Sir Maurice Shock
Author; Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford
On: Advice to a Prime Minister
22nd March 2007
Justin Glass: “My lords, ladies, and gentlemen. We have a slightly different-from-normal format for us today, as I’ve explained to some of you. We are extremely lucky and privileged to have Sir Morris with us. As befits the topic and befits the way we like to think about the subjects we discuss, a certain quiet, thinking approach may not come amiss. I’m slightly taking the stand for a few moments before I hand over to Sir Phillip to say that our normal sort of 21-gun salute affairs as I describe them don’t apply in terms of the rules of debate so much. Sir Morris has very kindly consented to have exchanges with those of us who feel that what he has to say is sufficiently provocative that one question simply won’t do and you want to come back at him. Of course, because the proceedings here will go forward into our journal and will go forward onto our website, it would be kind if you identified yourself in the normal way.
We do have Chatam House Rules, but here’s the catch—only if people particularly ask for them, such that everything that is said is on-the-record. There are one or two other little points that I will just mention before I hand over. You’ll see afterwards that we’ll have coffee and that there are some books at the back. John Coleman, who has been instrumental very much in this afternoon’s proceedings, has a very, very interesting book on an ancestor of his, the very famous Victorian historian Froude. It’s a commentary on what Froude, was he alive today, and might be thinking of some of the issues that Sir Morris no doubt will be addressing.
John has very kindly agreed that these can be taken away by anyone here who is interested. They’re normally quite costly in the bookshops, but this time, as a giveaway, if you like, to people here, please avail yourself of those copies. We also have another distinguished author on our top table here, Sir Phillip Goodhart, two of whose books, and he’ll be horrified to hear this, are on the back as well, one of which was rescued from Ms Elma Dangerfield’s attic and hails from some 30 years ago, so I don’t suppose even Sir Phillip has seen it these last few decades. They’re there for browsing as well—a very interesting commentary on what happened in Suez. But I don’t want carry on here because I can hand it over to Sir Phillip. We have an experimental sort of meeting today and I am very delighted it’s with Sir Morris and I hope it’s one that we’ll continue to do because I think it’s appropriate for our sort of topics.”
Sir Phillip: “Thank you Justin. I’m not entirely sure what informality means but I suspect it means that if you all want to talk at the same time, the chairman can’t really stop you.”
Justin Glass: “We have Raymond George for that.”
Sir Phillip: “I am delighted that Morris is going to talk to us on advice to a Prime Minister. All of us I’m sure have given advice to Prime Ministers at various times. The difference is Prime Ministers frequently listen to what Sir Morris tells them. Can I begin this informal meeting with a question: It was a myth that when Bill Clinton was first announced as a candidate for the American presidency, you went down to Oxford and gathered up all the papers that related to Clinton’s time at Oxford and put them under lock and key until the election was safely over. So my question as Chairman is, did you manage get all the Clinton Papers? And my second question is what’s happened to them now?”
Sir Morris Shock: “I hope that they’re still under lock and key. “
Sir Morris Shock: “Thank you very much Phillip. You can understand if you give advice to Prime Ministers that they accept, the advice is almost certainly bad. So I don’t expect my advice to be listened to. What I’m going to try to do is to lay out some things about the groundwork on which we should start to try and build the sort of politics that we should need in the coming years. Looking to the future, of course everybody remembers [????] events. You just had to accept that they happened and Prime Ministers had to deal with of them. But that’s not really incompatible with producing strategically long-sighted policy. By long-sighted policy I mean one which, characteristically in the British system, lasts something on the order of 30 to 40 years—only Gladstone really did any better than that. Think of the Atlee government from ’45 to ’50. Both parties went along with what the Atlee government had done.
Why? Well, because the electorate favoured it. They favoured it for a very long time and the impact was very great. It also resulted in the end in a big smash-up [sic] for the Labour Party. So the cycles were totally complete. I think we need now an understanding among politicians that though the problems they face seem enormous today, they are actually not enormous in relation to those that most of the people in this room have known in the past—nothing remotely like the period from 1940 to 1955, which is roughly the period the War in politics lasted.
For looking at the past, Churchill naturally is a good guide for that because he lived for so long. I met him in the late summer of 1956 when I was sitting beside him and one of the things we talked about was what was his biggest regret. He thought for no more than 15 seconds and said, ‘I wish that I could have done more for Ireland’. Later, I happened to be sitting next to Roy Jenkins at dinner. I told him and Roy said, ‘He couldn’t have said it’. Of course he could, it was perfectly natural. [??Sic??] He tried to organise a coup in Belfast in 1914 which actually stopped his being King George’s right-hand man. But in 1922, [????] But of course, he admired Michael Collins almost more than any other man he’d known. So is history is always important.
Here is a domestic example for Winston. At Glasgow in 1906, just over one hundred years ago, as a new convert to radicalism, he advice people not to oppose the British mission [??sic??] because some old woman comes along and tells you that they’re specialists. That is followed almost immediately by [?……..?] is likely to be ineffective when utilised [?……?] and do not [?……..?] pockets—a perfect definition of the PFI [sic] of the present day. Of course, this example of a foreign policy characterises I suppose in terms of the period from 1989 [??] for the next four or five years in more shape in the Middle East what was begun with the remnants of the Ottoman Empire [sic] than anybody else. Well, what to do about the Ottoman Empire. We’ll still be dealing with it more than a century from now and that’s how long it’s been now. Of course the country was very lucky during the [??????] come as you are, come as a man or woman. You know. And [?????????] a very unusual combination of being in the right place at the right time. You can’t expect that. And I think we do underrate the other kind of Prime Ministers—Asquith, Balwdin, Attley. Baldwin was [????????] in 1935 when somebody approached and said ‘You ought to’ [?????????] Baldwin wrote back and said ‘You know’ [??????] posthumously sent the award to [????????] And that kind of experience, of course, is very rare.”