Obituary: Sir Richard Parsons, KCMG, diplomat

Born, 14 March, 1928, in London. Died, 23 April 2016, in Norfolk, aged 88.

Sir Richard Parsons, diplomat saved troops lives when he stopped transportation of an Exocet missile. Picture: Contributed

Sir Richard Parsons was instrumental in saving the lives of British forces in the Falklands War in 1982, when he prevented the illicit transport to Argentina of an Exocet missile from Spanish territory.

As Britain’s Ambassador to Spain, he found himself tasked, in the middle of the night, with stopping the weapon, a type which was to prove Argentina’s deadliest against Britain’s vulnerable surface ships, getting any further. It was sitting in the hold of an aircraft ready to take off from Las Palmas in the Canary Islands.

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The Exocet had arrived not from France, the maker, but via a third country, because France had placed an embargo on the missiles’ export while hostilities between Britain and Argentina lasted. Argentina had only a limited number of them, and was extremely keen to obtain more.

Parsons sprang into action, going over the heads of sleepy officials who said nothing could be done, and employed his own private and secret contacts to put in a telephone call direct to the bedside of the Spanish Prime Minister, Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo. The missile was stopped.

That year Parsons was appointed KCMG.

The elegantly witty British diplomat, a Spanish speaker who knew Argentina well from having been First Secretary and commercial officer at the embassy in Buenos Aires in the 1960s, had been, before his Spanish appointment , Ambassador to Hungary, and had been made CMG in 1977.

Yet he had not always found himself in his government’s favour. An all-too-prescient paper of his about Suez had been hurled across the room in No 10 Downing Street by the then Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, with the cry “This is no damn good!” just before the 1956 crisis broke.

The paper, which Parsons had composed in consultation with the Foreign Office’s legal advisers some time before, concluded that there was nothing Britain could legally do to stop Egypt’s Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalizing the Suez Canal.

Eden’s display of anger was at a hastily-convened top-level emergency meeting; by then Parsons had moved on and up to be Third Secretary at Britain’s embassy in Washington DC. He would be promoted to Second Secretary in Vientiane, Laos, then have another stint in London, before serving in Argentina from 1960.

In that year he married Jenifer Mathews; they were to have three sons, Julian, Nicholas and Timothy.

Posted thereafter to Ankara, Turkey, in 1965 as Head of Chancery, Parsons so impressed the Foreign Secretary of the day, Michael Stewart, during an official visit to Turkey, that Stewart asked him to be his assistant Private Secretary. Back in London Parsons worked with the Scot Sir Murray Maclehose as principal PS, Sir Murray on one occasion upbraiding Stewart’s successor, George Brown, with a practical good humour that Parsons appreciated: “George, you are drunk. We are going home.”

All these expressions of humanity under strain were grist to Parsons’ mill: in quiet moments he steadily worked on a series of novels of darkly comical international murder and intrigue, which he was to publish under the pseudonym of John Haythorne. “None of Us Cared for Kate” (1968) has his hero, described by a reviewer as “the bumbling Oliver Mandrake” solving, in a narrative of “portly good humour” the mystery of the murder, somewhere in South-East Asia, of an ambassador’s secretary.

Another novel, “The Strelsau Dimension” takes Mandrake trouble-shooting behind the Iron Curtain, and in its excitement and suspense has been compared to the works of George Macdonald Fraser. More novels appeared through the 1980s, and Parsons was later to have plays performed regionally around Britain, and to publish collections of short stories, the most recent in 2014.

Parsons was posted to Lagos, Nigeria, in the still higher rank of Counsellor in 1969. It is tempting to think of the job that followed - Head of Personnel Operations Department from 1972-1976, when he was the mind behind all the Foreign Office’s senior appointments - as having perhaps inspired another of his novels, “The Moon Pool”(1988). This black comedy deals with rivals’ in-fighting over the newly-vacant post of Ambassador to Washington.

Parsons’ wife Jenifer died in 1981 during his time in Spain. He stayed on there until 1984, then took the post of Ambassador to Stockholm. His period there encompassed the assassination in February 1986 of the Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme. “I knew Palme quite well… I quite liked him”, Parsons recalled. “He didn’t deserve to be murdered, certainly.”

Richard Edmund Clement Fownes Parsons was educated at Bembridge School, Isle of Wight - relocated in wartime to the Lake District - and went up to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he studied modern history. He served in the army from 1949-51, then in the same year joined the Foreign (later Diplomatic) Service. He is survived by his sons, and by his brother, Adrian, the barrister and former Charity Commissioner.

His alter-ego Mandrake in “The Strelsau Dimension”, observing a man he dislikes, might reasonably be believed as presenting Parsons’ own view of his craft: “He liked to think of himself as one of the rising stars of the new diplomacy with its interest in trade and horrid technological innovations. I have never concealed my own preference for the older school …”