Obituary: Frank Stephen Miles, CMG, diplomat

Stephen Miles
Stephen Miles
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Born: 7 January, 1920, in Edinburgh. Died: 26 April, 2013, in Oxted, Surrey, aged 93.

STEPHEN Miles helped to fan the “winds of change” towards decolonisation that swept through ­African countries from the 1950s to the 1980s. He played a critical role in saving the newly independent Tanzania from a military coup. He served in nine Commonwealth countries, more than any other diplomat of his generation, particularly those seen as hardship posts by his Foreign and Commonwealth Office colleagues.

Frank Stephen Miles was born in Edinburgh in 1920. He was educated at Daniel Stewart’s College and read history at St Andrews University. He spent four-and-half-years as a navigator in the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War. After the war he won a Commonwealth fellowship to study for his Masters of Public Administration at Harvard University before joining the diplomatic service in 1948.

Following posts in New ­Zealand (1949-52) and ­Pakistan (1954-57), he was appointed First Secretary in the British High Commission in Ghana, (1959-62). Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his wife stayed in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, on their way to South Africa. It was there on 3 February, 1960, that Macmillan made his historic, and unexpected, “winds of change” speech to the South African parliament, declaring that Britain would grant independence to all its African colonies, and warning the apartheid regime that this would eventually affect it too.

Ghana had already gained its independence in 1957, and president Kwame Nkrumah now became host to a series of conferences for freedom fighters from other African countries, with Miles attending as an observer. Through this Miles got to know Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mugabe, Bishop Abel Muzorewa and other nationalist leaders. Miles’ approach was to befriend nationalist leaders, recognising that they would soon be in power. His briefings on their thinking were welcomed in Whitehall.

Miles was posted as first secretary in Uganda from 1962 to 1963, taking part in its independence celebrations in 1962. The country at that time, rich in agricultural resources, was seen as the Jewel in the Crown of ­Africa.

From Uganda, he was promoted to deputy high commissioner in Tanzania and, immediately on arrival, as acting high commissioner, from 1963 to 1964. There he met a succession of freedom fighters, including the South Africans Oliver Tambo, then president of the African National Congress, and the Communist leader Joe Slovo.

“I must confess I liked them all,” Miles was to say later. “There were very few I didn’t feel I could do business with and even Joe Slovo, for all his Communist leanings, was actually a very enjoyable and humorous chap.” Such nationalist leaders would greet Miles with bear hugs.

On the night of 19 January 1964, he received word that a section of the Tanzanian army had mutinied against the rule of president Julius Nyerere. For an hour, Miles and his American counterpart were arrested by the mutineers before being released.

British warships, including the aircraft carrier Centaur, were on exercises in the Indian Ocean. Nyerere, who feared civil war, asked Miles for British assistance in putting down the rebellion. Duncan Sandys, minister in Britain’s Commonwealth Relations Office, agreed to this. Helicopters from Centaur landed marines in the army barracks the next morning and the situation was saved. Miles was awarded the CMG later that year.

By the time president Nkrumah of Ghana was overthrown in 1966, Miles was back in ­London as head of the West African Department in the Commonwealth Office. That year, he was sent back to Ghana to restore diplomatic relations, which Nkrumah had severed.

Miles was deputy high commissioner in Calcutta in 1970, where he had to address the threat of militant Maoist ­Naxalites in West Bengal. When they announced that they would assassinate a senior diplomat Miles was thought to be the most likely target. Despite this, he came to regard Calcutta as his most enjoyable posting, thanks to the friendships he made with Bengalis there.

Posted back to Africa, as ­Britain’s high commissioner in Zambia from 1974 to 1978, he arrived in Lusaka to discover that the Rhodesian nationalist leaders Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe were in the Zambian capital, having been released from prison by the Rhodesian leader Ian Smith.

In August 1975, the presidents of the “front-line states” bordering Rhodesia met in a railway carriage on a bridge across the Victoria Falls, to plan for Zimbabwean independence. Miles helped to facilitate the conference though he was not a participant himself. It failed to produce a solution but prompted the African leaders, including president Kenneth Kaunda and president John Vorster of South Africa, to hand over the problem to Britain to sort out.

Miles already had a high regard for the diplomatic efforts of Foreign Secretary Jim Callaghan, and later his successor Dr David Owen, who would hold negotiations with African leaders in Miles’ Lusaka residency. Miles also received a large delegation led by Andrew Young, US ambassador to the United Nations. Young and Owen met in Miles’ residency where, he recalled, the British press pack rushed across his rose bed, knocking over his young daughter. Constantly interrupted by Owen’s large entourage of 40 staff, Miles found that the best time for the two men to talk privately was on a visit to Lusaka Cathedral for the Sunday morning service.

In October 1976, Miles was having Sunday breakfast when Joshua Nkomo, the founder of Zapu (Zimbabwean African People’s Union) arrived to say that he and Robert Mugabe of Zanu (Zimbabwean African National Union) had formed an alliance called the Patriotic Front. Miles immediately reported this to London.

A further conference in Gen­eva got nowhere. But Nkomo made a significant suggestion to a British delegate that, as the African leaders could not agree amongst themselves, would the British government come up with a compromise agreement towards a fair solution? Miles and the FCO took this seriously and, according to Miles, it was the genesis of the ultimate ­solution.

Dr Owen carried forward proposals with the able support of Miles, so much so that Owen wrote to him that any solution should be called the Miles-Owen plan. But time ran out for the Labour government and, when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, negotiations continued under Lord Carrington, culminating in talks at Lancaster House in London. Miles had a high regard for Carrington as “a real conciliator”. The talks led to black majority rule on 18 April 1980 under president Robert Mugabe, who was also seen, at first, as a reconciler.

By then, Miles was at his last posting as high commissioner in Dhaka, Bangladesh, from 1978 to 1979, when the country was the recipient of Britain’s second largest aid programme.

Following his retirement from the diplomatic service in 1980, he lived in Oxted, Surrey, where he was active in the local Conservative Party and served on Tandridge District Council. He died in Oxted on 26 April, aged 93, and is survived by his wife Joy, née Theaker, whom he had married in 1953, and their three daughters.