where Leopold Bloom has a drink at Davy Byrne’s ‘before getting into a conversation with Nosey Flynn about the Epsom Gold Cup. “Zinfandel’s the favourite," Flynn says.’ It was of course the Ascot Gold Cup on 16 June 1904 which plays an important part in the book, in that conversation and in the scene later at Barney Kiernan’s pub, when there is a mistaken belief that Bloom has backed the winner, the 20-1 outsider Throwaway, which beat Zinfandel by a length. Zinfandel had won the Coronation Cup a fortnight earlier at Epsom: he would probably have won the Derby there the previous year too but for the death of his owner, which in those days meant that his entry had to be scratched.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Would Dante be sued?

George Schlesinger fell for an over enthusiastic sales pitch (Letters, 28 July). Ciaran Carson’s translation of Dante’s Inferno wasn’t ‘the first ever version by an Irish poet’. The Irish cleric and poet Henry Boyd published his version in 1785 (and then added the Purgatorio and the Paradiso some years later).

Peter Jackson

Out of Step

‘Some of Corbyn’s positions are flatly unpopular,’ Tom Crewe writes (LRB, 11 August). ‘On Trident especially he is way out of step with public opinion.’ He supplies no evidence in support of this wild statement. The CND’s website lists 11 different polls over the last ten years that have indicated majorities against renewal of Trident: 63 per cent in the Mail on Sunday in June 2010, 58 per cent in the Independent in September 2009 and so on. Stop the War cites data compiled by Nick Ritchie and Paul Ingram, who reviewed all the polling data between 2005 and July 2013. They found that ‘13 representative polls have offered a straight choice between renewing Trident or not. Opinion has varied from poll to poll and from year to year, but seven surveys have found more opposition to renewal than support.’ The average was 39.4 per cent in favour of renewing Trident and 44.4 per cent against, with the rest unsure. When the cost of Trident is mentioned, support tends to drop significantly. In a study conducted by Greenpeace in 2005, for example, 44 per cent supported Trident and 46 per cent opposed it, but if an alternative spending proposal was mentioned – the number of schools that could be built instead – just 33 per cent remained in favour and 54 per cent against. A YouGov poll in 2009 that offered alternative spending proposals found that just 30 per cent opted to spend the money on nuclear weapons.

What’s more, these polls were taken when the costs of Trident were estimated to be much lower than they are now. The lifetime cost of Trident is currently estimated at £205 billion and, according to the Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, could rise exponentially. ‘This is a colossal investment in a weapons system that will become increasingly vulnerable,’ he has said, ‘and for whose security we will have to throw good money after bad – in fact tens of billions more than already estimated – to try to keep it safe in the decades to come.’

Frank Stone
Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Brexit Blues

‘If there is hope,’ Martin Loughlin writes, ‘it lies with the Scots’ (LRB, 28 July). Let us hope so. But Loughlin’s analysis omits one crucial factor. Every democracy requires its own demos which, traditionally understood, is something unique, particular and localised, an identity that includes some and excludes others. Many of those who voted to leave the EU clearly felt alienated and disenfranchised, deprived of their own cherished demos by the shift towards a cosmopolitan constitution. They felt that their identity was under attack. This effect operated very differently in Scotland and England, as the voting figures show, and one reason is surely the different ideas of national identity that have developed in the two countries.

For two hundred years, most Scots saw themselves as having two distinct ‘national’ identities, Scottish and British, and became used to switching between them according to context. It was relatively easy for them to add a further, European layer of identity and thus to count themselves as part of more than one demos. And it was then a short step to think of sovereignty as something that can be shared and dispersed.

The English experience is very different. While most English people recognise, much of the time, that England, Britain and the UK are different things, there is no established public discourse which defines their different roles. As a result English national identity remains muddled and uncertain, clinging to a monolithic past that is poorly adapted to a globalised world. The introduction of a federal or confederal constitution for the UK or the Atlantic archipelago will require the creation of a redefined, multi-level English identity. Whether the necessary will and resources are available is anyone’s guess.

Dennis Smith

What have we done?

Christopher Lord is surely onto something regarding the rise of comedians in politics (Letters, 28 July). I can’t be the only person to have noticed that Eddie Izzard (unsuccessfully) put himself forward as a Constituency Labour Party candidate for the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee.

Simon Down
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge

If a US senator counts as a political leader, there’s also the example of Al Franken, who was a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live from the 1970s to the 1990s. He has served in Congress since 2009.

Benjamin Friedman
New York

Another comedian turned politician is Jón Gnarr of Iceland, who formed the Best Party in 2009 with the aim of making the lives of citizens more fun. The party won six out of 15 seats on the Reykjavík City Council and Gnarr served as the city’s mayor from 2010 to 2014.

John O’Byrne

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