The Foreign Secretaries (19): Michael Stewart

Michael_StewartMichael Stewart, 1965-66, 1968-70

Labour, under Harold Wilson

Michael Stewart was the son of a lecturer father and a teacher. His father’s death left the family short of money. Thus, Stewart went to Christ’s Hospital, Horsham, and won a scholarship to St John’s, Oxford, where he won firsts in classics and PPE. He then went on to teach and became active in Labour politics. From 1942, he served in intelligence before joining the Army Educational Corps. He was one of the many Labour new entrants to the Commons in 1945.

Under Attlee, he served in the whip’s office and the ministry of war. In opposition, he was shadow minister of education, and then in housing and local government. He was a prominent member of the Fabian Society. He was a natural fit for education in 1964. However, when Patrick Gordon-Walker resigned, after losing the Leyton by-election, Wilson gave Stewart the Foreign Office.

What the prime minister dispenses he may withdraw. In 1966, the internal wrangling with George Brown and the economic crises that bedevilled the government led Wilson to decide to give Brown the Foreign Office. Thus, Stewart went to the department of economic affairs. When Brown resigned in 1968, Stewart went back to the Foreign Office.

As foreign secretary, he faced three very difficult issues. The first was Rhodesia, whose white politicians deeply distrusted him. Another difficult issue was the Biafra War. Nigeria’s Biafrans wanted independence. The Nigerian government crushed the Biafrans by force. Around a million died, mostly a war-induced famine. Stewart strongly supported the Nigerian government, believing that the breaking up of a great African nation into smaller parts would be deeply destabilising for the continent as a whole.

Then there was the issue of Vietnam. Despite immense diplomatic pressure, the Wilson government refused to send troops to Vietnam. To minimise the political fallout from that, Stewart spoke publicly and very strongly in support of the Americans. Stewart was supportive of both NATO and the Atlantic alliance, and distrustful of the Soviets. That Cold War worldview lay behind his policies in both Africa and over Vietnam.

The late ‘sixties saw the onrush of student radicalism, and the rise of the new left. Stewart became a hate figure for the jejune would-be Che Guevaras of the LSE and North London. With the benefit of hindsight, and having seen the impact that the Iraq War had on Labour under Blair, keeping Britain out of Vietnam, yet maintaining the Atlantic alliance intact looks like no mean diplomatic achievement.

Stewart paid the political price when he failed to win election to the shadow cabinet after Labour lost office in 1970. His manner didn’t help. At the DEA, union leaders thought him cold and distant. His manner was dry and unyielding, schoolmasterly even. He stayed on the backbenches, before leading Labour’s delegation in the first European parliament and taking a peerage in 1979.

Stewart remains one of only three men to have held the foreign office twice. On the most important foreign policy issue of the mid-sixties, Vietnam, Stewart had been absolutely right. Insofar as he stiffen Wilson’s backbone, and elucidated Wilsonian wisdom, he mattered. Vietnam had the potential to do immense damage to British body politic, and to Anglo-American relations. That it did neither remains Stewart’s most important contribution to British history.

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