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Rumbold, Sir (Horace) Algernon Fraser (1906–1993), civil servant and historian, was born on 27 February 1906 at North Berwick, East Lothian, the eldest of four children (three sons and a daughter) of Colonel William Edwin Rumbold (1870–1947), Royal Artillery officer, and his wife, Elizabeth (Bessie) Gordon Cameron (d. 1948), daughter of the Revd Robert James Cameron of Burntisland, Fife. He was educated at Wellington College and Christ Church, Oxford, from where he graduated with a second-class degree in modern history in 1927. His father's family had links with the Foreign Office stretching back to 1790. His grandfather was , diplomatist, and his uncle, Sir Horace George Montagu Rumbold, ninth baronet (1869–1941), was British ambassador in Berlin from 1928 to 1933, played golf with Algy in his youth, and encouraged his keen appetite for history. Rumbold joined the India Office in 1929 and served as private secretary to a succession of parliamentary under-secretaries including Rab Butler, then to the permanent under-secretary, Sir (Samuel) Findlater Stewart. He subsequently served at the desk dealing with India's northern neighbours and it was he who in 1943 briefed Sir Anthony Eden before a crucial meeting with T. V. Soong, the Chinese foreign minister, at which Britain's view on the status of Tibet was spelt out in its most authoritative form: while Britain recognized Tibet as having enjoyed de facto independence since 1911, she had always been prepared to recognize Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, but only on the understanding that Tibet was regarded as autonomous. In Britain's view that term involved not only Tibet's complete internal freedom but also the right to conduct her own external relations with other countries without reference to China. On 19 January 1946 Rumbold married (Margaret) Adel (Dale) Hughes (b. 1916), only daughter of Arthur Joseph Hughes, of Chigwell, Essex. They had two daughters, Sarah Josephine (b. 1948) and Caroline Elizabeth (b. 1950).

On Indian independence day in 1947 Rumbold moved to the Commonwealth Relations Office and served as deputy high commissioner in South Africa between 1949 and 1953. He spent the rest of his official career in Whitehall, becoming an assistant under-secretary in 1954 and, four years later, a deputy under-secretary with responsibility for economic policy. He was deeply involved in negotiations over Commonwealth preferences in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), but his vigorous hostility to the Common Market led to his being bypassed by Duncan Sandys at the time of the Macmillan government's unsuccessful attempt to secure British entry. Rumbold retained a passionate concern over the affairs of the Indian subcontinent and, when Tibet lost its freedom in 1959, he joined with other old India hands like Sir Olaf Caroe (a former foreign secretary to the Indian government) to found the Tibet Society of the United Kingdom, which conducted active propaganda for Tibetan independence.

In 1965, when fighting, which had broken out between India and Pakistan over the Rann of Cutch, spread to the Punjab and threatened Kashmir, Rumbold was directly involved in advising Harold Wilson, then prime minister, to issue a statement blaming the Indians for crossing the border and calling for an end of hostilities. As the Indians were reacting to what they saw as flagrant Pakistani provocation on the Kashmir front and were winning at the time, this statement caused a serious crisis in Anglo-Indian relations. Disclosure by The Times that the British government was considering economic sanctions and a forecast on the BBC World Service of an early oil embargo against both parties further angered New Delhi. Wilson claimed in his memoirs that he had been ‘taken for a ride’ by a pro-Pakistani faction in the Commonwealth Relations Office, but added that it had not remained there long—a reference identifiable as Rumbold and implying his early retirement (Wilson, 133–4). As Rumbold had left Whitehall in 1966 on reaching normal retirement age Wilson later apologized, though he still contended that he had been the victim of wrong advice—the facts being too much in dispute.

Rumbold defended himself in a letter to The Times. He said he was strongly of the view that officials should be silent, but when politicians defended changes in their views by passing judgement on their officials, whose advice at the time they accepted, the situation altered. There had been powerful international reasons, ‘well known to Mr Wilson at the time’, why it was important to bring the fighting quickly to a close. Historians would be able to see for themselves when the full papers were made available in 1996 (The Times, 5 Aug 1971). The full papers were not in fact released in 1996, some being extracted and closed for a further ten years. It is clear, however, that Rumbold's overriding concern was that China should not be afforded an opportunity to ‘fish in the troubled waters of Kashmir’. Wilson used just this phrase when speaking to the Pakistan high commissioner on 7 September, the day after issuing his statement.

Though Lord Wilson made no reference to the subject in his memoirs, it was his friend Professor Thomas Balogh who on 8 September proposed an oil embargo. It fell to Rumbold to chair an inter-departmental committee of officials to consider this and other possible economic measures. The committee was told that the prime minister had asked that all cargo of use for the war should be stopped if possible. A BP tanker carrying aviation spirit was due at Karachi, but the representative of the Ministry of Power told the committee that they were ‘dead against any interference by HMG’: it was a situation in which the position of the US oil companies had to be considered (TNA: PRO, POWE 61/350). The committee's broadly agreed conclusions, formulated a week later, were that an oil embargo would not have an immediate effect; that both countries could get crude oil from elsewhere; that an embargo would mean the loss of £100 million of British company assets in the subcontinent, plus the loss of an outlet for crude oil; and that there would be difficulties in the Middle East. This advice, over Rumbold's signature, must have been unwelcome to the prime minister and his circle.

In retirement Rumbold remained active. He became an adviser on development to the Welsh Office and was deputy chairman of the Air Transport Licensing Board in 1971–2. He had joined the governing body of the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1965 and sat on it until 1980. From 1977 to 1988 he was president of the Tibet Society and wrote frequently to The Times, often attacking China's treatment of Tibet and the prevailing bias of British policy in favour of the Chinese interpretation of events in that country. In 1979 he published an erudite study, Watershed in India: 1914–22, which was favourably reviewed by A. J. P. Taylor, among others.

Rumbold was a scholarly and somewhat austere public servant, of great personal integrity. He was a stickler for detail and accuracy, outspoken in denouncing misrepresentation of facts. He was appointed CIE in 1947, CMG in 1953, and KCMG in 1960. He died of a heart attack on 23 October 1993 at his home, Shortwoods, West Clandon, Guildford, Surrey, and was cremated; he was survived by his wife and two daughters.

Brooks Richards

Sources  

The Times (28 Oct 1993) · The Independent (6 Dec 1993) · H. Wilson, The Labour government, 1964–1970: a personal record (1971) · TNA: PRO, PREM 13/393, 394, 395 · TNA: PRO, POWE 61/350 [India/Pakistan hostilities, September 1965] · private information (2004) [Caroline Keevil] · personal knowledge (2004) · WWW, 1991–5 · Burke, Peerage

Archives  

TNA: PRO, Commonwealth Relations Office, India Office, Prime Minister’s Department, and other government records


Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, repro. in The Independent

Wealth at death  

£183,772: probate, 1 Feb 1994, CGPLA Eng. & Wales