Thursday, July 14, 2016

Sir Max Hastings at The Strand Group, while history unfolded outside

While history was being made last night, we gathered in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to hear one of our leading historians, Sir Max Hastings, deliver the Sir Michael Quinlan Annual Lecture. The event was curated, hosted and presented by Dr Jon Davis, someone who has been influential in my recent career change, and frankly inspirational in how he has delivered public engagement from his berth at King's College London, the Policy at King's initiative and the Strand Group. 

Alongside former permanent secretarys, ministers, and no doubt representatives from the guardians of our security - to quote Sir Max - the "spooks, geeks and thugs" we witnessed a provocative and timely look at Secret Wars and Future Wars from the prolific author and former Telegraph editor.

I took three things from the lecture, these are my thoughts, not those of either speaker (I'll add a link as soon as it's available).
  • A free society cherishes freedom in how it allows intelligence to operate, and in how it is managed. Churchill got this, the dons and academics who were allowed time and space often challenged him. Despots don't allow this. Intelligence appears to have been manipulated to suit the purposes of the perceived requirements of the commissioner, over weapons in Iraq. But as Orwell said: "Liberty, if it means anything, is telling people what they don't want to hear."
  • State security services, the diplomatic corp and the Ministry of Defence aren't able to recruit the brightest and best. This has been true for a long time. Money talks, but many British public servants are attracted to the sheer professional challenge of Brussels and the work of the Commission. That will all change now. But what of the notion of nationhood, a cause for which so many were prepared to sacrifice so much? A fractured nation, a divided culture, Scottish devolution, post-Brexit Britain. I wonder how vital this now seems. Edward Snowden is regarded as patriotic by many for his whistleblowing; to Sir Max, with whom I agree, he's a traitor.     
  • Statecraft is a serious business. At the end Jon Davis updated us that the news from next door that this great office of state, once held by David Owen, Douglas Hurd and, until he died, Tony Crosland, will be occupied by (pause for a gasp) Boris Johnson. We thought he was having a joke at the expense of the special guest, a piercing critic. But no. I'll give it six months. 

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