Obituary: Alyson Bailes, diplomat, academic and lecturer

Alyson Bailes, diplomat, academic and peace campaigner. Picture: Contributed
Alyson Bailes, diplomat, academic and peace campaigner. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 6 April, 1949 in Liverpool. Died: 29 April, 2016 in Selkirk, Scottish Borders, aged 67.

Alyson Bailes was a trailblazing diplomat who carved out a distinguished career in the male-dominated world of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). While also surviving an IRA terrorist attack and witnessing the Tiananmen Square protests, she went on to work for the Ministry of Defence on Nato enlargement into eastern Europe, which she considered to be a major contribution to peace and stability. She eventually became the British ambassador to Finland, before heading the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the first woman to hold the post, teaching at the University of Iceland and the College of Europe. Finally, as a member of the Scottish Global Forum think-tank, she was an adviser to the Scottish Government on the independence of small states.

Always self-deprecating, her thirst for knowledge seemed unquenchable, speaking and writing French, German, Finnish, Hungarian, Mandarin Chinese, Norwegian and Swedish at what she herself described as “an operational level”, while also having a reading knowledge of Danish, Icelandic, Faroese and Dutch.

“Never angry or flustered,” Sir Kim Darroch, British ambassador in Washington, said of her, describing her as “always the cleverest person in the room” and sayin g he believed she could have been an ambassador earlier “if she had pushed herself more and played office politics”.

Bailes once admitted being bored at a function and so “translated something from Hungarian into Mandarin just as a mental exercise to keep her brain occupied”.

One former colleague described her as “funny, generous and thoughtful”, but added: “Alyson was never afraid to refute poor or ignorant arguments, but always in a gentle, subtle and non-confrontational way.”

Born in Liverpool in 1949, Alyson Judith Kirtley Bailes was the eldest of three children to John-Lloyd and Barbara, both teachers. A two-week holiday to Sweden one summer inspired a life-long love of the Nordic countries. Raised in Liverpool, she attended the Belvedere School before, aged 17, winning a scholarship to read modern history at Somerville College, Oxford, graduating with a first. In 2001, she was made an honorary fellow of the college.

Following her experiences in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1968, during a university trip, when Soviet tanks rolled into the capital to crush the “Prague Spring” and then being evacuated by the British Embassy, Bailes decided that a diplomat’s life would be an interesting one. She applied and upon graduation joined the FCO as a junior diplomat in September 1969, having achieved full marks in the entrance exam. She was one of just four women among that year’s intake of 24.

Her first job, a desk officer in the West European Department, where she noted, “arriving before 10am was considered a sign of unusual keenness”, saw her carrying out a variety of jobs, including keeping the fire stocked with coal and writing-up policy documents in pen and ink, which would then be copied out by typists using carbon paper. She was, however, ear-marked early on as pro-active and talented; she secretly nurtured an ambition to become an ambassador one day.

Her first posting was to Budapest, where she monitored the Hungarian opposition despite constant surveillance by the Communist authorities, after which she joined the British delegation to Nato in Brussels, where she developed her interests in arms control, before joining the European Community Department in London.

It was there that, in March 1979, she was sent to The Hague, as an aide to the British Ambassador, Sir Richard Skyes, for meetings with Sir Edmund Dell and his team of “Three Wise Men” appointed by the European Council to advise on institutional improvements in the European community before Greek accession.

One day while leaving his residence two IRA gunmen approached the ambassador’s Rolls-Royce and opened fire, killing a footman and killing the ambassador. The chauffeur, drove to a nearby hospital, with Bailes, who was in the back, comforting her dying and unconscious colleague; Bailes was unhurt having shielded her face from the flying glass with her handbag. Stoically, she addressed a press conference that afternoon before resuming her work.

Soon after, she spent two years at the MoD before a three-year sojourn at the British Embassy in Bonn, followed by a return to London as deputy head of the FCO’s policy planning staff under Pauline Neville-Jones, later chairwoman of the British Joint Intelligence Committee; her responsibilities included writing speeches for the PM Margaret Thatcher and foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe.

In the late 80s, Bailes was posted to Beijing as deputy head of mission and witnessed the military crackdown on student-led protests that became known as the Tiananmen Square massacre. The following week was spent gathering intelligence on the People’s Liberation Army, dealing with the media, liaising with other European embassies and evacuating British citizens before returning home herself.

She was then appointed deputy in Oslo before promotion to ambassador of Finland in 2000. She was residing in Helsinki on the day of the 9 September, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US and it was this that persuaded her to leave the FCO the following year when she was invited to head the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an organisation committed to promoting peace and security. Here, she opposed the invasion of Iraq, pointing out the things that could go wrong. “They all did,” she later said.

Bailes was also a member of the Trident Commission on UK nuclear weapons policy established by the British American Security Information Council think-tank. She organised top-secret talks between Iranian, Russian and US representatives, which explored ways of defusing the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme that foreshadowed the eventual agreement of 2015.

In 2006 she was diagnosed with cancer and reduced her workload to pursue projects closer to her heart. Thus, in 2007, she began teaching at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, the College of Europe in Bruges, the University of Greenland and the University of the Faroes.

Ahead of the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, Bailes made many influential contributions to the debate, speaking to MSPs on the subject of small states, and sat on the advisory board of the Scottish Global Forum, which aims to analyse global issues affecting Scotland and its role in the world. She backed the “Yes” camp.

She served on many advisory, scientific and editorial boards including the Swedish Royal Academy of Military Science and was chair of the scientific advisory committee of the Flemish Peace Institute.

Away from political science, diplomacy and international relations, Bailes surprised many friends with some of her interests which included cooking, classical music, embroidery, producing needlepoint cushions and quilts, sci-fi – both books and films – singing in choirs and Icelandic heavy metal music and, most recently, heavy metal music from the Faroe Islands.

She was also a member of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, a small, select literary society formed to celebrate the highly intellectual and esoteric Scottish historical novelist, whose novels centre on nobleman Francis Crawford of Lymond.

Bailes is survived by her mother, brother and sister.