Book review: Collateral Damage by Kim Darroch

Kim Darroch’s time as British Ambassador to Washington was cut short when his opinions on President Trump were leaked, but he seems to hold few grudges, writes Vin Arthey

Collateral Damage, by Kim Darroch

If it hadn’t been for a leaked letter, Kim Darroch might never have written an autobiography or, at least, not a memoir as sharp and witty as this. A week in politics is a long time, and his resignation as the British Ambassador in Washington seems aeons ago, yet it is barely 12 months.

An ambassador’s responsibility is to provide his or her government with relevant details about the country in which they serve, and honest appraisals of its leaders. So when Darroch wrote a confidential letter to the cabinet secretary and national security adviser in 2017, in which he said of the White House under the presidency of Donald Trump, “We don’t really believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal, less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept” he was simply doing his job. It was a vital assessment for the British government as it managed its relationship with its closest ally and was not unusual. Diplomatic considerations of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were not without their sting, but where leaked had not led to any ire in Washington.

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Sir Kim (now Lord) Darroch recalls his service as a British diplomat in Brussels and suspects that he was tagged as a “remainer” because of this, but reminds us of his duty as a servant of the Crown and lets us know that he neither could nor would kowtow to the Brussels line. He was honoured to be appointed to Washington, and the bulk of Collateral Damage is Darroch’s evaluation of his knowledge of and time in the United States, its geography, history, politics and culture. His enjoyment of American movies and bands of the early 1970s (Little Feat and Lynyrd Skynyrd get special mentions) are palpable, and he is delighted when his itinerary takes him near a rock concert venue, so he can listen from a hotel balcony if he is unable to get tickets. Not only did he meet everyone who was anyone in Washington, he took careful note of what ordinary folk had to say, taxi drivers, waitresses, farmers, and he peppers his chapters with mentions of journalists’ quips, quotes from song lyrics and literature. Apt details enhance the reader’s awareness of the United States – for example, Washington DC voted 92.8 per cent for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election (another reason, perhaps, that Donald Trump felt the need to “drain the swamp.”)

All the crises of the Trump presidency and the stories behind the scandals are outlined, and where necessary the intricacies, such as those surrounding the Iran nuclear deal, are clearly explained for the layperson. The final part of the book is the astute diplomat’s survey of why a Brexited UK and a Trump-led USA are where they are, the state of the “special relationship” and what policy makers should now be bearing in mind.

Darroch comes across as a personable and generous man. He has an objectivity and respect for those he writes about, including Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, and continually invites us to reassess our own prejudices. It turns out that he shares a passion for dinghy sailing with Sean Spicer, the former White House press spokesman, who was lampooned after his furious statement that Trump’s inauguration attracted “the largest audience ever.” The two stayed in touch after Spicer’s resignation. Although the crowd issue was never mentioned, Spicer did talk about being abused by passers-by while out with his young children in Washington.

As Dr Samuel Johnson once said, “A writer only starts a book. A reader finishes it.” The respect Darroch shows for those he writes about is to be found, too, in his respect for his readers, except perhaps for one – the leaker.

Collateral Damage, by Kim Darroch, William Collins, 374pp, £20

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