Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

A duty to be true

Sir: Charles Powell's acid review (Books, 28 September) saddens me. On the very first page of my book I point to the deformation professionnelle inherent in the work of every diarist, and I invite correction. But Sir Charles Powell offers no correction -- he offers defamatory insults and abuse. I will not conduct a debate at this level of discourse.

One statement, however, I cannot leave unchallenged. Sir Charles describes his minutes of the 1990 Chequers seminar as 'a racy account of it . . . It was the sort of colourful summary of the day's learned debate which any good reporter should produce. It remains a jolly good read . . .

This is astonishing.

Surely, civil servants taking minutes at prime ministerial (or any) meetings have a different duty. Surely, their task is to record what has been said truthfully in tone, and with accuracy as to fact and detail, regardless of the nature of the occasion.

The majority of scholars who attended the Chequers meeting do not recognise that Sir Charles Powell has produced an accurate summary of the discussions there. I say so in my book; others have said so, and repeatedly, elsewhere. The leaked memorandum has caused serious damage to British interests in Europe, and it is a pity that Sir Charles Powell cannot accept this.

George Urban

Palmeira Square, Hove, Sussex

Sir: Divergent interpretations of fact are not to be resolved by dismissive asides and personal sneers. I refer to Sir Charles Powell's review of Mr George Urban's account of the famous, or notorious, 'Chequers seminar' (Books, 28 September 1996). The facts can be briefly stated. Those invited to participate in the 'seminar', which was described as highly confidential, received in advance a list of questions to be discussed. I was surprised by the general tendency of these questions, which are printed at length in George Urban's book. We were asked to consider whether the Germans were, by national character, unreliable, neurotic, militaristic, liable to revert to Nazi ways.

At the discussion, the consensus which emerged could be summarised, bluntly, as the answer No. Sir Charles Powell evidently summarised them differently, as the answer Yes. I do not know to whom his summary was circulated. It was not circulated to us, so we first learned the views ascribed to us four months later, when it was passed to the press.

Of those present at the seminar, George Urban has dissociated himself from Sir Charles's summary, in his book. The Amer

ican historian, Professor Gordon Craig, has dissociated himself in an article in the Vierteljahrsheft fur Zeitgeschichte. I dissociate myself here. Others have dissociated themselves privately. I think we are just as competent to know what we think and what we said, and heard, on that occasion, as Sir Charles Powell.

A European Union economically dominated by Germany may or may not be desirable; but even if we think it undesirable, that is not a reason to provide a misleading record or to raise the spectre of a new Nazism.


The Old Rectory, Didcot, Oxfordshire

Hiroshima and the BBC

Sir: Professor Cameron Watt's letter (28 September) on the subject of the BBC programme on Hiroshima is so admirably definitive that I intervene only to assure your readers and the BBC (if they are at all interested, which I doubt) that his is not just 'another point of view', but represents the considered opinion of all serious historians who have taken the trouble to study

the question in the depth that it deserves.

To base a programme about Hiroshima on the views of Professor Alperovitz is comparable to basing a programme about Hitler on the views of David Irving. It certainly makes for lively controversy, but is not 'history' as generally understood: it should carry a health warning and an opportunity should be provided for considered rebuttal. When a very similarly slanted programme was made recently about Sir Arthur Harris the BBC at least had the decency to screen a successor showing the other side of the coin. …

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