William Hague on managing global crisis, the art of resigning and the pursuit of happiness
May 27, 2022. Series 6. Episode 44
My guest today is the former Foreign Secretary William Hague. As someone who has been ‘in the room’ as the decision maker at so many moments of political drama, Lord Hague has an incredibly valuable voice to add to this conversation that we’re having about crisis. From his challenging time as Conservative Party leader, the wilderness years out of frontline politics, the four he spent as Foreign Secretary – and now as businessman and commentator – William has a unique perspective on what makes a crisis and how those in public life should approach managing them. Threaded throughout our discussion on Ukraine, Brexit, political resignations and why being Prime Minister is not the route to happiness, William gives us the Hague formula for crisis management. It is, perhaps as you might expect, pretty no-nonsense. Interestingly, William thinks his keep calm, keep perspective approach is out of kilter with the modern world of instant decision making and instant judgements. I suspect, after listening to him you’ll think, like me, that it’s exactly what the bonkers world of politics needs right now. William and I worked quite closely together more than a decade ago and this conversation also reminded me just how reasonable a bloke he is. God knows we could do with a bit of that. I hope you enjoy this conversation and thanks so much for listening.
William’s Crisis Cures:
1 – NATURE – The Japanese like forest bathing – it’s not a bad idea.. when in trouble go and walk amongst the trees, the plants and wild animals – it gives you a different perspective. Certainly a calmer one.
2 – History – Often you can see things in better perspective if you can remember how terrible things were before for the previous generation. Don’t feel so sorry for yourself when you consider those aged 20 in the 1940’s going off to war.
3 – Exercise – When I was in the Foreign office I used to say ‘I can do without sleep or food, but I can’t do without my exercise.’ I have to have a run or a swim in the morning. When I’m in big trouble I need even more of that because I think it gives you an energy and a self-confidence and again, a sense of perspective and some time to think.
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream: https://open.spotify.com/track/5OX9XgJufFz9g63o2Dv2i5?si=b2f9397c92084682
Host– Andy Coulson
Producer – Louise Difford
00:00:27.06 Andy Coulson:
Welcome to Crisis What Crisis? The podcast where we aim to guide you towards a more resilient approach to life and whatever it might throw at you. On this podcast you’ll hear from the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Their stories, I hope you’ll agree, are as useful as they are compelling.
00:00:49.07 Andy Coulson:
My guest today is the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Hague of Richmond, William Hague. As someone who has been in the room as the decision maker at so many moments of political drama, William has an incredibly valuable voice to add to this conversation that we’re having about crisis. From his challenging time as Conservative Party leader, the wilderness years out of frontline politics, the four he then spent as Foreign Secretary and now as a businessman and a rather brilliant commentator, William has a pretty unique perspective on what makes a crisis and how those in public life should approach managing them.
00:01:27.08 Andy Coulson:
Threaded throughout our discussion on Ukraine, Brexit, political resignations and why being prime minister is absolutely not the route to happiness, William gives us the Hague formula for crisis management. It is, perhaps as you might expect, pretty no-nonsense. William thinks his keep calm, keep perspective approach is out of kilter with the modern world of instant decision making and instant judgements. I suspect, after listening to him here, you’ll think, like me, that it’s exactly what the bonkers world of politics needs right now.
00:02:03.05 Andy Coulson:
William and I worked quite closely together more than a decade ago and this conversation also reminded me just how reasonable a bloke he is. God knows we could do with a bit of that. Or maybe I’m just getting old. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this conversation and thanks so much for listening.
00:02:19.24 Andy Coulson:
Lord Hague, William, a warm welcome to Crisis What Crisis? How are you, sir?
00:02:25.04 William Hague:
Thank you very much Andy, yeah, great pleasure and very good to talk to you again.
00:02:30.13 Andy Coulson:
It’s good to see you. William, you’ve had a front row seat to so many crises over the years, during your career, I wonder where on a scale of one to ten would you place us right now from a geo-political perspective? How concerned are you with the big picture, primarily in Ukraine, but also elsewhere?
00:02:52.11 William Hague:
I’m very concerned, you know, we’re on a scale of seven or eight out of ten historically speaking, I would say. And this is certainly the biggest period of crisis in the lifetimes of most of us alive today. And particularly when you add so many things together, when you add the Covid crisis we’ve been through, the Ukraine crisis we’re living through now. Then there’s a food crisis on top of that, all the gathering problems in relations between the United States and China.
00:03:28.12 William Hague:
Now this is more of a historical norm, of course, to be in period where there are a lot of crisis. We’ve been through the illusion that history had ended and that problems in the world had been largely abolished in the last twenty or thirty years. So that’s why I say it’s a seven or eight, it’s not a ten. People of previous generations lived through the First World War, the Second World War. Those were far bigger crises than anything we’ve experienced so far. But it is extremely concerning because we do lack, internationally, the mechanisms now to sort these things out. And that’s why they can so easily, they can all get worse and it’s a very concerning time.
00:04:15.17 Andy Coulson:
Were you back behind that rather splendid desk of yours in the Foreign Office, how would you be prioritising the crisis workload right now?
00:04:27.10 William Hague:
Well Ukraine would be right at the top of the list because it’s affecting so many other things; you know, I just mentioned food security. Obviously the world’s biggest wheat producer invading the world’s fifth biggest wheat producer is a major contributor to a crisis of food supply and security in the world. It’s also, the Ukraine war, could easily turn into a wider conflict. Nobody wants it to, but it is the sort of thing that could do so and it paralyses global institutions. Can anybody imagine the G20 functioning usefully now as a global organisation? Remember how, in the global financial crisis in 2008/9, the G20 was the vital instrument of international coordination. But the G20 that the United States president won’t even sit down at the same table now, as the president of Russia. And so that can’t function.
00:05:30.04 William Hague:
So the Ukraine war has got to be top of the list because it is the root of so many other things. Now that doesn’t mean, you’re asking about what you do sitting behind the desk at the Foreign Office, of course what you don’t do is decide you’re working on one thing behind that desk at the Foreign Office. You actually have to deal with fifty or a hundred things every day and work on the long term thing. And I think this whole issue of relations with China, between China and the West, is where we have to see the next big crisis coming and do what we can to avert it. You know, that is the work of the coming years.
00:06:13.11 Andy Coulson:
And you know, in the Foreign Office, of course, you don’t work in a vacuum. You would be pretty frustrated I imagine by matters closer to home, if I can put it that way, that quite understandably get in the way don’t they of the big International issues. The ability to really, because in the end it’s time, isn’t it, to be able to do your job, think and strategise.
00:06:37.19 William Hague:
00:06:38.07 Andy Coulson:
That’s one of the issues of political crisis management, isn’t it? That those domestic issues just keep getting in the way.
00:06:45.14 William Hague:
Well it is, that is normal politics, I mean, it does seem absurd that Sri Lanka is in anarchy, for instance? An important country, an important friendly country to this country where many British people have many personal and business connections. And our media aren’t spending much time on that because we’re all really, really busy with which party leader went to a party, should have had a fixed penalty notice through a police analysis that nobody can understand from the outside of how they’re deciding who to fine. And we’re all really preoccupied with that.
00:07:25.15 William Hague:
However, that is the nature of democratic politics and if you’re behind the desk as Foreign Secretary you try to get on with things and hope that somebody like you, in your old role, is sorting all that out, so you can get on with handling the global, the sort of inter-galactic stuff, the global stuff. But yeah, it is a distraction. And in government there is only so much bandwidth, as you know. Government’s no different from any other organisation. The people at the top only have so many hours in the day where they can think about things.
00:08:03.21 William Hague:
And the main reason, usually, that they make, what seems afterwards to be a terrible mistake on something, is that they did it in a hurry, that they were really concentrating on something else. And then something just happened in a great rush where there wasn’t time to question the assumptions. So it’s really important that things like that national security machinery, set up in 2010 as you will recall, the National Security Council, and we really took the time and trouble, whatever else was going on, to sit in the National Security Council and consider together, both short term and long term questions of national security. My impression is that in the Ukraine crisis that sort of machinery is working pretty well in British government. But in the Afghanistan, in the debacle of the pull-out from Kabul last year, that it didn’t work, well, that because it was August really, it wasn’t working well.
00:09:08.07 Andy Coulson:
That’s interesting, yeah.
00:09:09.21 William Hague:
I think the challenge in government is to make sure that whatever the distractions, whatever’s happening in domestic politics, that sort of machinery, you get the military chiefs, the intelligence chiefs, the chief Secretaries of State and the Prime Minister and you make sure you’re spending that hour or two hours thinking about those big international issues. Because otherwise there is a risk of making a serious mistake.
00:09:36.18 Andy Coulson:
That’s interesting. Often on this podcast we the kind of crisis you know, you work out the obvious. It’s essentially a bunch of people in a room trying to work their way through a problem. I mean, when you’ve been in that room, William, just give us a sense of what’s going on in your head. What’s the William Hague crisis management model? You’ve had to deal with some very gnarly issues over the years. What sort of approach do you take when you walk into the room as the decision maker?
00:10:12.18 William Hague:
Well the ideal approach, and I’m not saying we all, including me, always reach this ideal, is to be very calm, obviously, objective and not have too many ingoing assumptions. Now what I really think of when you ask that question, is those occasions which we handle very carefully in this country, under different governments, where a British national has been taken hostage overseas and you have to decide, might be the Prime Minister, might be the Foreign secretary. I was involved with three of these things where we had to decide whether to use lethal force to rescue a British national. Whether to send the military the special forces operation to rescue.
00:11:02.21 William Hague:
Of course you only get to that point if you think their life is in danger. You’re not going to launch a military rescue if there’s some likely to be another way of getting them out, of negotiating them out or whatever. But if things get really difficult and you think they may be no alternative, then you have to weight that up. And I remember those meetings and thinking what that hostage wants to know is that the person sitting in the chair at that meeting is really objective, is not preoccupied with something else, in the way that you were just asking about. You know, is not an alcoholic, is not a having their own mental health crisis.
00:11:46.07 William Hague:
You know, they’ve got to be really somebody who will coolly, objectively decide a best chance of bringing this person out alive after listening to special forces leaders, looking at satellite photos, taking account of advice on the local geography and everything, that after all of that, that person in the chair is going to coolly decide something that might end their life or it might rescue them. So you’ve got to be like that, you have to sort of think, what sort of person does that hostage need me to be? And I think that isn’t a bad guiding thought of how to conduct yourself.
00:12:36.11 Andy Coulson:
Very good. We found ourselves in the room, William, a few times when crisis loomed. I remember well, the night in September 2008, when we were at a conference in Birmingham, I think, when the world began to collapse in around our ears: the collapse of Lehman Brothers. We were stood watching TV, I remember, not quite sure what to do in the first instance. And in that room, David Cameron’s hotel suite, you were the absolutely personification of calm. I remember passing on the message that there were some, actually, pretty heavy hitters in the media world who were gathered downstairs who all thought that we should cancel conference, I don’t know if you remember and head back to London immediately. And I remember you were the first to say, no we shouldn’t do that, we should do the exact opposite, we should double-down we should break with tradition and give a speech tomorrow. This was right at the beginning of the conference so normally David’s speech would be much later in the week. We should deliver a speech tomorrow, specifically on this issue and get on with it and show that we can get on with it. And it worked brilliantly.
00:13:41.00 William Hague:
Right, well I can’t claim to always react well to a crisis. But being calm is a good start. And I did learn, later on, when I became Foreign Secretary, there were occasions when the officials would all rush into the room saying ‘Oh Foreign Secretary something terrible has happened,’ and ‘we need to send a plane immediately to over there’ and ‘we need to recall our ambassador from that country etc.’ And I got into the habit of saying, ‘Right, thank you very much, go and sit down, in one hour come back with your reflections on what we should do about the situation’. Provided there was nobody’s life in danger in that hour, ‘And just everybody calm down and think about it and then come back’. And that proved to be quite good and if you keep saying that, when these things happen, they learn, after a couple of years, that before they rush into the room they should sit down and calmly reflect.
00:14:40.16 William Hague:
And I suppose, I have a real. Aversion to sort of, I suppose it’s a kind of gesture politics, but sometimes is it’s what the media expect, that you go into a flap. You know, that you cancel things. That you rush back from wherever, even though it doesn’t make the slightest difference in a world of modern, digital communication where you’re actually sitting often. They want to see somebody rush off a plane and run down Downing Street and look panic stricken. And maybe I’m not really suited to the modern media age. Because I would rather say ‘No everybody just calm down, think about it, don’t pander to the idea, there’s always a crisis,’ because sometimes we make it worse by getting into the wrong state.
00:15:41.01 William Hague:
You know it goes back to what I was saying about how you handle a hostage rescue, the main thing is to be cool and detached and utterly objective. And I think we’re sometimes pressured by the great speed of social media these days and twenty-four hour news coverage to have to show we’ve got ourselves into a state and we’re rushing around and we can only just cope. But what about showing that we’re not in a state? That we take things in our stride? That we can cope and we’re going to keep calm? And that somehow isn’t what people expect now. I think this is what we need to correct in the public psychology of how you handle a crisis.
00:16:22.13 Andy Coulson:
Exactly. I could not agree more, I’d love to talk about that a bit more in a moment or two. I remember, though, another moment of shared crisis, another conference. It’s always conference, sort cock up and crisis, I seem to remember, in 2007. Down in the polls, backs against the wall, do or die week in Blackpool, if you remember? And the first day of conference and the microphones failed. Total sort of humiliation in front of the media. ‘How can you trust this lot to run the country if they can’t work a mic?’, you know. And you were due on stage and you were delayed because of that technical failure for forty-five minutes or an hour or so. And then you came on stage, William, and you absolutely knocked it for six. I think your opening line was something about Prescott being spotted backstage pulling out the plugs or something, I can’t remember what it was but it was just…
00:17:19.21 William Hague:
I can’t remember either.
00:17:20.13 Andy Coulson:
It was an absolute barn-stormer. And the importance of humour really, is what struck me at that moment, in times of crisis. It’s a very, very useful tool, isn’t it?
00:17:32.08 William Hague:
Yes it is because you can only come up with… I think it is linked to the point we were just discussing because humour comes out of seeing things in perspective and of being able to see another side to an argument and of being relatively calm. And so yes, humour if appropriate, because it’s not humorous, so it’s not appropriate to be humorous if a war is just starting. But if it’s something less serious than that, like our microphones have failed and the party’s under pressure in the polls, then humour is appropriate. And I always think of some of the greatest leaders in history, you know of Churchill or Reagan and how they would use humour to defuse situations, even in very serious situations.
00:18:26.17 William Hague:
And so it think there is an important role for that and I have forgotten about that. I remember the 2007 conference, I’d forgotten about the microphones failing, but this was when we all thought Gordon Brown, the new Prime Minister, was about to have a general election and he got a sudden surge of, a honeymoon popularity. He even had Margaret Thatcher round to Downing Street to show that he was a Tory after all. And we had to really turn around the national sentiment in a week so that if he did call an election he would win it and then if he didn’t call an election he was running away from it. And so there we had to… there’s being calm, which is very important, but there’s also out of calmness producing energy and decisiveness and action.
00:19:22.23 William Hague:
And what we did achieve that week was, from me giving one of the opening speeches at conference, as you say, to George Osborne the next day gave a great speech about inheritance tax and energising the Conservative tax agenda. Then David Cameron gave one of his noteless speeches… a real rallying speech at the end of the week. And within one week we went from being behind in the polls to level or ahead in the polls, I can’t remember the numbers, so this is how I don’t want anyone to misinterpret me and what I’m saying about keeping calm. You keep calm but you produce from that a clear untied strategy and energy. And that’s what we did in that particular conference week. So we went from, I remember doing interviews in that week where it was like, who was the odd-on successor to David Cameron because he was toast, and they were all writing him off in the media. By the end of the week he was the likely next Prime Minister, which indeed he turned out to be.
00:20:33.15 Andy Coulson:
Exactly right. And that calmness that you describe, it kind of gives you the room, doesn’t it, to take the calculated risks. And that’s essentially what he did I think with that speech, isn’t it? He sort of created the right environment for him to then actually roll the dice in a pretty spectacular way, but with great success.
00:20:56.08 William Hague:
You have to… it’s the old you have to see the whites of their eyes. You have to not open fire at the first thing that you see and but then make sure that, as the enemy advances, you’re really ready for them. And I think that’s what we were doing there. And this is going back to going back to my previous point in a way. In the age of social media and Twitter and so on, there’s a real premium to reacting within minutes to something, saying something before somebody else, that’s meant to be how you show your grip on the situation. But the instant reaction isn’t always the best, it’s certainly not the best informed. And I think that is one of the ways in which the expectations of public figures don’t help them to deal with a crisis.
00:21:53.23 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, but it’s not just about instant reaction, is it? It’s also instant judgement that makes it very, very difficult to pause and consider, to absorb information, to then make the right decision in a way that you described earlier. There’s very, very little room for that now.
00:22:19.08 William Hague:
There’s very little, we’re going back to primeval instinct, but we are programmed, as creatures, for very good evolutionary reasons, to make instant judgements. You know, that woolly mammoth is too big for me to do anything but run. Or, I am now in a position to throw this spear at it, and the instant judgment is crucial to survival. However, that was when we were hunter-gatherers and now we did not evolve to judge a situation where you’re in this multi-dimensional thing of the domestic politics, the foreign politics, the military consequences, you’re a nuclear power, you know that was not what we evolved… we haven’t caught up with that. Our intelligence hasn’t caught up with that. You know let’s be humble as humans. And that means you have to stop and think a bit more and make sure these ten or twenty different things you need to consider, which are more than you can hold in your head at one time, that you’ve taken stock of all of that. So we tend to think we are, we can make an instant judgement when actually we shouldn’t.
00:23:41.04 Andy Coulson:
Brexit, William, is that an example of where, you talked about having, well we talked in the context of 2007 of having found the room somehow, to take a calm decision. Was Brexit an example of where the party leadership failed to do that? I mean, war aside, the biggest political crisis you’ve been involved with, would you say?
00:24:09.21 William Hague:
Well it’s do we call that a crisis or is it just a long, slow-moving crash of some sort? It’s not a point of crisis is it? It’s a process that’s happened over ten years or so, really, Brexit. It’s had its moments of crisis like over the various dramatic votes in the House of Commons and Theresa May’s plans. And then Boris Johnson coming to power and so on. And did we come to the wrong… you know we decided over quite a long period that we would propose a referendum between 2011 and 2013 we decided the conservative party’s position should be to have a referendum.
00:24:59.13 William Hague:
Now of course those of us who were thinking of that saw it as a way to solve the problem, to deal with the problem permanently rather than… because none of us discussing it were actually in favour of pulling out of the EU. We knew we were taking a risk but we were running out of other options to deal with the build-up of discontent after so much immigration to the UK from Eastern European countries, the Lisbon treaty being passed without any democratic consent. I mean, we were strongly opposed to but once that went through we were running out of options to show that there was some democratic accountability over this whole European project.
00:25:51.04 William Hague:
So I’m not sure, I think probably knowing what we know now we would have tried to hold out more against having a referendum. The thing we underestimated was how much politics was changing. And we were still assuming back in 2012, that fundamentally people voted in their economic self-interest. Or most people did. Enough people did in a general election or a referendum for that to be the decisive factor. But in the interval between proposing a referendum 2012, 2013 and having a referendum, 2016, that changed quite a bit. Culture and migration became bigger factors in politics and people stopped voting in what was necessarily their best economic interest. Now that was what we didn’t spot. So I suppose this is another important point about a crisis, if you’re taking long term decisions, it’s very hard to work out how the basic underlying forces are going to change between what you’re thinking now and what the eventual outcome is going to be years later.
00:27:11.08 Andy Coulson:
Yes and the other issue, I suppose, I mean you were on the inside, I was on the outside by then, but the party had just won an election that they thought it would lose. David’s just won and election that he thought he would lose. Which rather pointed towards your thesis being correct, rather than incorrect.
00:27:27.15 William Hague:
Yes, exactly, exactly. I think we always thought that in the end 55% to 60% of people in Britain would vote in what a consensus would say was their best, their direct best interests. So this is a new political world where they don’t do that. But we’ve seen the same thing in the United States and many other countries that people disagree with the old political analysis. And they’re entitled to, they’re free to do so. But they reject that old analysis.
00:27:59.07 Andy Coulson:
We’ll be right back after this.
00:28:05.10 Andy Coulson:
As regular listeners know Crisis What Crisis? is brought to you with a little help from Myndstream a personal well-being music company designed to create those calmer moments in our hectic lives. Myndstream can really help put you back on track and guide you towards the mindfulness that we all need to function more effectively, and I can tell you from personal experience that it really works. Myndstream music is cleverly designed to help regulate your body’s response to stressful situations by slowing your heartbeat and guiding you towards that more calmer state. They also have playlists to stimulate your brain, helping to keep you focused and engaged for longer periods of time.
00:28:47.06 Andy Coulson:
Getting your mindset right is the absolute key when you’re navigating a crisis or if you’re just struggling with day to day pressures. You’ll find them at myndstream.com. That’s mind with a Y, they’re also on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, wherever you download your music from. So take back some control and consider making a Myndstream playlist one of your crisis cures, I don’t think you’ll regret it.
00:29:13.09 Andy Coulson:
And now back to William Hague.
00:29:15.23 Andy Coulson:
What about the impact of political crisis, which invariably ends with a resignation, was David right to resign? I took the view, and whenever I offered it tumbleweed would come through the room, I was pretty I think alone in this view. I didn’t think he should resign. I thought he should have stuck it out.
00:29:34.12 William Hague:
Oh, I thought he had to… no, I think on losing I think if a national leader loses a national referendum you’ve got very little option but to resign. And this is what, even President de Gaulle, an incredible powerful leader was brought down by a referendum on local government in France. Because the trouble is, if you try to stay in power you’re much more vulnerable. Instead of being securely in office you’ve got part of your party that then says ‘Oh no, really he should have gone, he hasn’t got the legitimacy to take this forward now’. And so you’re always having to fight that battle as well as try to govern.
00:30:23.23 William Hague:
And the second problem is that if you stay in office after a defeat like that, you then hare to implement something that you don’t believe in. And that, something on such a scale, something so fundamental that you don’t believe in, it’s not a detail, it’s not just a compromise, it’s something you really don’t believe in. And that’s quite hard at the top of politics. Of course a junior minister often has to implement something they don’t really believe in because they take their orders from them and they don’t want to rock the boat. But if you’re the actual party leader, or something close to it, you do need to authentically believe in what you’re doing.
00:31:07.18 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I mean, I can absolutely see that and nor do I argue by the way that if he’d stayed that it would have ended well, I suspect it probably would have ended badly, but I think it would have been a better exit strangely. Because I think that there’s no, for me which is an overly simplistic point, is that where in the job description of Prime Minister does it say that when the public when you ask a question and the public disagree with you, you have to leave? I just felt it would have been a better exit if he’d, because the question wasn’t really about him, was it?
00:31:42.16 William Hague:
It wasn’t, no.
00:31:43.19 Andy Coulson:
It wasn’t about him at all.
00:31:45.24 William Hague:
This is one of the issues of referendums. You remember that Prime Minister Renzi of Italy about that time, had a referendum on constitutional reform, and he said he would resign if he lost it for the reasons I was just giving. But then people said okay we need to vote against him to get rid of him. So it introduced a new factor into the referendum. David avoided doing that because he didn’t want to become an issue in the referendum. He wanted it to be focused on the EU. Then people were shocked when he resigned.
00:32:22.03 William Hague:
But you know I think probably, had he stayed in office and ploughed through it, we would have had a better form of Brexit. However, the Conservative Party would have, as it almost did anyway, torn itself to pieces saying, the reason he’s making these compromises… You know let’s say he had signed us up to the European economic area instead, outside the EU but still with a lot of close economic cooperation with the… I don’t know if he would have done that but that would have been a perfectly good middle ground way of doing Brexit, half the Conservative party would have said, ‘well he’s not a true believers so he’s not delivering real Brexit and now we have to get rid of him.’ So you see he would have come straight back round to having a constant crisis over his leadership.
00:33:15.23 Andy Coulson:
It would have been terribly difficult and I think a pretty nightmarish role for him. But I think that the kind of divisions that you’ve just described wouldn’t necessarily have been reflected in the public. And I think David was always so good at being able to get above the politics and talk directly to people but I’m sure you’re right. Doesn’t resigning though, sort of exacerbate generally, one of the problems we have in politics? Boris has shown, and I should say, as we speak, not resigning is rather a good strategy. We had Kim Darroch on the podcast not long ago, you felt, I remember, that he shouldn’t have resigned. You said it was an unambiguously bad thing to have done. That it was a win for Trump. So where do you sit on the kind of impact of resignations which have become so fashionable now.
00:34:16.12 William Hague:
Well, that’s a fascinating question and of course, there can’t be any hard and fast rules about this, all these situations are different. It depends a lot on your own personality because to not resign you have to really be hungry to carry on. And if you’re not hungry, well, often it’s better to get out. So the sum of that is just within each individual and you can’t make a rule about it. And some of it has to come from a self-aware weighing up of whether you can still do the job effectively. Some politicians don’t resign, or other people in these situations, because they lack self-awareness, because they think they can get out of anything.
00:35:20.00 William Hague:
I felt that when I resigned as the leader of the opposition the day after the general election in 2001 because I thought well you know trying to be self-aware, trying to take note of what people thought here in a general election. Democracy functions better if you have a leader of the opposition who people can see as the next Prime Minister. Once you’ve lost heavily in a general election they won’t see you like that so you know much as there were people around me saying ‘Oh don’t resign, we don’t know who the next leader’s going to be,’ actually just be self-aware I can’t credibly do this. So I’m waffling slightly but these are all factors I think in a resignation.
00:36:13.10 William Hague:
And then does it help the overall situation to resign, is a question. And does it is it proportionate? You know, we just had a case for instance where the Chancellor of the Exchequer got a fine and the opposition said he should resign. He got a fine basically for showing up on time to a meeting in the cabinet room where somebody produced cake and he didn’t walk out. So now is that actually something, is it right for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it’s a moment of great economic uncertainty, to quit over that? There may be lots of other things that chancellor’s and senior ministers quit over, I think not. So you have to also see it in perspective. Is it a big enough problem rather than everybody just screaming at you? Is it a big enough problem to really warrant resignation? Well losing a general election is, losing a referendum is, losing a war is. You know turning up on time to a meeting, probably isn’t.
00:37:27.08 Andy Coulson:
But we both know that that conversation would have happened, right. There were people in a room with him trying to work through whether or not he should or shouldn’t resign over that. But there we are. Do you think, William, just talking about 2001, do you ever think what might have been if you’d become leader of the party a decade later?
00:37:51.20 William Hague:
While I feel a little bit… I only sort of mused on that, I’m a very lucky person. I’m so happy with the way life has turned out that I wouldn’t actually turn the clock back and change it. You know I can fully see, in fact I could see not long after I became leader of the Conservative Party in 1997, that I’d done it at the wrong time. If my main objective in life was to be Prime Minister that it was definitely a mistake to stand for election just when the most popular government in modern history had come in with an extraordinary piece of work as the leader of the Labour Party in Tony Blair who really had it in him to be in power for a long time. Now that was definitely a career mistake if the objective of my life was to be Prime Minister.
00:38:51.06 Andy Coulson:
You’re alright, I’ll come back in a decade, yeah.
00:38:54.05 William Hague:
But the on the other hand you know, I really can’t complain. I continue to have a very fulfilling career. I went on to, because I didn’t succeed at that, that opened me up to writing books, to going back into business, to learning to play the piano. To you know, enjoy life in so many other ways.
00:39:18.06 Andy Coulson:
I seem to remember a rather excellent column in The News of the World, William.
00:39:21.18 William Hague:
Well, exactly, somebody got me into writing newspaper columns against my initial great reluctance, you did in The News of the World. And here I am all these years later still writing columns and really enjoying it. In fact I will soon have been a newspaper columnist longer than I’ve ever served in a government. So you know what am I? What is my profession? So all of these things opened up and therefore I don’t look back and say this was a disaster in my personally in my life.
00:39:59.21 William Hague:
I also, since I’ve known everybody whose been Prime Minister in recent decades, reasonably well, I don’t live under the delusion that becoming Prime Minister is the route to personal happiness and contentment because most ex-Prime Ministers are quite troubled in some ways or you know have never got over not being Prime Minister. It depends not eh personality. There are a couple of very well-balanced personalities in there. But it’s not as if becoming Prime Minister is the way to derive great satisfaction in life.
00:40:42.10 Andy Coulson:
You have a natural resilience and an ability to reinvent. Where does that come from? Is it nature or nurture, a combination of both?
00:40:57.14 William Hague:
I have no idea. It must be, I don’t know, it’s a combination of both. I was brought up in a family that was very matter of fact, where my mother and father had a very good approach to you know, you get lots of knocks in life and you pick yourself up and we’re not going to spend a lot of time sympathising with you if you’re going to scream your head off. And it was a bit like that, sort of loving family but you know you had to look after yourself a bit. And with three older sisters where you really had to look after yourself a bit. So maybe some resilience there.
00:41:38.17 William Hague:
And small business value with the family business which was a self-reliant kind of atmosphere. But who knows? I think a lot of these things are hard wired into you. And then you also learn resilience from the ups and downs of whatever career you go into. I always tell people, I mentor young people about going into politics, I advise some of my old colleagues from the cabinet. It is a rollercoaster you know and you almost have to learn to enjoy the down bits when everybody’s screaming, because it will go up, in most cases if you hang on it will go up again. It’s hard to believe at the time but just hang on there, hang on in there.
00:42:25.22 Andy Coulson:
Yes and get busy seems to be…
00:42:27.22 William Hague:
Things will go up again, there is no point in a career where it just goes up. And that’s not… you known the greatest figures in history did not have that experience. You know, Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, they had ups and downs so who do you think you are that you’re just going to go up all the time? And I try to explain that to expectations are, you’re going to have to be resilient. Sorry I talked over you there Andy.
00:42:57.01 Andy Coulson:
No, I was just going to say that the other aspect of it though, is not just to accept that there are going to be downs but to put the downs to work. That’s what you’ve always done, whether it’s a biography or whether it’s your columns or just kind of reinventing yourself in some form as well as the business life in the background. Work seems to be very important for you in terms of getting through those, during the course of your career, getting through those quieter moments.
00:43:32.08 William Hague:
You know what I think, I think the most important thing is not to be a victim. You know, not to think you are the victim of circumstances and conspiracies and everybody’s out to get you. It can often feel like everybody is out to get you but if you think like that you end up feeling too sorry for yourself to pick yourself up again. You have to remember that you have agency, that you don’t need to be a victim. That there are definitely things you can do to change your situation. It would be very unusual, you’d have to be a prisoner on death row to not to be able to do anything to change your situation. And so in the vast majority of circumstances you can do something about it. And I think that is the key part of resilience.
00:44:31.21 Andy Coulson:
It’s the fact that you are so comfortable in your skin now really, that you are clearly so content. It’s that fact, really, that I suspect makes a lot of people, probably listening to this podcast, rather wish you were back in politics. But that’s exactly, it’s the fact that you don’t want to really go back there, that makes you the person who should. I mean, that’s one of the problems we’ve got with politics, isn’t it? Is that those who’ve kind of reached that perspective and clarity of thought that you now have, are exactly the people that we need in politics.
00:45:14.18 William Hague:
Well that’s nice of you to say so but I’m sure that I am absolutely not going back into politics. But remember in a way I’ve already left and been back once in parliament but I don’t…
00:45:28.22 Andy Coulson:
You left The News of the World, William, to go back to politics. What were you thinking?
00:45:31.20 William Hague:
I did, and that was a real, that cost me a lot to leave and become Shadow Foreign Secretary. So I’ve done that, I’m not going to go endlessly around in circles in my life. And I’ve taken a lot of new responsibilities in the business and charitable world now. So I’m not just going to abandon those things.
00:45:53.23 Andy Coulson:
Let’s separate it from you just for a second. I accept William, that my attempts to get you back into politics are going to fail miserably. So let’s separate it out from you. Do you accept, however, that what we need in politics right now are people like you? People who have got perspective, who have lived a life, who have that ability to step back, be calm, offer the perspective, see the long pitch. All the things that we’ve been talking about. Do you not think that’s what we need now?
00:46:23.07 William Hague:
Well I will agree we could do with some more of that, I don’t specifically mean me. And here this does link to the nature of our political system. Because I mentioned how I stayed an MP even when I was stood down as leader of the opposition. Because I stayed an MP I was then able, four years later when David Cameron was elected, I could make the decision of okay, well this man we could actually get our act together. And I will stay and I will come back and do foreign affairs which I did with him for nearly ten years.
00:46:56.21 William Hague:
However, if I’d left parliament, which was another way of going about it, I couldn’t then have come back. Now in the American or French political system it’s perfectly normal to you know, you’re in a losing government, you go off and you’re a professor of politics at Harvard or you go off and run a business somewhere in France. And you can then be brought straight back into government. You can be brought straight back in again with all of that experience and all of the thinking you’ve done outside. But in our system, unless you actually stay in the House of Commons, you are really putting yourself out of that…
00:47:43.20 Andy Coulson:
With some exceptions haven’t there? there’ve been some exceptions from the Lords haven’t there?
00:47:46.12 William Hague:
There’ve been some. And you can have a few people in from the Lords, of course. But the Lords doesn’t have that legitimacy and you can’t have any senior ministers in the Lords. Whereas the President of the United States can make an entire cabinet out of people from outside Congress who he thinks are the best people to run the transportation department or the treasury or whatever it might be. Now I’m not, I’m not saying we can switch over to a more presidential system as I’m talking about, but it’s not quite right, our system in that the ease of coming in and out isn’t.
00:48:22.21 William Hague:
And that makes it very difficult because when you say, I know we’re not talking about me but somebody like me, okay you ought to make yourself available to government in the future, yeah but that means running for election in a constituency, fighting a bi-election, looking after a constituency every weekend for the next ten years as well as being a minister. In our system, that’s what that involves. And that puts a lot of people off. So we have to think long term about how we allow talented people to, in an accountable way, to come back into government more easily.
00:49:01.02 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I mean, I take your point in terms of being an MP. But I mean, I think we need to find a way within politics more broadly, to deploy experience. David was very good at it actually, you’ll remember when David became prime minister, one of the first things he did actually was bring in some truly experienced, some were saying far too old, politicians into Downing Street. Either as advisors or with more kind of, not general advisors or with more specific roles. And that trend, that fashion, is definitely fading. We’re always looking for the new, aren’t we, and new invariably means young.
00:49:48.18 William Hague:
We are, young people can be brilliant, you know, I wrote a biography about William Pitt the younger, Prime Minister at twenty-four and he was outstanding at handling crises because he just had that natural feel for it. Although he did surround himself with some older, a lot older. The one caveat I would add to what you’re saying is in Britain we are living through a period where, because of Brexit and several changes of leadership in the Conservative Party, that people have moved on more quickly than normal.
00:50:19.22 William Hague:
So in more settled times you wouldn’t have had this whole generation of leaders have left. And you wouldn’t have had that in more settled times. So we are slightly going through an unusual period here. Which wasn’t the case if you had, in the eighteen years of Conservative government in the eighties and nineties or even the thirteen years of Labour government, it wasn’t the case that we almost cycled through people so quickly. Because they didn’t have Brexit, the hold of three general elections in a row quite quickly, two changes of leader. So that has given us a slightly artificial impression at the moment of how politics works.
00:51:07.14 Andy Coulson:
Yes, a balance is the answer, isn’t it? Is the truth, we need a balance in terms of age and experience and background and everything. That rolling, never ending crisis though that you describe, how do we get out of it, William? It feels like, as you say, we’ve had a decade of non-stop existential crisis. Although I sometimes if it’s just me getting old and it’s always been that way, I don’t know.
00:51:37.15 William Hague:
No, it hasn’t always been that way.
00:51:38.16 Andy Coulson:
How do we break this cycle?
00:51:42.10 William Hague:
Yeah, I mean, for perspective there are there’ve been almost as bad, when I think of the early seventies when I got interested in politics there were… The price of oil was going up three times over there was war in the Middle East. There was global recession, there were two general elections in one year in this country, so it’s not that different. And we came out very successfully as a country and a world from that period. So historical perspective is always useful and you just have to keep working your way through these things. The worst thing you can do is give in to the crisis and clutch at easy solutions that don’t work. So I can offer that historical hope but there’s no immediate hope of this current global crisis coming to an end because you can’t write down a peace deal for instance, between Ukraine and Putin, that would work that would stick, there isn’t one available.
00:52:50.04 Andy Coulson:
But what about domestic, I get that from an international, from a global perspective but from a domestic political perspective how do we start to break that cycle? I heard you say, not that long ago, that you thought that the long term that the two party system could collapse at some point in the next couple of decades and that we end up with a more complicated, complex coalition set-up more like we have in some of the European countries. So do you think that both main parties are in a sort of deep long term crisis?
00:53:32.04 William Hague:
No, I think they’ve both got immense problems but again we’ve lived through previous periods where they did so. The party system could collapse but it’s not…. You wouldn’t bet that it would collapse. And the British political system still has the great strength that there are these two big families, the Conservatives and the Labour Party with quite a lot of variety inside them. And that each is capable of winning a majority in parliament so there is an actual choice at elections for the people of the country to make. As long as those two parties are generating new ideas for the future that can be a political system that works well.
00:54:18.12 William Hague:
What is the answer? Well the answer is to have really, I have a particular view about this, that the countries that succeed in the next decade will have an environment for innovation, a great supply of talent, the availability of capital and everything should be geared to that. And if a Conservative government did all the right things on those issues, then actually a Labour government wouldn’t change those things very much because they would work. I wrote an article two weeks ago on my fantasy Queen’s speech that was all about that. Just direct everything at this goal of science, technology, science super-power, educating people. And I got such a good reaction from Conservatives and Labour MPs saying that is what we should do. And so it is possible if they pursue the right policies to break through the current crisis.
00:55:12.12 Andy Coulson:
The last calm period we had, it seems and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong here, in domestic politics was when we were in coalition. That that period of time, albeit a fairly short one, with David as prime minister but with that internal checking mechanism that we had a result of the coalition, worked rather well, didn’t it?
00:55:38.02 William Hague:
It did work well I was a fan of the coalition, it wasn’t all we sought, the coalition government but it introduce governance into it. And that goes slightly back to where we were beginning to reflect on things and to have a structure for everybody to get their say. In a coalition you had to talk about things internally. The Prime Minister had to consult others. They couldn’t be really informal way of deciding things because we had to make sure the Lib Dems were prepared to vote for things.
00:56:14.19 William Hague:
So it actually imposed quite a good discipline on government and led to… In the end we ended up with the as you know, I chaired negotiations on the conservative side of the coalition. I claimed at the time that we ended up with the most of the Conservative manifesto and the best of the Liberal manifesto. And I think we did, actually and that produced a pretty solid government, yes. But you can’t design it, you can’t go into an election saying our objective is to have such a finely balanced parliament you’re going to need another party.
00:56:53.00 Andy Coulson:
That would be an unusual approach.
00:56:54.04 William Hague:
Yes, that would not get you any votes so you have to take your chances with that.
00:57:00.19 Andy Coulson:
Indeed. We touched on Ukraine at the beginning, I’d like to do so at the end if I may. Your Times column today, without wishing to date this podcast, is a great read, it’s an absolute masterclass in geopolitics. There are plenty of, I should say, there are plenty of journalists who become politicians. There aren’t that many politicians who become journalists and you’ve done it brilliantly. You essentially set out the road map for Putin to save face sort of claim a short term victory and in doing so effectively divide the west and then over the long term then get what he wants.
00:57:36.10 Andy Coulson:
And then you explain how it could be prevented and that, in short summary, requires the leaders in the West to stick together. I suppose taking in the conversations that we’ve had, that is going to be desperately difficult isn’t it to ask all of these leaders who are facing their own issues domestically, who have different views, we’re already seeing some cracks appear. If you were in the old job now how would you approach that. Or indeed would you see that was your role to try and be the glue amongst this disparate group of leaders in the West to stay true to the strategy?
00:58:14.07 William Hague:
Yes I would thank you, yes, I think that is part of the role of the British Prime Minister, particularly with the all the influence Britain still has over the United States. This is mainly that this has to be led by the president of the United States. We’ve seen again in this crisis that there’s only one country that can really deliver enormous power across the world, only one western country. No other country can write cheques for forty billion dollars to Ukraine or send dozens of plane loads of military equipment every week, even though we’ve sent a lot proportionally, but the United States is critical. So it’s very important that president Biden leads that.
00:58:59.21 William Hague:
And what I would do is more of the what happened at the beginning of the crisis which is that London and Washington successfully called out what Putin was going to do. He is going to invade and he is going to use these false pretexts for it. Be ready for all of this. So what I’m trying to argue in my column is that you can see this, we don’t have the intelligence, as far as I’m aware, that shows Putin is going to do what I described in my column, but we can see that this might very well be his next ploy. So we have to alert people to it, say watch out for this one. He’s only trying to con you into thinking that he will come to a peace deal while he gets some respite himself and to divide us about what we’re going to do. So be ready for that, that’s what I’d be doing if I was Prime Minister or President of the United States.
00:59:57.22 Andy Coulson:
You’d make a very good NATO Secretary General, William.
01:00:00.17 William Hague:
Oh don’t start on that.
01:00:03.05 Andy Coulson:
Ever fancied it?
01:00:04.09 William Hague:
No, I have gone onto new things in life. And if you go onto new things in life you have to do them with some energy and determination and not get side tracked by people saying you ought to go back into parts of your old life.
01:00:23.13 Andy Coulson:
Forgive me. William that’s fantastic thank you so much for your time today. Before you go we’re going to ask you for your crisis cures. Three specific things if I may, that you rely on, lean on when the going gets tough. What would they be please?
01:00:40.10 William Hague:
Nature, the Japanese like forest bathing, it’s not a bad idea. When in trouble, to go and walk among the trees, the plants, the wild animals, that gives you a different perspective and certainly a calmer one. And then I think history. I’ve mentioned several times in our discussion that often you can see things in better perspective if you can remember how terrible things were before for a previous generation. Don’t feel so sorry for yourself when you think about people in their twenty years old in 1940 being expected to go off to war. So history is very important.
01:01:32.03 William Hague:
And for me exercise is very important. I always used to say to my officials at the Foreign office, ‘I can do without sleep when we put together this week’s planner, I can do without food, but I can’t do without my exercise’. I have to have a run or a swim or something in the morning. When I’m in big trouble I need even more of that because I think that gives you an energy and a self-confidence and again a sense of perspective and some time to think when people can’t bother you. So nature, history and exercise are my three tips.
01:02:10.13 Andy Coulson:
That’s wonderful. William, thank you so much for joining us today, that was a wonderful conversation, it’s great to see you again and thank you for sharing your perspective.
01:02:22.00 William Hague:
Thank you very much Andy, great pleasure.
01:02:23.22 Andy Coulson:
If you’ve enjoyed this episode please do give us a rating and a review it really helps. And if you hit subscribe wherever you download your podcast from you’ll find loads more crisis conversations. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook our handle is @crisiswhatcrisispodcast. Thanks again for listening.
01:02:47.00 End of podcast