Craig Murray: Our man in Dundee

From Education Guardian

Being a bloody-minded whistleblower is the ideal qualification for a rector, the ex-ambassador tells John Crace

A one-bedroomed flat in Shepherd’s Bush isn’t many people’s idea of a former diplomat’s des res. And it probably isn’t Craig Murray’s, either. But after a bruising few years, which have seen him forced out of his job as ambassador to Uzbekistan by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for failing to toe the British line on intelligence obtained under torture, come close to bankruptcy, when he started a legal challenge against his dismissal, and navigate his way through a tricky divorce, he’s happy to settle for what he can get.

You wouldn’t blame him for seeking out a quiet life – and by contesting this Friday’s election for the post of rector of Dundee University against a former Scottish rugby international, Andy Nicoll, it might look as if Murray had already got his slippers half on. After all, what could be more suitable for an ex His Excellency than an honorary position that requires little more than dressing up in fancy clothes from time to time, eating the odd formal banquet and smoking an after-dinner Havana? If Lorraine Kelly has been able to handle the job for the past two and a half years or so, then it should be a doddle for Murray.

Looking after students’ interests

This isn’t quite the way Murray sees it, though. “Being rector may be unpaid, but it should be more than a glorified PR non-job,” he says. “I was head of the student union when I was at Dundee in the early 1980s, so I know what a rector is meant to do. The post was originally established so that students had an elected representative to look after their interests in the running of the university; this function has rather been neglected in recent years as the administration has been left to the principal. But I intend to be much more hands-on.”

In other words, he’s planning to do exactly what he did at the Foreign Office: ask difficult questions and be bloody-minded. Murray gives a half-smile. “If necessary,” he says cautiously. So take that as a yes. Dundee University is going through tough times; it’s running a ‘1.8m deficit and the principal, Sir Alan Langmeads, has put forward a cost-cutting plan that includes up to 100 redundancies, the closure of the modern languages department and shorter opening hours for the library.

Murray doesn’t much care for it and neither, he reckons, do many others. “I can’t really see how introducing new layers of bureaucracy and cutting academic provision is in the university’s best interests,” he says, “and I believe that many students feel too powerless to influence policy and that academics are scared about speaking up because they are worried about losing their jobs. If I could be a rallying point – the rector is the third most powerful university post – then maybe we could have a proper democratic debate about the best way forward.”

With no full-time job at present – he doesn’t count writing a book as a proper career – Murray describes his occupation as “dissident”. Not that he looks much like your archetypal dissident. He’s a little tired and distant around the eyes, but that’s the only outward sign of a life in conflict. Even so, dissident is not as wide of the mark as you might think.

Murray grew up in Norfolk, where his father was stationed at an RAF base, and his childhood appears to have been the usual unremarkable mix of home and school.

Except Murray hated his school with a passion. “The Paston was an old-fashioned grammar that was trying its best to be an independent school,” he says. “It felt as if the teachers were still fighting the second world war, and once a week we were all made to dress up in military uniform and become cadets. Either I skipped school or refused to take part, so I was frequently suspended. Anyway, the overall result was that I did little work and managed to screw up my A-levels spectacularly.”

Things improved when he went up to Dundee – “it was the only university that would have me; I got in through clearing” – but though he emerged four academic years and two student officer sabbatical years later with a first in history, he still couldn’t find a job.

“You’d have thought that a decent degree and time spent as head of the student union might have been of interest to someone,” he laughs, “but I must have applied for more than 100 jobs and only one firm even wrote back to me. It was the early 80s, there were about three and half million people unemployed and I was a bit desperate, so I took the fast-stream civil service exam as a bit of a joke.”

Things became less funny when Murray not only passed the exam but sailed through the two-day selection panel. “I then had to work out what I wanted to do,” he says. “I’d never had any great desire to travel or see the world – I only discovered what a pizza was during a trip to see a girl-friend in Chicago when I was 21 – and I only put down the diplomatic corps because it seemed marginally more glamorous than anything else on offer. I couldn’t face the idea of joining the Department of Health and Social Security or the Inland Revenue; it would have been like admitting I was really dull and had no friends.”

Murray was a bit of an outsider from the start in the Foreign Office. “It likes to boast about how it has broadened access,” he says, “but it’s a complete nonsense. When the FCO talks about graduate entry it actually means to all levels of the service, and you virtually need a degree even to empty a wastepaper basket there these days. Of the 22 people in my high-flier intake, only two of us didn’t go to Oxbridge and only I didn’t go to a public school.”

Even so, he proved himself to be a safe enough pair of hands and, after successful junior postings in Poland, Nigeria and Ghana, he was offered the top job as ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2002 when he was in his early 40s. Post 9/11, the former Russian republic wasn’t the diplomatic backwater it once had been and most FCO insiders reckoned Murray was headed for the top: a safe tour of Uzbekistan and a stint as a European ambassador, before bowing out with one of the plum jobs and a knighthood, was the general forecast.

It all started to unravel within weeks of his arriving in Tashkent. “President Karimov was making a big deal of a forthcoming terrorist trial,” Murray says, “so I thought I would go along to watch. It was all going to script with the accused admitting that his nephews belonged to al-Qaida, when the man burst into tears, saying it was all untrue and that he’d been tortured into a confession. I was close enough to touch him in court and I could tell he was speaking the truth.”

Murray didn’t need to go digging for more evidence: as he had shown an interest in these abuses by turning up in court, dissidents from all parts of the country came to the embassy to tell their stories. To his amazement, he soon realised there was a distinct overlap between the confessions that had been extracted under torture and the security intelligence that was being circulated by the CIA.

No hero

“You have to realise I never set out to be a hero,” he insists. “I was never a great campaigner for human rights. In many ways, I’d always been just as compromised as any other diplomat. When I was working on the South African desk of the London office I had had to send out letters saying we believed that the African National Congress was a terrorist organisation. I didn’t think that for a second and nor did anyone else I was working with, but we did it because it was the price of an impartial, depoliticised civil service.

“The closest I had ever got to any form of stand was by refusing to implement a government directive to persuade the Poles to reduce the size of the health warnings on cigarette packets to conform with EU law. But the situation in Uzbekistan was very different. This was about torture and it seemed very black and white to me. It still does; the only surprise was that it didn’t seem to be a moral issue for other members of the government and the FCO.”

Within a few months, Murray was getting a telegram from the FCO suggesting he was “focusing too much on human rights issues” and, when this had no effect, he was told outright that Britain was entitled to use intelligence obtained under torture providing it wasn’t the Brits who were doing the torturing. “It was legal, it was policy and I was to shut up,” he says.

But he didn’t, and in August 2003 he was recalled to London from a family holiday in Canada. “I was told that if I resigned from Uzbekistan I would be given the embassy in Copenhagen,” he continues. “It would have been a huge promotion, but I refused on principle. I was then told that I had a week to resign or I would face 18 charges, including being an alcoholic, selling British visas for sexual favours and stealing from the embassy.

“All the charges were fabricated, but there was nothing I could do to defend myself, as I was also told I wasn’t allowed to discuss the charges with anyone or call anybody as a witness. The FCO would conduct its own investigation and let me know the outcome – which was never going to be in doubt.”

Murray returned to Tashkent, but within days was flown back to the psychiatric ward of St Thomas’s Hospital in London. “I was in a complete state of collapse,” he says. “I could barely speak or move and I doubted anyone would believe my story. Fortunately the psychiatrist said to me, ‘You don’t need me, you need a good lawyer’ and proceeded to get in contact with Gareth Peirce [the human rights lawyer who defended the Birmingham Six].”

From that point on, things began to look up for Murray. He was cleared of all the allegations, except, bizarrely, for the one of discussing the others with another person – “technically, they were right as I did discuss it with my secretary, but as they were found to be false…” – and he was given a substantial financial settlement in return.

But he did still lose his job. Which is how Murray really comes to be in Dundee this week. And what if the students vote for Nicoll instead? “I’ll be disappointed,” he says, “but at least there’s not a salary riding on it.” So how is he managing for money? “The book didn’t sell as well in hardback as I had hoped, but I’ve done well out of the film rights. They were initially bought by Michael Winterbottom – and he’s still making the movie – but he’s flogged the rights on to Paramount.”

His role will be played by Steve Coogan. Is he worried about being turned into a joke? “No. Winterbottom’s got a good track record and, besides, some of the story is quite amusing anyway.” Nice to know someone can still see the funny side.