Center for Strategic Communication

By Sarwar Kashmeri

“Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role,” former Secretary of State Dean Acheson presciently observed in his 1962 speech at the U.S. Military Academy/West Point.  It is the epigram with which David Hannay, the former British diplomat, and one of Britain’s most distinguished foreign service veterans, introduces his insightful, informative, timely, and enjoyable book, Britain’s Quest For a Role: A Diplomatic Memoir from Europe to the U.N.  (I.B. Tauris & Co., Ltd., 2013)

Hannay’s service in the British diplomatic corps was honed the old fashioned way: he started at the bottom and worked to the top.

His almost 50 years in service began during the period after World War II when Britain had lost its empire but still had the trappings of its erstwhile role. (Or as Hannay puts it, “my first proper diplomatic post…[was] one with the fascinatingly anachronistic title of Oriental Secretary, in Kabul.”) He started his career in 1960 driving his Land Rover from England to Iran to take up a junior position at the British Embassy, and then worked his way through a number of jobs of increasing responsibility in countries that span the globe: Iran, Afghanistan, Brussels, London, Washington and New York, where he was Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations. Not a bad inning.

Hannay writes with the certainty of a university don and the sophistication of a classically trained diplomat. He has had to choose what to emphasize and what to mention without elaboration. His formula works well because it keeps the memoir flowing around his primary focus, which is the tectonic shift in Britain’s place in the world, from empire to a middling world power, and Hannay’s ringside seat during the years of transformation.

His inning spanned a critical time in contemporary British, European, and world geopolitics. Hannay’s career began shortly after the Suez debacle through which Britain (and France) learnt that the sun had finally set on its days of hegemony. He takes his reader through the Cold War days, the birth of a new and integrated Europe and the consequences to Britain of thumbing its nose at this development. Through serving as the #2 at the British Embassy in Washington, and then assuming the top spot at the U.N.

Hannay played a leading role in some of the U.N.’s most productive years and his insider look at how the U.N. functions in time of global stress. Some of the more interesting parts of the book are his early observations after assuming a new position. Upon moving to Washington D.C., “The great federal buildings-the Capitol, the White House, the memorials to former Presidents…oozed grandeur, power and wealth…but go a block or two…and you were in malodorous slums where the incidence of violent crime meant that it was extremely unwise to stop your car and plain silly to walk around at night.” And shortly after taking up his U.N. posting,  “I have been quite started by the extent to which the UN is a cast-ridden society. First there are the five Permanent Members of the Security Council, then the non-permanent members and then the rest, all 140 plus of them.”

Hannay’s memoir moves the reader briskly through these postings with much of the narrative devoted to the one area that has dominated British politics for half a century — Europe’s transformation into the European Union and Britain’s role or lack of it in this process.

Acheson had made it a personal mission to convince Britain to join the European Coal and Steel Community, forerunner of what is now the European Union. Together with President Truman, he was convinced long-term U.S. national interests required that Britain be a founding member of an integrated Europe, and he was hugely disappointed by its refusal to do so. “From the bitter fruits of this mistake both Britain and Europe are still suffering,” he said some years later.

Britain not only refused to join the Coal and Steel Community but set up a rival organization to try and torpedo the nascent European attempts at integration. The so-called European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA) was a flop and soon died on the vine, but it left behind an enormous amount of ill towards Britain. The European integration project soon succeeded beyond expectation, and Britain wanted in, only to find its way blocked by France, which black-balled Britain’s application twice. This “quid pro quo” mentality angered the British and established a cycle of doubt and mistrust that plagues British-European relations to this day.

David Hannay was sent to Brussels during Britain’s third (and successful) attempt to join the European Community and witnessed first hand the costs to Britain of not being a founding member. It had to negotiate its way into what was then a small club of six countries that had already developed membership rules, rules that had been set up without any input from Britain.

The most sensitive issue in the entry negotiations was the community budget that the six founding members had agreed for themselves. “As a country which traded more with the world outside the Community than did the Six, and as one which imported a much higher proportion of its food…Britain was bound to contribute disproportionately to the Community’s revenue,” Hannay explains. Negotiations on this issue almost scuttled Britain’s attempts to join and have been a source of friction between Britain and the Community’s members ever since. “Had we tried to change the financial arrangements we would have run a considerable risk that the French would not have agreed and the negotiations for our accession would have failed.”

The peace bought by the interim agreements on EU financing (for simplicity I’ll use “European Union” even though it would be a few years before the EC became the EU) ended when Margaret Thatcher assumed the presidency. She was furious at what she described, with a fair amount of justification, as Britain’s oversized contribution to the EU’s budget and took on her fellow members with gusto.

Hannay has some splendid stories to tell of Thatcher in her glory years as she put on the gloves to negotiate Britain’s corner. After a Heads of State and Government dinner during a crucial point in the negotiations he recalls “Margaret Thatcher, in a long blue evening dress with diamond earrings glittering swept towards us crying out, ‘they say it’s their money and I say it’s mine!’” And at a later conversation with Hannay, when he compared the negotiations with Brussels to the game of snakes and ladders and told her his job was to find the ladders and avoid the snake, “Oh no, David, you are quite wrong there. In Brussels they are all snakes!”

The half-in, half-out relationship between Britain and the EU continues to this day. I was reminded of how strongly some Britons feel about the EU during a recent talk I gave at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. During the discussion period, I prefaced my answer to a question asked in an unmistakably English accent by saying that “as a European you know,” only to be cut short with a curt, “For your information I am not European, I am British.” She happened to be working at one of Washington’s conservative think-tanks and made no bones in her retort about how the entire EU machinery ought to be ground into dust.

A large part of the disdain some Britons feel towards the EU has to do with, in Hannay’s words, “the sacred ark of ‘The Special Relationship’ between the United States and Britain.” Acheson had warned Britain about overemphasizing its view of the special relationship and would have nodded knowingly at Hannay’s narrative. “The attempt to play a separate power role, that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based primarily on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States…is about played out,” Acheson had declared. The Obama administration recently provided the other bookend to this observation: As Prime Minister Cameron of Britain began to talk about a referendum to give Britons a chance to leave the EU, the administration sent an unequivocal message that Britain risks damaging its relationship with America and being sidelined in the international community if it leaves the EU.

This book is a view from the trenches where all the nitty-gritty work of diplomacy is done. It is the view of a far-thinking British diplomat who wishes to stop Britain’s drift into becoming an outlier in geopolitics. But beyond that it is a wonderful memoir of a life lived to the hilt in the British foreign service. It is full of serious anecdotes, forthright observations and humor. One bit of warning though: It will take you longer to read than you think because you will want to go back and read many parts of it over again.


Sarwar Kashmeri is a fellow of the Foreign Policy Association. He is adjunct professor of Norwich College, and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center for International Relations. His most recent book was NATO 2.0: Reboot or Delete?