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Who would you like to see around today?

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There is supposed to be a Chinese curse which says "May you live in interesting times". 

There is no denying that these are interesting times. In fact, you might think that the world has gone mad, everything is in chaos, and where will it all end?

TALLEYRAND Charles Maurice - Letter Signed 1803 interceding for an EnglishmanThis is not the first time people have felt this way. The 1640s saw a civil war in England which ended with the execution of the King, an event hitherto inconceivable. Just 150 years later, the French did the same, but went rather further, sending the Queen to the guillotine as well, not to mention a bloodbath in Paris and many French cities.

These are just two examples - you could always go back to the destruction of Carthage, the sack of Rome (actually there were several), the Hundred Years' War - the list seems to be endless.

The question then arises - who would you bring back today to help see us through these times?  It is, obviously, an academic question, as the same person might not be as competent to deal with a different set of circumstances, but it is interesting nevertheless.

My own candidate?  This is going to be controversial - I would vote for Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, Prince de Bénévent. In France, he is sometimes known as 'le diable boiteux' - the limping devil, so-called because of his club foot. And he is far from being the most popular figure in England, where he was ambassador in the 1830s after Louis Philippe came to the throne. Appropriately for this epicure who enjoyed the company of beautiful and clever women, the blue plaque denoting where he lived is in Hanover Square, just opposite the building which today houses the offices of Vogue magazine.

But there is no denying his impressive skills as a diplomat. Having thrown in his lot with the revolution, he escaped the worst of its excesses, first in England, then in the newly-independent United States, where he evidently decided that 'the American way' consisted in making a tidy sum of money for himself. He returned to France to serve as Foreign Minister under the Consulate. But the Consulate was ineffective, dissolute and drifting. Talleyrand saw the remedy, and was one of the instigator's of Napoleon's coup d'état in 1799. 

He served Napoleon well as Foreign Minister, but fell out with him after Napoleon's invasion of Spain. The invasion of Spain was, arguably, Napoleon's first great mistake, and Talleyrand was proved right by history. He went on to play a key role in the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy under Louis XVIII, convinced this was the best answer for France, despite his low opinion of Louis. And when the Allies met in Vienna, Talleyrand, who had never been known to rush for anything, rushed to Vienna as France's representative and saved the country from what would have been a catastrophic, punishing retribution.

Talleyrand was not a handsome man, but he possessed remarkable charm. When Fanny Burney met him in England in 1792, she thought he was a thoroughly wicked man, but within days she wrote that she thought him "one of the most charming of his exquisite set." Duff Cooper, in his excellent biography of Talleyrand remarks that she and her friends had "wandered out of the sedate drawing rooms of Sense and Sensibility and were in danger of losing themselves in  . . . Les Liaisons Dangereuses."

Is this the man I would like to see here today?  Yes, because in spite of his cynicism, he was also supremely practical, knew what had to be done for good of both France and Europe as a whole, and knew how to achieve those ends. He was no enemy to England, unless England threatened France, and maintained very cordial relations with many across the Channel, most notably the great Charles James Fox. And here he is, during the Peace of Amiens, easing an Englishman's move to France: Mr. W. Scott, Colonel in the British army, who is currently in Versailles, has written to me to say that he intends to rent a house and remain there for a year with his family. He has asked my permission to have sent, via Dieppe, various items listed here, which are essential to him. The government is very happy to see this stranger here, and wishes that he be treated with the regard which he deserves in many regards. I beg you, Citizen Minister, to grant him this permission if possible and to send it to me. . .

In his biography of Talleyrand, Jean Orieux sums him up in the following well-chosen words: "For him, the one thing transcending individuals, even Napoleon, was civilization . . . based on freedom, the arts of peace, trade and prosperity." Which is why, whatever his faults, his values are still so precious today.

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