Monday’s Deep End was about the big beasts who could lose their seats on May 7th. But today is about one big beast who’s leaving of his own volition: William Hague.
There’s a tribute, of sorts, in the Economist, which is full of back-handed compliments. The piece is entitled ‘William, it was really nothing’ and it concludes as follows:
“He retires to a pile in Wales and the 18th century, about which he writes fine books. It has been a thoroughly commendable political career; but, especially when set against Mr Hague’s gifts, not a great one.”
It doesn’t help that he’s only 54, no more than a mid-career point for the great statesmen of the past. Still, is his record really so lacking in achievement?
The Economist critique is closest to the mark in respect to his time as Foreign Secretary:
“He did some excellent things—restoring confidence to a department he found to be ‘shockingly’ demoralised, including through a renewed emphasis on learning languages and other lapsed skills. He also expanded its operations, opening 20 missions, especially in India and China, the focus of a commercial push. He was also bold, early on, supporting Mr Cameron’s championing of the Arab spring, including the intervention in Libya in 2011. Mr Hague describes their failure to win parliamentary support for strikes on Syria’s regime in 2013 as one of his ‘worst experiences’.
“But after that setback Mr Cameron seemed to lose interest in the world. And Mr Hague did nothing obvious to fill the gap.”
As I’ve written about before on ConservativeHome, there’s much more than a “gap” to fill. The failure of one western intervention after another has left a yawning void at the heart of all western foreign policy. It’s true that William Hague didn’t do much to fill it as Foreign Secretary, but nor has anyone else, whether in Britain or elsewhere.
As for the specific criticisms laid at Hague’s door, they don’t hold up either:
“Mr Hague’s absence from the early Franco-German efforts to end the Ukraine crisis seemed similarly indicative of shrunken ambition. ‘You can’t be everywhere’, he protests. But when it comes to tackling the continent’s biggest security threats, Britain should always be with its main European allies.”
Angela Merkel already has one Mini-me in the shape of Francois Hollande, she doesn’t need another. If anything, Britain should have condemned Germany for its disastrously misconceived Russia policy – on the one hand ensuring that Europe remains dependent on Russian fossil fuel imports, while on the other playing a geopolitical game in Ukraine it didn’t have the stomach to see through.
On one issue where Hague did take the initiative, the Economist lines up with the Daily Mail in belittling it:
“That Mr Hague was meanwhile more prominent in campaigning against rape in war, often alongside the film star Angelina Jolie, seemed a bit odd. The cause was important, but there was little in the history of such campaigns to suggest it would succeed…”
In fact, previous campaigns against chemical weapons and land mines, to give two examples, have had a great deal of success. To simply assume the futility of a similar effort against the use of rape as a weapon of war is dismissive and defeatist.
The anonymous author is no less negative when it comes to Hague’s leadership of the Conservative Party:
“His spell as party leader (‘I don’t regret taking the leadership on, or giving it up; somebody had to do it’) is harder to enthuse about. After a stab at forging a kinder Conservatism—which remains elusive—he fell back on Euroscepticism, was humiliated in the 2001 election and resigned.”
This leaves a few things out. You know, little things – like saving the party from bankruptcy after its ruinous 1997 election campaign. Hague also began to rebuild the party’s position in local government – and his brilliant parliamentary performances put heart back into the shattered ranks on the Opposition benches. His good-natured but acutely-observed humour wasn’t just a pleasant diversion, it was a much-needed antidote to Tony Blair’s mesmeric charm.
All this and more was achieved in the face of a relentless campaign of sabotage from within the Conservative ranks. The Cameroons may complain about unruly backbenchers, but what Hague (and IDS) had to contend with was worse by an order of magnitude.
Nevertheless, he stood his ground – not just against his internal and external critics, but also the powerful forces pressing for British membership of the Eurozone. Gordon Brown’s caution in this matter deserves an honourable mention, but it was Hague who ensured there would be no cross-party consensus.
Subsequent events have demonstrated that he was absolutely right, while the cheerleaders of the single currency (like a certain periodical one could mention) were utterly wrong.
So farewell, William, and thank you for everything you’ve done – it was really something.