The Diary: Andrew Roberts

To the House of Commons to hear Charles, Marquess of Douro, direct descendant of the first Duke of Wellington, inaugurate the Friends of the Lines of Torres Vedras. These were the 35 miles of massive stone and earthwork fortifications, ordered by Wellington, that crisscrossed the peninsula between the River Tagus and the Atlantic Ocean and which, 200 years ago, kept Napoleon’s armies out of Lisbon. As such they mark the high-water line of Napoleonic power in the Iberian peninsula, and the place where the great fightback against French domination of Europe began.

I visited the Lines at the beginning of the year and was moved by the incredible amount of work that the Portuguese soldiers, militia and civilians, guided by Britain’s Royal Engineers and Royal Navy, had put into this last-ditch attempt to protect their capital. Flung up in a few months between 1809 and 1810, they proved magnificently effective. The French commander Marshal André Masséna had, due to the shocking state of his military intelligence, no idea the stones were even there until he rode up to them in October 1810. He soon got the picture though, when he saw some of the 160 forts that sat on top of them with cannons sticking out. Swiftly fired at, and only narrowly missed by cannonballs, Masséna coolly raised his cocked hat in appreciation of how close the escape had been and rode off.

This wholly successful act of military defence was one of the things that saved liberty in Europe and yet today, these once–magnificent structures are in severe danger of total dilapidation, the result of quad-biking, vandalism, soil erosion, creeping urbanisation and the natural climatic assault of two centuries.

A joint Anglo-Portuguese effort is now to be made to try to save the Lines. In Britain it is spearheaded by Lords Roper and Dubs, and by MPs Andrew Dismore, Chris Ruane and Tim Boswell; and in Portugal by Jaime Gama, the president of the parliament, and Jose Ribeiro e Castro, the chairman of their foreign affairs committee. The only countries to have put cash forward so far, however, have been Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland, who have contributed as members of the European Free Trade Association even though they have no historical connection with either the Lines or the Peninsular war. By contrast, Britain and Portugal, which were responsible for building these splendid fortifications that so superbly symbolise our 637-year alliance, haven’t provided anything and seem unlikely too. Can you see a British government providing anything towards preserving 200-year-old fortifications in a different country? I can’t.

In the recent row between China and the US over President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, White House officials emphasised that there is a major difference between being received in the Oval Office and merely being invited into the White House Map Room, as his holiness was. They desperately hoped to curry favour with Beijing by pointing out that the Map Room is not so important.

Having been in both rooms – twice – I would take issue. Throughout the second world war Franklin Roosevelt used the Map Room as his primary situation room, and it was from there that he and Winston Churchill tracked the course of the conflict. Many great decisions were taken there; in fact, when it came to the grand strategy of the war, probably as many as were taken in the Oval Office. As an historian, I was just as impressed and fascinated by the Map Room as I was by the Oval Office, and I hope the Dalai Lama, for all his pacifism, was too.

British Airways permitting, at Easter I am to leave Britain for New York for a couple of years in order to follow my wife Susan Gilchrist – the principal breadwinner in our family – who has been made managing partner of the US division of Brunswick Group, the corporate communications company.

I have been going to New York twice a year for as long as I can remember and have loved it as a place to visit. But viewing it as somewhere to live will take adjustment. Going rarely to a place only adds to its fun; but what if you are there most of the time? Does that detract from the pleasure? I am, therefore, approaching the move in mood somewhere between apprehension and delight.

While I’m out there I’m going to practise walking two respectful paces behind my wife, in the way perfected by Denis Thatcher and the Duke of Edinburgh. “I admit I was hoping for Prince Charming,” Susan said the other day, “but I’m perfectly happy to have got Prince Philip instead.”

Everyone who has ever even begun to touch the outer penumbra of public life in this country receives loony letters and e-mails from what is often called “the green ink brigade”. (By the way: the loonies very often really do use green ink.) For 20 years I’ve kept a file of my favourites, including one from a gentleman who claimed to be writing from “The Planet Zog, The Outer Solar System” (although the postmark on the envelope clearly read Ipswich).

This week brought a classic from Colorado, which reads: “Dear Andrew Roberts, your friend Mickey Mann and Frank Braswell are also saying you are on KGB payroll since Mickey Mann is trying to extricate himself from the now asserted charge of assassinating MLK.” I have never heard of Mann or Braswell but MLK is surely Martin Luther King. To have been accused of being even tangentially involved in the assassination of Martin Luther King is a new one even for me, not least because I was only five years and three months old when the outrage was committed. When I told my son Henry of my new claim to pre-school fame he seemed unimpressed with my alibi: “Maybe they found your crayons at the scene of the crime,” he said.

It’s good to see that, nearly 170 years on from the days of Thomas Arnold, greatest of Rugby School headmasters and father of the modern public school system, the school is still at the forefront of new thinking on education. A new book, Liberating Learning, will be published in April, edited by the school’s current headmaster, Patrick Derham, and Michael Worton, vice-provost at University College London.

I predict that this book, appearing only weeks before the likely advent of my friend Michael Gove as the most radical education secretary since Shirley Williams, will set the education debate alight in a manner reminiscent of The Black Papers, a series of polemical pamphlets on progressive education first published in 1969 by a group of notable contributors including Kingsley Amis.

Indeed, with contributions on “The Decline of History” by Niall Ferguson, “Liberal Education” by AC Grayling and “Educating for Business” by Sir Stuart Rose and John May (of the Young Enterprise education charity), it could become a bible for reformers, those fed up with the past 13 years of missed opportunities.

When Gove is seen entering No 10 for the first cabinet meeting of the new Tory ministry with the book tucked firmly under his arm, remember: you read about it here first.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.