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Wright, Sir (John) Oliverlocked

(1921–2009)
  • John Whitehead

Wright, Sir (John) Oliver (1921–2009), diplomatist, was born on 6 March 1921 at 20 Avenue Road, Hammersmith, London, the younger son of Arthur Wright (d. 1963), catering manager, later hotelier, and his wife, Ethel Louisa Hicks, née Shearod (1890–1985). At the time of his birth registration his parents lived at 10 Lanark Mansions, Shepherd's Bush, London, but the family soon moved to the west midlands. Wright attended Solihull School, from which he obtained a scholarship in modern languages (German and French) to Christ's College, Cambridge. He served with distinction for four years in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War, mainly on the Murmansk and Archangel routes, being awarded a DSC in 1944 as commander of a motor torpedo boat. He met his future wife, (Lillian) Marjory Osborne (b. 1919/20), in Solihull while still serving in the navy. The daughter of Hedley Vicars Osborne, engineer, she was then working as a chartered masseuse. They married at Solihull parish church on 19 September 1942 and enjoyed more than sixty-five years of happy and very productive life together, sharing many interests, particularly the theatre, where Marjory was a highly talented performer. They had three sons.

Wright joined the foreign service in 1945, serving in quick succession in New York (1946–7), Bucharest (1948–50), and Singapore (1950–51), before moving on after two years in the Foreign Office to Berlin (1954–6) and Pretoria (1957–8), followed by a short spell at the Imperial Defence College (1959). He took considerable pains over how he dressed, wearing striking waistcoats, red braces, and striped shirts with frequently a rose in his buttonhole. He was a big man both physically, with large striking features, and as a personality.

There were two main focal points in Wright's career: between 1960, when he became assistant private secretary to the foreign secretary, Lord Home, and 1966, when he was posted at Harold Wilson's insistence as ambassador to Denmark at the then comparatively early age of forty-five; and between 1975 and 1986 when he served as ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany (1975–81) and the United States of America (1982–6), the latter post on recall by the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. His sequence of postings in both periods was indicative of the high regard in which he was held by senior ministers.

Wright was promoted private secretary to Lord Home in 1963 and continued to serve in this capacity when Home became prime minister (as Sir Alec Douglas-Home) for a year; he then, after the Labour victory in 1964, served as private secretary to Harold Wilson, of whom he thought particularly highly at that time. This service to two prime ministers from opposing parties may not have been unprecedented but it was highly unusual and demonstrated the confidence that both placed in him. On being asked towards the end of his career if he was intending to write his memoirs, he replied, 'the secretary is the keeper of the papers; the Private Secretary is the keeper of the private papers. I shall not be writing my memoirs' (personal knowledge). During his period in private offices he demonstrated a singular ability to see what was needed at a particular time, a strong aversion to unnecessarily complicating matters, and an overriding interest in common sense and practical results. He gained the confidence not only of ministers and others for whom he worked but also of those who worked under him. Partly as a result he became a role model as an ambassador. He had very well attuned political antennae; he knew exactly what it was he wanted his staff to do; he was able to communicate this in clear, unequivocal terms; and he then let them get on and do it.

The Danes welcomed Wright warmly as a former naval officer and an ambassador with the strong support of the then prime minister. He in turn took to them:

The love of money may have replaced the love of God, but there is no philistinism. If heroic virtues are at a discount in Denmark, so are hypocrisy and cant … Anglo-Danish relations rest on a solid foundation of reciprocal interest in defence, European unity and bilateral trade reinforced by abundant goodwill.

First impressions of Denmark, 12 Jan 1967, TNA: PRO, FCO 9/261

On his return to London, Wright was sent to Northern Ireland in 1969 by the home secretary, James Callaghan, as the British representative to the Stormont government, tasked with changing the situation there in the period before direct rule, which included replacing the chief constable, disarming the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and disbanding the B specials. After ten months he was back in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (as it had become) as chief clerk, in charge of all personnel, financial, and administrative matters in the service, in which post he took particular pains to ensure that there was no favouritism and that the right candidate was selected for the job. In 1972 he became the deputy under-secretary supervising the European departments of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, seeking to co-ordinate the policies of the then nine member states, before moving on in 1975 to Bonn, probably the best of his overseas postings.

Wright's almost six years in the Federal Republic of Germany coincided with a period of nearly unbroken rise in German economic and hence political power. But this for the Germans, as he frequently pointed out, was far from being a cause of unalloyed satisfaction. The demon Angst was always with them, made worse as their power increased. Bilateral Anglo-German relations, with Helmut Schmidt as federal chancellor, were given a very fair wind throughout:

It is, I suggest, no exaggeration to say that the consistent friendship towards the UK of the Federal Republic and of the Federal Chancellor in particular, has been one of the few good deeds in a naughty world; and the personal relationship between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor together with British Forces Germany are our most important foreign political assets

Federal Republic of Germany: annual review for 1976, 4 Jan 1977, TNA: PRO, FCO 33/3167

although he also referred to the 'grumbling appendix of our commitment to Europe'. And having warned that the UK was seen as the bad boy of Europe, Wright went on:

I have no difficulty in advocating your policies on the Community, but as your marketing manager in Germany I have to advise that they would be easier to sell if they could be wrapped in European paper and tied with Community string.

Federal Republic of Germany: annual review for 1978, 4 Jan 1979, TNA: PRO, FCO 33/3978

The Wrights themselves felt very much at home in Germany and, since it was a federal republic, they had much cause to travel widely with calls on politicians and businessmen in various Länder, speeches to chambers of commerce and others, a visit to the opera and possibly the theatre, before returning to their very agreeable residence by the Rhine with its tug boats and barges. He was appointed CMG (1964), KCMG (1974), GCVO (1978), and GCMG (1981).

With retirement in 1981 Wright expected to be spending much time tending his garden and reading the newspapers. But two prospects of further full-time employment came his way in quick succession. First, he was offered the mastership of his old college, Christ's, in Cambridge, to which he replied that 'Barkis is willing'; he was duly pre-elected in May 1982 but had to withdraw two months later following a summons to return to the diplomatic service, this time as ambassador to the United States. It was the earlyish years of Reagan's presidency, with Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.

In Washington, Wright quickly set about finding his bearings and explaining them to Whitehall. He took the most difficult but most important issue first:

There is a curious paradox: we have self evidently a President who it is difficult to engage in a serious discussion of any subject of contemporary politics; and yet at the same time a President who is effecting a radical change in the nature of these policies.

Reagan was not a man to take lightly:

The loyalty of his appointees is sincere. This All-American nice guy is instinctively right on most things that matter. Moreover, he has the votes, thanks to his ability, in this television age, to project the image of the nice guy with his heart in the right place.

George Shultz, then secretary of state, effectively advocated the president's causes 'because he approved of them'. Reagan was the quintessential sun-belt president who summed up and personified the shift of power that demographic and economic changes had wrought in the body politic. 'Cutting taxes reflects the passionate belief that most of our present discontents come from having Government on our backs instead of a horse under our saddles' (The Reagan administration, or, How the West was won: second impressions of the United States, 1 Oct 1982, Diplomatic report 202/82, FCO archives). Wright's unerring interpretation of the two leaders to each other was invaluable.

At the age of sixty-five, Wright left the diplomatic service for the second time and turned to his post-retirement interests: non-executive directorships of various companies, among which he particularly valued that on the board of the Savoy Hotel (1987–94) as crowning the family's long connection with the catering trade; trustee of the International Shakespeare Globe Centre (1986–2002) and of the British Museum (1986–91); king of arms of the Order of St Michael and St George (1987–96); and visiting fellowships at several American universities. As he explained in the inaugural Harry Allen memorial lecture, he was clear that membership of the European Community had never been incompatible with a close relationship with the USA: 'our influence here would be minimal without it'. But he remained to the end 'an anti-Maastricht Europhile' (Britain, Europe, and the United States: reflections of an anti-Maastricht Europhile, Institute of United States Studies, University of London, 13 May 1999). He died of cancer of the prostate at his home near Horley, Surrey, on 1 September 2009 and was survived by his wife, Marjory, and their three sons.

Sources

  • Daily Telegraph (7 Sept 2009)

Archives

Sound

  • BL NSA, interview recordings

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1960–1969, Rex Features, London
  • G. Argent, photograph, 1970, NPG
  • photograph, 1975, Photoshot, London
  • photograph, 1982, Photoshot, London
  • T. Graham, group portrait, photograph, 1985 (with the Princess of Wales), Getty Images
  • obituary photographs

Wealth at Death

£625,451: probate, 11 Jan 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Churchill College, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
(1849–)