Lucky George: Memoirs of an Anti-Politician

(Allen Lane The Penguin Press: London, 1999), pp. xiv, 402, incl. index. Hb: ISBN 0-713-99316-2. Pb: ISBN: 0140282211

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This is a belated and less than comprehensive note on this book, which I stumbled upon in a second-hand bookshop while on holiday. It is one of the most lively, shrewd, and brilliantly written diplomatic and political memoirs that I have ever come across. The author is also engagingly frank about his early (and not so early) sexual adventures. Walden spent just over 20 years in the British Diplomatic Service (1962-83) before leaving to become an MP because he could not face becoming an ambassador. Here he gives a full account of this journey – from Hong Kong and Peking during the Cultural Revolution, through Paris, to the private office of two foreign secretaries (Owen and Carrington). He is particularly interesting for students of diplomacy on the expulsion of the 105 Soviet spies from London in 1971 (he was desk officer for the Soviet Union in the FCO at the time and this was his idea); Mrs Thatcher’s hostility to the FCO (more public than private); and the role of the modern ambassador. The pages dealing with the last of these topics (pp. 228-32) also have some great quotes for exam questions: ‘It is diplomats, not spies, who work under the deepest cover (Walden, Lucky George).’ Discuss; or ‘Diplomacy is about rank or it is about nothing (Walden, Lucky George).’ Discuss; or (for the sake of stylistic variety) ‘Examine Walden’s claim in Lucky George that “Ambassadors are … like expensively trained interpreters in a room where everyone speaks English”.

Walden’s main point about the modern ambassador – clearly influenced by his years in the frenetic position of principal private secretary to the foreign secretary – is the unoriginal one that the office has lost influence as ministers have established direct contact. His perspective on the ambassador is also coloured by his temperamental unsuitability to the role. The account provided here, therefore, is certainly not a rounded one, and at times verges on the polemical. Nevertheless, like the rest of the book, it is written with extraordinary verve and power.