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"Poor and unproud": the Henderson despatch lamenting Britain's decline, March 1979

In September 2006 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office officially released the full text of Sir Nicholas Henderson's valedictory despatch as Ambassador to Paris. This seminal document in post-war British political history was leaked to the press within weeks of being written

"britain's decline; its causes and consequences" (march 1979)

At the end of March 1979 the outgoing British Ambassador to Paris, Sir Nicholas Henderson, sent his final despatch to the Foreign Office. By tradition such documents offered a tour d'horizon of the Ambassador's time in the post, couched in a more personal style than ordinary diplomatic traffic. They were expensively printed on blue Foreign Office paper and given wide circulation in Whitehall and among British Embassies, tending to elicit warm letters to the author from colleagues, admiring the depth of his insights, the elegance of his prose, and so on.

But this despatch was different. It offered an unflinching analysis of Britain's decline, horribly frank and all the more effective for its measured style. The common claim that things were not so bad was carefully dismantled piece by piece and shown to be wishful thinking (or worse). How painful this state of affairs was to the author is apparent on every page. Henderson himself admitted that his words "may go beyond the limits of an Ambassador's normal responsibilities", offering as justification the idea that those responsibilities "cannot be fulfilled in Western Europe in the present uncertain state of our economy and of our European commitment".

The despatch focussed especially on Britain's steady fall relative to France and Germany, which Henderson was exceptionally well-placed to observe, having occupied the Bonn Embassy immediately before Paris. Its central argument is the now familiar one that British policy-makers had consistently underestimated the movement towards European union, failing to grasp that Franco-German relations - "the central equation of Europe" - were on a new footing after 1945. "[I]f not united they were brought together by the psychological bond of defeat in war". At the same time we overestimated our strength and ability to stand outside the successful European Common Market, with enduring economic as well as political costs.

The document avowedly offers no solutions, but in fact points to three. Henderson wanted ministers to show genuine British commitment to the E.E.C. and held this to be consistent with a tough stance on the British contribution to the European budget (where "[w]e have been hardly done by"). He urged that politicians make clear to the public the facts as to our decline. And he wanted those politicians, at the same time, "to do something to stimulate a sense of national purpose", hinting at a British version of Gaullism.

the leak & its REsults (april 1979 and after)

Labour Ministers must have been infuriated to receive the despatch, all the more so when, rather predictably, it leaked to the press a few weeks later during the General Election campaign. (David Owen, then Foreign Secretary, says in his memoirs that he thought when he first read it that Henderson was writing for publication and so made sure that copies of the original typescript were kept out of circulation, knowing full well it would find its way to the newspapers when internally printed and circulated.) Labour's critics, Conservatives to the fore, seized on the admission of British poverty and weakness from within the heart of the foreign policy establishment, lending notoriety to document and author alike. After the election the despatch was published in near entirety, unusually for a leak, in The Economist of 2 June 1979. On the account of Henderson's own diaries, the incoming Conservative Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, was wholly unconcerned by the breach of security.

Henderson certainly wrote in the expectation that his diplomatic career had come to an end, having reached the age of retirement for diplomats (60). His frankness must have owed something to that fact, but it may have had the ironic result that with the change of government he was invited to take one last posting - the most prestigious Embassy of all - in Washington.

Diary entries from his service there, 1979-82, are also on this site.

The Henderson Despatch "Britain's Decline; its causes and consequences" (31 Mar 1979)