In October 1935, Mussolini’s Grand Army crossed the border into Abyssinia. This land had been independent since the days of King Solomon. It was the only African country to successfully resist European invasion in the nineteenth century.
The Italians had modern aeroplanes, tanks and flame-throwers. The Abyssinians had war-drums, camels and twelve obsolete biplanes. The Italians used poison gas and bombed Red Cross hospitals. The League of Nations applied some sanctions, but not enough to stop the war. The British let oil and coal sail through the British-controlled Suez canal. The French sold oil to the Italians. The League forbade arms sales to either side.
The Abyssinians were slaughtered.
Cuthbert was outraged.
It was the first time any of his employees had seen him anything other than bored and distemperate. It made them all panic. Each of them ran around, feeling the weight of the Abyssinian crisis as he had been directly responsible for it. Cuthbert acted as if he had been against the League of Nations from the start, but had been overruled by his underlings – and now had the full magisterial right of a man who had given good but unheeded advice.
The truth was that the FO was in quite a bind, and Cuthbert felt it most keenly. Throughout his career, he had been in the position of unequalled expert. His detailed knowledge was consulted, deferred to, sought after and never questioned. His position was a kind of weapon; his heavy, bludgeoning personality saw that it never went unused.
But now, things were crawling out into the open. The British public – largely due to propaganda coming out of the FO – were almost fetishistically enamoured of the League of Nations. The League of Nations served Cuthbert perfectly, because he could blame the other members if a British initiative failed, and take personal credit if something succeeded. The greatest engine of the mortal world is the drive to avoid responsibility and fuel vanity. The League of Nations was popular with the people because it served the vanities of the leaders.
Cuthbert was in a very privileged position, and this position was directly threatened by Mussolini. He was the chief civil servant under Samuel Hoare, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Cuthbert had seen quite a few ministers stumble through the FO – it did not tend to attract the best and brightest – and had loved them all. They had the microphones and interviews, but spoke little but what Cuthbert wanted them to say. The word ‘democracy’ always made him smile. Ministers who went against the policy of the civil service – surely a more permanent and skilled layer – found unpleasant information leaked to the newspapers, or were given poor advice which got them kicked out. In the palaces of power, the civil service were neither king, queen or courtier, but oxygen. An invisible, unfelt substance on which all pomp and power depended.
Being a great civil servant required two things, according to Cuthbert. One had to be very certain, and very patient. “The great virtue of the civil service,” he would say, “is that we are not subject to the vagaries of public opinion. We are the ballast of the ship of state.”
He was not a great fan of democracy, except insofar as the illusion of participation created the moral requirement of obedience. “They vote in the figureheads,” he smiled, “and we tell them what to do. If they succeed, they preen. If not, they leave. But we remain. We always remain.”