On being asked to do the decent thing

‘…the army officer is left with the revolver on his desk and asked to do the decent thing. I picked it up and started shooting at the bastards’

A review of Murder in Samarkand by Norrie MacQueen, University of Dundee

This book had a difficult birth. This was nothing to do with the writing process ‘ Murray possesses an easy and fluent style. The problems came from the endless wrangles between the author and his former employers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about what could and could not be offered for public scrutiny. It is a book that Whitehall would dearly have liked to bury: the story of Murray’s pyrotechnic two years as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the post-Soviet Central Asian state of Uzbekistan and the Foreign Office’s cack-handed operation to rid itself of this turbulent diplomat.

Putting right the dysfunctional and ineffective mission that he inherited as his first (and, as it

turned out, emphatically his last ambassadorial posting) would have been a formidable task on its own. But Murray’s restless energy was also directed at building the previously neglected commercial and trade side of the embassy’s work. And, most dramatically, he began a high profile crusade against the hideous human rights abuses (including, charmingly, the boiling alive of political opponents) of the sinister President Islam Karimov and his ruling clique. Karimov, like other post-Soviet leaders in the region, had glided effortlessly from communist hack to enthusiastic western ally. By playing up a barely discernable ‘Islamist challenge’ and offering tracts of the country for American military bases, Karimov’s brutal kleptocracy had been given a free hand to plunder the country’s economy and destroy all internal opposition. Instead of being named and shamed as the vicious despot he undoubtedly is, he was lauded as a key ally in the ‘war on terror’.

The consequence of Murray’s outspoken public speeches, angry diplomatic telegrams and face-to-face conflicts with venal and violent officials was the implacable enmity of his American counterparts in Uzbekistan. The word was passed from Tashkent to Washington and then on to London that the ambassador was not merely off-message but out of control. The Foreign Office and allegedly Downing Street itself, in the raw-nerved atmosphere of the invasion of Iraq, were ready to respond to these transatlantic concerns. The vehicle of this response was a dossier of official complaints against Murray’s personal and professional conduct designed to force his resignation. They were complaints which seemed for the most part to be grossly exaggerated or utterly trivial when they weren’t simply mendacious.

Though the accusations faltered and fell in the absence of credible evidence and in the face of the formidable support he was able to muster, the campaign against him caused his emotional and physical breakdown. Though he returned briefly to Tashkent after the worst of the affair seemed to be over, it should perhaps have been clearer to him than it appeared to be that he would have no future in the diplomatic service. Another series of wrangles with the FCO over his attacks on the regime soon followed. These led to threats of dismissal and, eventually, a reasonable severance package which he had no real option but to accept. His spirits soon rallied, however, and he was to brighten one of the dullest general elections in memory when he ran an obviously doomed but highly colourful campaign against his one-time boss, the then

foreign secretary Jack Straw in his Blackburn fiefdom.

Murray perhaps cannot be wholly absolved of all responsibility for the situation he found himself in. He was by any standards an unconventional ambassador, and not just because of his state school and Dundee University background. In fact the FCO is not as Eton and Oxbridge-dominated as it once was. Murray’s insistence that nothing had changed in this respect does however provide one of his more amusing images. On the doomed attempt to get him to go quietly, he observed ‘…the army officer is left with the revolver on his desk and asked to do the decent thing. I picked it up and started shooting at the bastards’. Although his approach to his job was intentionally informal and relaxed, one doesn’t have to be a Whitehall stuffed-shirt to suspect that it may also have been careless and incautious at times. His penchant for young local women (which, it has to be said, comes across in the book as more Benny Hill than James Bond) was freely admitted, openly pursued and usually alcoholassisted. Inevitably this provided hostages to fortune. And even those in the diplomatic service who shared his revulsion for the Karimov regime may have felt his head-down, glovesoff attacks on it to be unwise.

But if he can be faulted for misjudgement and naivety, he certainly can’t be accused of personal cowardice or lack of moral integrity. He is a brave if flawed individual, a genuine original, and his book has a multiplicity of qualities. It provides an intriguing view of the consequences of Russia’s decolonization of its Asian empire ‘ one of the less explored aspects of the end of the cold war. It offers a snapshot of the front-line of British diplomacy during a phase which is unlikely to be recalled with much pride. Perhaps most importantly, it skewers the hypocrisy and moral absurdity which underlies so much of the ‘war on terror’. It is also a very accessible, often funny and always exhilarating read.