The Home Secretaries (30): Douglas Hurd

Douglas-Hurd-011Douglas Hurd, 1985-89

Conservative, 1985-89

Generally speaking, Conservative home secretaries come in two kinds. The likes of Joynson-Hicks or Michael Howard were hard-liners, not averse to playing to the backbenches, the popular press and the wider party’s oft seen attachment to the moral clampdown, the rope and the birch, stiffer sentences or keeping out immigrants. As often as not, however, Tory home secretaries have come cut from a different cloth, in the Rab Butler mould: reforming, pragmatic and somewhat liberal, even if having to give the backwoodsmen a bit of red meat now and then. Thatcher, always an instinctive Tory above all else, had the natural instincts of the first kind. However, for her first six years in number ten, her first home secretaries were broadly of the latter sort. Many of Hurd’s instincts were liberal, but he was not an especially liberal home secretary.

hurd etonUntil the advent of the Cameron generation, one might have imagined that Douglas Hurd was the last of the great Tory patricians. He was born into Tory politics (his father and grandfather were Conservative members of parliament). He was an Eton scholar, and captain of school (the Eton version of head boy): as such, his penchant for wielding the cane earned the nickname of Hitler. He then did his national service, without pleasure, before graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge with a first in History. His seamless rise was, however, marked by tragedy: whilst Douglas was at Cambridge, his youngest brother killed himself.

From there, he joined the diplomatic service, being posted to China, the United States and Italy. Politics was always very much on the cards, though: as well as being president of the Cambridge Union, he was president of the university Conservative Association. In 1966, he left the diplomatic corps to pursue a career in politics. Hurd became Edward Heath’s private secretary, and was rewarded with a safe seat (the one that would become Witney; David Cameron was his successor). He entered the Commons in the February 1974 general election.

As Heath’s secretary, which was a political appointment, Hurd had gained an insider’s view of number ten. Despite his associations with Heath, in 1979 Thatcher made him minister of state at the Foreign Office, for which he was a natural fit, where he remained until 1983. He was then sent to the Home Office. Thus, Hurd had been a junior minister in both of the great offices he went on to hold.

hurd spring

When Jim Prior went the following year, Hurd was sent to Northern Ireland, and thus entered the cabinet. Hurd did not find the post easy at first, famously on his first visit to Dublin he had to be walked around the park to get over a thick head after a night of traditional Dublin diplomacy: he is seen above with, to Hurd’s right, the Irish Tanaiste (deputy prime minster) and foreign minister, Dick Spring. However, Hurd’s measured calm mattered and, along with the cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, and Ireland’s Garret Fitzgerald, he helped create the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Bitterly resented by the unionist parties and by Sinn Fein (and Britain’s far left IRA fellow travellers, including Jeremy Corbyn), the Hillsborough Agreement saw a transformation in Anglo-Irish relations and was an important step on the long and often difficult road to a settlement in Northern Ireland. The three men had to manage Thatcher, who was at times uneasy about the process, as much as they did Irish interests. Ronald Reagan also played a significant role keeping Thatcher on board. Hurd played a very significant part in a landmark achievement: he was a heavyweight by now. Below, he is with Irish taoiseach, Garret Fitzgerald to his right, as well as Dick Spring and Geoffrey Howe.


Two months before the agreement was signed, Thatcher had reshuffled her cabinet, and when Leon Brittan was demoted to Trade and Industry, Hurd got the Home Office. As home secretary, Hurd faced a baptism of fire: literally so. In Brixton, not even four weeks after Hurd took office, the police shot a black woman, Cherry Groce, in a raid on her home (her son would later be convicted of the illegal passion of a firearm): she was badly injured, and would be permanently paralysed as a result. There had been riots in Brixton just four years earlier. In the two days of rioting that followed in 1985, a journalist was killed and 53 injured (including ten policemen). More riots followed in Peckham, Toxteth and Tottenham. On the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, Cynthia Jarret, a black woman, died of heart failure a day after being stopped and searched by police. The Broadwater Farm riot saw police and firemen come under sustained attack with bricks and petrol bombs. Worst of all, PC Keith Blakelock was murdered: the assembled mob attempted to decapitate him. The Tottenham Three were found guilty of the gruesome murder, but that conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal: police had tampered with the evidence. After that, there were riots in Handsworth, Birmingham. Hurd did what home secretaries do in these circumstances, enforced the law and talked tough: the riots were ‘a cry for loot rather than for help’. At the same time though, reform of the Metropolitan Police, of which Hurd was in overall charge, began.


And reform was necessary. Here is Hurd in 1988, having to deal with the failure to prosecute football hooligans because of the failings of the Met:

There was some playing to the backbench gallery. His junior, and successor in the Home Office, David Waddington, got tough on asylum-seeking Sri Lankan Tamils, among others (you can read about that here; to come). A reworked Prevention of Terrorism Bill extended police powers, and Hurd used his power, in the form of exclusion orders, to ban leading IRA/Sinn Fein men from entering Britain (notably a leading Sinn Fein member, Danny Morrison).

Most controversially of all, in 1988, Hurd used powers granted him by the Broadcasting Act, 1981, to stop UK news media from broadcasting the voices, though not the words, of members and supporters of eleven Irish paramilitary and political organisations: notably Sinn Fein and the IRA. Back in 1985, there had been a poisonous controversy over the BBC Real Lives documentary, At the Edge of Union (you can read about it here). After two appalling IRA atrocities in 1988, both of which had killed British soldiers, two journalists had refused to hand film evidence to the police: it was seized under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. In September, Channel 4 had scheduled a discussion programme, After Dark, which was going to feature the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams. They pulled the show, but this was enough to persuade Hurd that Thatcher’s desire to gag the men of violence and ‘deny them the oxygen of publicity’ was right. For Hurd, this denied ‘an easy platform to those who use it to propagate terrorism’. For Thatcher, too, the suspicion that journalists were too sympathetic to Republicanism was never far from the surface. This was not an issue in which studied disinterest and objectivity were appropriate; rather, it was a moral crusade. Given her instincts, and the fact that the INLA murdered her close colleague Airey Neave, and that the IRA almost did the same to her in Brighton, her feelings were at least understandable.  Whether it did much good is doubtful (the same could be said of the Republic of Ireland’s similar and much more longstanding Section 31). Certainly, though, from thereon in until 1994, Irish voiceover actors had a field day.


Hurd, in his memoirs, insists that Thatcher was not given to interfering in his department, something she is often accused of in other cases. Hurd says he was left to do the job in something like isolation: they never discussed hanging, for example. Given Thatcher’s gut instinct Toryism on law and order, the fact that her home secretaries up until Waddington were not of her stripe is interesting (the most Thatcherite of the home secretaries in these years was Michael Howard, under Major; you can read about him here: to come). In might be that the Home Office was a convenient place to park Heathites such as Whitelaw and Hurd, or that she had other priorities in those years. Or that, her political judgement (which was very acute at least up until 1987) persuaded her to pick other, more urgent battles: the economy, the unions and education, for example. They still had their battles. Sir Patrick Mayhew recalls Hurd saying that Thatcher was at ‘her worst’ during the Vietnamese boat people crisis of 1989: she preferred a policy of ‘pushing off’ Vietnamese boat people and refusing to allow them to land, ‘oblivious of appalling implications…with photographs of sinking boats and drowning children’.

Hurd had one major piece of legislation, which he was unable to see through to its conclusion, and Waddington watered down as it was implemented. His Criminal Justice Bill did allow for an appeal against sentences that were too lenient. Mostly, though, it was more liberal in its outlook. For him, too many minor offenders were being sent to prison for short terms and that short prison sentences simply don’t work: ‘Prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse’, he once said. The reoffending rate for short-term offenders was (and is) very high, prison simply reinforcing their criminality. Hurd looked to, when possible, replace them with justice in the community. It was a characteristically pragmatic and enlightened measure. Later, Hurd would criticise Michael Howard’s 1995 Act, which saw prison numbers mushroom.

Hurd agreed to the process of judicial review of the case of the Birmingham Six, wrongly convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974. Initially, he refused to do the same for the other convicted pub-bombers of 1974, the Guilford Four (as well as the Maguire Seven). Home secretaries have often been reluctant to refer cases such as this back to the courts of appeal: to do so is to admit the possibility to a catastrophic failure in the justice system and, in both of these cases, criminal manipulation of evidence by the police. In the end, Hurd referred all three cases: all the convictions were later quashed. It had taken too long, but in the end, he had done the right thing.

Hurd also had his big idea: active citizenship. Here, he was trying to square a circle. Thatcher, not entirely deliberately, had fostered a society that became increasingly individualistic, materialistic and separated from social institutions such as the church, or voluntary organisations. Thatcher looked to a smaller state: even at one point saying (in a much-misinterpreted phrase) that there was ‘no such thing as society’. Yet Hurd recognised that there was such a thing as society, whether under the wing of the state or not. Active citizenship looked away from the big state to a greater diffusion of power in wider society, yet to a society that looked to build communal bonds: it spoke the language of voluntary service and civic obligation. In many ways it was the forerunner of Major’s Citizen’s Charter, Blair’s public service reforms (with the admission of private and voluntary agencies into the public realm) and Cameron’s soon forgotten Big Society.


Hurd was a relatively enlightened safe pair of hands, for all the hard lines taken. When Nigel Lawson resigned, and John Major was swiftly moved into number 11, Hurd was a natural choice for the Foreign Office: not an out and out Thatcherite, but loyal and reliable, without enemies. Thus, Hurd became one of eight men to have been home secretary and also hold the Foreign Office. Like all but one of them, James Callaghan, Hurd never won the ultimate prize: but that is for next time.


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