Sir James Marjoribanks

Sir James Alexander Milne Marjoribanks, KCMG, diplomat

Born: 29 May, 1911, in Edinburgh Died: 29 January, 2002, in Edinburgh, aged 90

DIPLOMATS lead lives which appear enviable to many of us but which are all too often defined by interminable meetings and the need not to say what you really think. Just occasionally the circumstance arises that allows a diplomat to have a significant effect on the course of world events. James Marjoribanks was lucky enough to find himself in two such situations and astute enough to grasp the opportunity both times.

He was not from the customary mould of British diplomats of his time. An Edinburgh born and educated son of the manse, he joined the Foreign Office in 1934 after Merchiston, the Edinburgh Academy and a first-class MA from Edinburgh University. Four years in the Consular Service in China in the face of a seriously escalating Japanese threat culminated in several months under Japanese occupation in Hankow before being flown out in disguise. This was followed by a year in Marseilles as German expansionism in Europe gathered pace.

These experiences equipped him ideally for his next post as Consul in Florida, where his role focused on mobilising grassroots American support for the Allied war effort and then as Vice-Consul in the Shipping Office in New York.

Marjoribanks was sent, for the last year of the war, to Bucharest. King Michael had just engineered a palace coup which overthrew the pro-Nazi dictator Antonescu and resulted in Romania switching to the Allied side. The change of allegiance did not protect the Romanians from the rapacity of the Russians and in 1945 the leader of the government, General Radescu, was given sanctuary by Marjoribanks in the British Legation while the Soviet puppet, Petru Groza, took over the reins of power. This experience gave Marjoribanks a level of insight into the workings of the Soviet mind that was to stand him in good stead on his return to London to work with the Conference of Foreign Ministers that was trying to establish the basis for the reconstruction of Europe.

The Conference met first in London, then in Moscow and then Paris. Russian obstructionism was a major problem, but Marjoribanks did manage to get full agreement from his Russian counterpart on the alignment of the Franco-Italian border.

He was appointed, in 1947, Deputy to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the Austrian Treaty negotiations. During the negotiations, the Russian blockade of Berlin began, leading to the Berlin airlift, the partition of Germany, the Wall and all its awful consequences over the next 40 years. It was vital at this stage that the Austrian negotiations should not similarly descend into a stand-off. That they did not must be in part due to the tenacity and diplomacy of Marjoribanks and the other officials involved.

Ten years after the end of the war, the Russians pulled out of the eastern zone of Austria, one of the few very occasions on which the Soviets backed down. Austria was no longer partitioned. The Iron Curtain descended along the Czechoslovak and Hungarian borders.

After a peaceful two years in the High Commission in Canberra, Marjoribanks returned to the cockpit of European political development in 1952 as deputy head of the UK delegation to the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the EEC and EU. Exposure to the embryonic stirrings of European unity confirmed his conviction that the future for Europe lay in the building of ever closer ties between the powers that had so recently been at war.

He was created CMG in 1954 and returned to London the following year for a two-year secondment to the Cabinet Office during the period of the Suez crisis. A return to continental Europe followed, as Minister (Economic) at the British Embassy in Bonn. Here he kept closely in touch with economic developments as the three main continental powers, France, Germany and Italy, and the Benelux countries formed the European Economic Community.

In 1965, after two years as Under Secretary of State responsible for economic affairs at the FO in London, Marjoribanks was created KCMG and appointed Ambassador to the EEC and its sister communities in Brussels. Sir James was in this post during the tortuous negotiation of Britain’s entry into the EEC. It was he who formally handed in our second application for membership, on 12 May, 1967, and who dealt with the problems as they arose.

His unwavering commitment to the correctness of our decision to apply for EEC membership and his enthusiasm for the goal of economic integration in Europe played a large part in ensuring that, this time, we were successful. So, for the second time in his career, Sir James had been able to play a pivotal part in events that would shape the future of Europe.

With Britain on the point of acceding to the Treaty of Rome, Sir James, at the age of 60, returned to his beloved Edinburgh to take up other pursuits. He was a member of the Scottish Council (Development and Industry) for 12 years, the last two as vice president.

He was on the board of The Distillers Company for four years. It was while he was there that the very serious problems with Thalidomide emerged, having had their genesis long before he joined the board. The situation caused him many sleepless nights, as he wrestled with the most caring and responsible way of supporting those affected while not being in dereliction of his fiduciary duties to shareholders. Sir James felt that the burden of responsibility should properly fall on a wider group than just the DCL board, as it was the government which had tested and approved the drug for use in the NHS back in 1958.

The crisis sparked both a tightening up of government drug-testing procedures and a rethink of the extent of a company’s responsibilities to its wider group of stakeholders rather than just to its shareholders.

Sir James was delighted to be invited in 1975 to join the Edinburgh University Court as a General Council Assessor, a post he held until 1979. He and his family had had a long association with the university, his father and both his brothers being graduates. On the same day that he graduated MA in 1932, his father, Rev Thomas Marjoribanks of that Ilk, was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity and George, the elder of his two older brothers, graduated BD. George was to devote his life to Christian missionary work and died tragically early in 1955. His other brother, William, had previously graduated in Forestry and taken up the post of Conservator of Forests in the Sudan.

Colinton Manse, where the brothers and their young sister, Anne, grew up, had been a place where Robert Louis Stevenson spent many happy days as a child when his grandfather was the minister. It was thus fitting that Sir James should become chairman of the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Appeal. He welcomed the chance to lend support to a cause he considered so worthwhile.

A similar enthusiasm for supporting the causes he believed in was shown in his long-term chairmanship of Scotland in Europe. He believed passionately that the best economic future for his native land lay in exploiting the opportunities that economic integration with the rest of Europe would bring. A few days before he died, he held in his hand, with some emotion, the new euro notes. How far Europe had come since the day, 50 years before, when he first represented the UK in dealing with the European Coal and Steel Community.

A man with an immense gift for languages, he used his abilities to good effect in the diplomatic world but never lost his sense of fun. The surprise on the face of an migr Polish butcher in rural Aberdeenshire on being greeted in his native tongue, or the fascination of a small nephew at seeing "Marjoribanks" carefully transcribed into Mandarin characters were all part of Sir James’s delight in life. An inveterate sketcher, he could produce delightful caricatures of family and friends.

Sir James married, in China in 1936, Sonya Stanley-Alder, who was to be his mainstay and inspiration for the next 45 years until her untimely death in 1981. He is survived by his sister, Anne, daughter Patricia, son-in-law Stuart and grandchildren Alastair and Jonathan.

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