Meet the Fellows: Interview with Lord Kim Darroch

Lord Kim Darroch is the former British Ambassador to the United States (2016-2019). His diplomatic career has spanned 40 years, during which time he has focused on national security and European policy. Before serving in Washington, he was National Security Adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron (2012-2015), Permanent Representative to the European Union (2007-2011) and EU Adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair (2004-2007). At Harvard, he leads a study group that is focused on Brexit, populism, and diplomacy. 

Harvard Political Review: What has the transition from government to Harvard been like?

Kim Darroch: The single biggest thing about transition is that when you are in government, people ask you constantly, “What are you going to do about this? What action are we going to take? What’s our response?” It’s always about what we do next, not least because the 24-hour news cycle means the pressure to get on and seem to be doing something is just overwhelming. And it’s just fascinating to come to Harvard, where people would say the important thing is the conversation. It’s the exchange of ideas. It’s just so refreshing to have a bit more space. We’re not constantly trying to decide what to do, often on the basis of too little information. Here, it’s just genuinely about learning from others.

HPR: A lot of the conversation that you’ve engaged in has surrounded populism. Over the span of your 40-year diplomatic career, have you seen anything like our current political climate?

KD: The last four years have been like no other in my career. I’ve seen, really across Western democracies, populist political parties and populist politicians coming to the fore. In a way, Brexit is an even more extraordinary event than U.S. elections because President Trump could either lose at the end of this year or finish two terms by the end of 2024, but Brexit lasts forever. And I have never known a [similar] period in history. It’s not just in America; you have populist parties raising the polls across Europe, Brazil, the Philippines, and elsewhere. What that tells you is that there is some kind of malaise in the political establishment. People are no longer trusting mainstream politicians to have the answers to the problems that they see every day. So it’s not that populism has just risen from nowhere. It has risen because of the failure of the established political process. And if you want to get back to how things were — I’m not sure it’s possible to get back to that, we will see over the next few years — we need to have better answers than before.

HPR: Does the rise of populism relate to disillusionment with the absence of open conversation in government and the pressure to give quick answers that you talked about earlier?

KD: I was a press spokesman twice in my career and spent a lot of time crafting answers for the difficult questions which were designed to cover the bases and to be safe. And it would be regarded as a success if there was no big story about it. But populist politicians do the opposite. They provide straight answers to questions, even if what they say is very controversial. Or maybe because what they say can be very controversial. Maybe that’s an advantage in some respects, it gives them a stamp of authenticity. People listen to mainstream politicians and hear code and evasion, and they listen to populists and hear clarity and simplicity. It may be in some cases that it’s fantasy because these simple straightforward answers just simply don’t work.

HPR: When Trump was first elected, you termed his victory “historic and impressive,” but cables that were released years later showed your views of him to be “inept” and “incompetent.” Why the turnaround? 

KD: First, if you are referring to the British Press article, those were very selective quotes from a letter that was quite lengthy and thoughtful. Second, it talked about the administration having a difficult first few months; it wasn’t personal about the President. Anyone would have said they struggled initially; they didn’t have a lot of experience on how to run government. There were lots of vacancies, the “Never Trump” letters, Michael Flynn’s firing, and the travel ban that got stopped in the courts. There were a number of things that didn’t go smoothly, so I don’t think there was anything very startling about saying after six months that they had a rocky start. 

I also said by the way — I’m not sure that was reported in the bits of the letter that appeared in the media — that I thought Trump was like the Terminator in the way that he could come through setbacks unscathed. He was an extraordinary survivor through these things. We called Trump as a likely election winner back in February 2015. That was well before the Washington establishment did. So I’ve always thought that he is an extraordinary campaigner and in a way, he’s a terrifying politician to try and take on. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination has got to stand up against one of the most lethal politicians in the modern era. As a campaigner and as a competitor, he is kind of terrifying.

HPR: How do you see the trajectory of this relationship changing with relation to the temporality of U.S. election cycles as opposed to the permanence of Brexit ideology that you mentioned earlier?

KD: The real foundation lies in the intelligence and defense relationship, the values that we share, and the cultural exchanges between thousands of students and tourists going in both directions. All of this carries on, whoever is in the White House. There is no doubt that there have been moments in history when leaders haven’t really hit it off, but there are other times when the relationship has been especially strong. I mean, in my lifetime, you think of Harold Macmillan and JFK. Sadly, it was a very short presidency, in Jack’s case. You can think of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. You can think of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, or Tony Blair and George H.W. Bush. And who knows where Boris Johnson and Donald Trump will go? There have also been times when the relationship has been quite edgy. Our major had issues over a number of things with Bill Clinton, and Harold Wilson refused to back what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam under LBJ. This got quite difficult in its time. So there are ups and downs, but the foundations are extraordinarily strong and unique to the relationship, whoever’s in the White House. 

HPR: Is there anything that could have been done to prevent Brexit from happening, or was it  largely inevitable?

KD: That’s a really big question. Was Brexit inevitable? I don’t think so. But there’s no question that the United Kingdom and the European Union have been drifting apart for a number of years. And I think you can date that back to the formation of the euro — by the 2008 financial crisis, the members of the euro basically decided that they had to pursue much deeper European integration to make the euro survive. And that left those of us outside of Europe, and outside of that integration, somewhat on the margins. 

And so I would argue that some of the drift started from then, but we’ve always been exceptionalists in the European Union. We’ve always demanded a special deal for the U.K. We’ve always seen it as an economic project, whereas the founding members see it as a political project, a project about peace. Was it inevitable that we had to leave? I still don’t think it was. 

But there is something about people being angry with the British establishment the same way that Americans are angry with the Washington establishment. For the British, it’s their anger at being told, “The European Union is good for you, and it’s produced this wonderfully strong economy,” while up in the Middle and the North, they didn’t think the economy was that strong. Once you got outside London, the rest of England voted by an 11% margin for Brexit, which is extraordinary. So what was it that they hated? Was that really all about the European Union? I think it was all about London and the establishment and that they were just sick of being told what was good for them.

HPR: What could mainstream politicians have done to address these concerns while still keeping the U.K. within the EU? 

KD: What could mainstream politicians have done? Well, they should have kept their eyes open, and they should have picked up what was going on outside of the Westminster and London bubble. They should have picked up what was going on out in the rest of the country. It was a time when the British economy was booming, and we had lots of money to spend. We should have been spending money out there in the regions for more schools, more hospitals, and more public housing. I found personally that we were far too complacent. There was far too much of the feeling that London was booming, that we were growing this economy twice as fast as the rest of Europe, that it was great. That wasn’t how it felt to the rest of the country.

HPR: Do you think politicians are actively going to go out now and try to get those other voices?

KD: Well, actually the centerpiece of Boris Johnson’s policy is what he calls “leveling up,” which is bringing the North and the Midlands up to the same economic level as London. So absolutely. That’s the core of his ambitions as prime minister. I think that populism is a way of making your arguments designed to connect with people. So this isn’t per se, a terrible thing. And you can use populist rhetoric for a whole range of policies if you want — people are saying that Bernie Sanders is the populist of the left and Donald Trump is the populist of the right. And they’re right. But populism can work, if you have better worked out policies that can actually deliver.

HPR: What do you see as the next big political wave going forward?

KD: I think people will become worried because they will see increasing evidence that climate change is real. They will demand tougher, faster, more effective action by politicians, because they will start to think that this calamity is really approaching them. It may affect them in their lifetimes, and it will certainly affect their children, because some of the things that have been predicted will happen by the end of the century. Governments will come under a huge amount of pressure to deliver on climate change targets in terms of bringing down emissions, but they’ll be asked to try and do it in a way that doesn’t raise prices, which will be quite a challenge. So if I were coming into politics, I would be thinking very hard about the best answers to deliver on climate change. 

Alongside that, the other great challenge is in the West — how do you produce an economy which gives more people jobs that are also better paid? It needs an education system which equips people with the skills for the modern economy, whether it’s coding skills or anything else. I’m not sure anyone has really worked out how to reform education systems to produce workforces that are comprehensively better equipped for the modern age. 

HPR: If you had to compare yourself to any fictional character, who would it be and why?

KD: In my youth, I used to think I was Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. Nowadays … I don’t know. I’ll tell you who I have a really soft spot for, and that’s Jay Gatsby. The Great Gatsby is the best British book ever written. Jay Gatsby is extraordinarily deep; I do think he is the most fascinating character. People nowadays, especially a lot of novelists, write massive, loose, baggy, self-indulgent books, that go on for six or eight hundred pages. The Great Gatsby was written once and then he shortened it — the short version I read was about 176 pages in particular. And every sentence is perfect. The more discipline he got, the more beautifully written it became. It’s just perfect. 

Image Credit: Financial Times

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