Obituary: Sir Peter Ramsbotham

Sir Peter Ramsbotham, 3rd Viscount Soulbury, British diplomat.Born: 8 October, 1919, in London. Died: 9 April, 2010, in New Alresford, Hampshire, aged 90.

IT SEEMS unfair that a man who held one of the highest positions in the diplomatic service, British ambassador to the United States, was the Governor General of Bermuda, and who was mentioned in dispatches and received the Croix de Guerre after his war efforts, should be largely remembered for a political farce, of which he was the victim.

Peter Edward Ramsbotham, 3rd Viscount Soulbury, was the second son of Herwald Ramsbotham, a successful Conservative politician who was appointed Governor General of Ceylon in 1949. The family title of Viscount was bestowed in 1954 on Ramsbotham senior, who had been granted the title of Baron in 1941.

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The young Ramsbotham was educated first at Eton, then Magdalen College, Oxford. During his time at Oxford he was an editor of the Eton College Chronicle and also contracted polio. To mitigate the effects of the damage caused by the disease he had special footwear, which subsequently ruled him out of active warfare during the Second World War.

This did nothing to hinder his career, and instead of being packed off to the front line in France and facing the real possibility of being killed by German troops, he was integrated in to the Foreign Office, where he met his first wife Frances.

In 1943 Ramsbotham joined the Intelligence Corps and he was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1949 for his work in the field of counterespionage.

As a fluent French speaker, he was the perfect candidate for undercover work, and as a member of 106 Special Counter Intelligence Unit he ran double agents, as well as working with his French counterparts.

When the war ended he was moved to the political division of the Control Commissions for Germany and Austria before switching to the diplomatic service and the beginning of a long and very much distinguished career.

His employment at the Control Commission ended in 1948 and Ramsbotham, an intelligent man even by the standards of his peers, joined the Foreign Office, where he failed the entrance exam due to his aversion to basic arithmetic and percentages.

He received personal tutoring to enable him to pass at his second attempt a full six months later. Simple mathematics was Ramsbotham's Achilles heel but his other skills far outweighed his poor ability with numbers.

Although he was bewildered at being considered a high flyer, his superiors had earmarked Ramsbotham for success, not least due to his performances during the war. His first posting after the war was to Berlin, a far from stable environment at the time.

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From there he was then employed under Sir Roger Makins, where he examined the possibilities of oil and the problems the industry could create as production rates increased.

Makins admired Ramsbotham's insight and intelligent analytical conclusions regarding potential instability. In fact, it was this insight that allowed Ramsbotham to become a considerable influence on policy regarding the Middle East, despite his lowly status within the department.

It was his role in the Abadan oil crisis that marked him out as a skilful diplomat, when his solution effectively ended the troubles.

His success here was followed up by an appointment to head of the Chancery in the British delegation to the UN in New York, where he found himself in a frying pan and fire situation during the 1956 Suez crisis.

Several appointments followed, and he was integral to the implementation of the Foreign Office's policy planning department. He became head of Chancery in Paris in the 1960s before taking up his post of High Commissioner in Nicosia in 1969.

He followed these with a posting to Iran as ambassador before landing the big job – British ambassador to the United States.

That his posting here ended rather ignominiously should come as no surprise given the circumstances under which he took up the role.

Ramsbotham was a seasoned diplomat, a skilled negotiator and a man of significant charisma and intelligence; he had also been installed by a Conservative government which was no longer in power.

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Even when he arrived at the beautiful Edwin Luytens-designed house on Massachusetts Avenue he had no idea if it was worth hanging his shirts up or not.

However, the new Labour administration, led by Harold Wilson, honoured his appointment and Ramsbotham set to work. In his three years in the post, during which time he saw the infamous Richard Nixon ousted from office, he built up an unrivalled relationship with the next two US presidents, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

He was instrumental in the negotiations regarding Concorde landing rights, using a firm approach with a soft hand to avoid upsetting the US hierarchy.

The apple cart was upset in 1977 when the foreign secretary, an admirer of Ramsbotham, died suddenly. His successor was Dr David Owen, a 38-year-old with dislike for the Foreign Office. He was not such a big fan of Ramsbotham either and decided the ambassador to the United States needed to be a younger man.

His rationale was that the new president was Jimmy Carter, a relatively youthful man who would much prefer the ambassador to be Peter Jay, Owen's friend. Jay also, conveniently, happened to be the son-in-law of the new British prime minister, James Callaghan.

As it happens, Ramsbotham had an excellent working relationship with Carter and had done all through his election campaign. Nevertheless, he was removed, and not subtly, with all manner of half-baked attempts to discredit him to make the change more palatable.

It didn't work, Carter was unimpressed, Callaghan later admitted it had been a mistake, and non-political figures on both sides of the pond made it quite clear that the treatment of Ramsbotham had been quite appalling.

He had three years left of service, so the Foreign Office invited Ramsbotham to choose his final destination. He picked Hong Kong and was sent to Bermuda to complete his career as the Bermudan Governor General.

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His influence in Bermuda was significant, particularly the work he put in which led to the removal of the "Commonwealth Vote" which allowed decisions to benefit the white minority and act against the black majority. It was a move that has led to racial stability on the island for the past 30 years.

Away from his work he was a keen fisherman, with trout fishing a particular favourite. He was also fond of tending his garden, although he was forced to give up both as he grew older and more frail.

He was a keen supporter of Leonard Cheshire Foundation, a charity with which he became more involved after his daughter Mary was left disabled in a road accident. She subsequently died.

Sir Peter Ramsbotham died at the age of 90. His first wife Frances died in 1982.

He is survived by his second wife Dr Zaida Hall, and his two sons from his first marriage.

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