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date: 17 February 2020

Bailes, Alyson Judith Kirtleyfree

  • Charles Crawford

Bailes, Alyson Judith Kirtley (1949–2016), diplomatist, was born on 6 April 1949 at Withington Hospital, 20 Nell Lane, Withington, Manchester, the elder daughter and eldest of three children of John Lloyd Bailes (1922–2000) and his wife, Barbara, née Martin, both of whom were teachers. Her paternal grandfather, Thomas Kirtley Bailes, was a colliery hauling engineman. At the time of her birth registration the family lived at 11a Granville Road, Fallowfield, Manchester. She was educated at Belvedere School in Liverpool and at seventeen won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, which she represented on University Challenge and from where she graduated with a first-class degree in modern history in 1969.

In August 1968, while visiting Prague with other Oxford students, Bailes saw Soviet tanks entering the city to crush the Prague Spring and the ensuing doomed defiance on the streets. She and her companions were evacuated by the British embassy. Impressed by the work of British diplomats, she applied to join the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and was accepted in 1969; according to Lord Wright of Richmond, a former permanent secretary of the FCO, ‘she was the first, and probably the only, member of the diplomatic service to have got full marks in both the home civil service selection board and the foreign service board’ (Times, 6 May 2016).

When Bailes joined the FCO, she was one of only four women in that year’s ‘fast-stream’ intake. She appeared in a Sunday Times feature as the country’s ‘youngest and newest woman diplomat’, talking about her prospects for becoming the UK’s first woman ambassador. It then was still impermissible for a woman to stay in the Diplomatic Service after marriage, a restriction lifted in 1972. She never married.

Bailes’s first FCO assignment was as desk officer in the Western European Department, where she worked on legacy issues from the Second World War, including the status of East Germany and the campaign to free Rudolph Hess. Her tasks included carrying coal for the open fires. Drafts were written in pen and ink and then typed by typists using carbon paper. She later noted that it was seen as ‘a sign of unusual keenness to arrive in the office before 10am’ (‘Legal Precision or Fuzzy Feelings? A Diplomatic Comment on Recognition Studies’, in C. Daase et al, eds, Recognition in International Relations, 2015, 251).

Bailes’s first overseas posting was as third secretary in Budapest, where she learned to speak Hungarian (seen by the FCO as one of Europe’s hardest languages): her responsibilities included following the Hungarian opposition to communist rule, and she was under constant surveillance by the Hungarian authorities. She then served as second secretary at the UK Delegation to NATO in Brussels and began to develop her expertise in European security and arms control issues. In 1976 she returned to the FCO to work in the European Community Department (Internal) on Community decisions and processes. In November 1979 she visited The Hague for a meeting on the accession of Greece to the European Community. She was in the official car with the British ambassador, Sir Richard Sykes, when he was shot by IRA assassins and died soon afterwards in hospital. Bailes gathered herself to address a press conference on this appalling incident before returning to her duties.

In late 1979 Bailes was seconded to the Ministry of Defence, where she worked on defence policy outside the NATO area, before moving in 1981 to the British embassy in Bonn to cover defence policy issues. In 1984 she returned to London as deputy head of the Planning Staff, the FCO’s small internal think tank headed by Pauline Neville-Jones. It was highly unusual then that two women led a senior FCO department. The FCO Planning Staff were busy pondering the radical implications of Gorbachev and glasnost: might a reforming ‘nice’ and ‘European’ Soviet Union come to look a more attractive partner for western Europe than an assertive United States led by President Reagan? Bailes offered a characteristically dry and astute thought: ‘The thing about Planning papers is that if you wait long enough they’re always right’ (personal knowledge).

In 1987 Bailes was posted to the embassy in Beijing as head of chancery, with a policy lead on the complicated and sensitive negotiations with China over Hong Kong. In May 1989 the Chinese authorities suppressed student protests in what became known as the Tiananmen Square massacre. Bailes led a large group of diplomats evacuated from the embassy to Hong Kong. Later that year she returned to London after only two years in the post. She took some months’ sabbatical leave at the Royal Institute for International Affairs to research China’s relations with central and eastern Europe.

In late 1990 Bailes was appointed deputy head of mission at the British embassy in Norway. In 1994 she returned to London as head of the Security Policy Department, leading FCO work on a wide range on important arms control and security issues arising from the end of the Cold War. She then had secondments at the Institute for East–West Security Studies in New York (1996–7) and as political director of the Western European Union in Brussels (1997–2000). In 2000 she was appointed UK ambassador to Finland. She was made a CMG in 2001.

Bailes resigned from the FCO in July 2002 and moved to head the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), where she was a sharp critic of American policies in Iraq and more generally. She nonetheless used her new role outside official structures quietly to bring together Iranian, Russian, and American experts to discuss ideas for agreement on Iran’s nuclear programmes. In 2006 she had an operation to remove a cancerous kidney and moved to less demanding academic work. She took a teaching post at the University of Iceland and lectured at the College of Europe in Bruges, the University of Greenland, and the University of the Faroes. She developed a formidable expertise in Nordic and Arctic affairs. After 2013 she became an enthusiastic contributor to the Dorothy Dunnett Society, writing a meticulously researched booklet on Icelandic aspects of that author’s historical novels and many other erudite articles on topics as diverse as Shamanism, science fiction, and volcanoes. In 2014 she bought a home in Selkirk in the Scottish borders. She backed the Scottish independence campaign and gave the Scottish authorities her advice on how an independent Scotland might survive as a relatively small European state.

This summary of Alyson Bailes’s career does not do justice to her most distinctive feature, namely her truly startling intellect. She was the closest thing any British diplomats had seen to a human word-processor, able to glance at (say) a draft speech of several pages and immediately explain how to rearrange and prune the work to transform it. She had an excellent grasp of French, German, Hungarian, Mandarin, Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish, with reading abilities in Danish, Icelandic, Faroese, and Dutch. In later life she wore her hair swept back in what looked like a gleaming carapace. FCO colleagues mused that it covered the device in her head that gave her other-dimensional reasoning capabilities.

Bailes loved geology and rocks, much preferring cold and austere northern European landscapes to hot and dusty Beijing. But she also enjoyed parties and company, risqué jokes, all sorts of music, quilting, and cooking. If anyone needed at short notice a new comic opera set in Budapest involving Faroese heavy metal music, communist ideology, rock samples, and obscure but oddly efficient medieval torture instruments, Alyson Bailes could knock out a reasonable first shot over a long lunch-hour. A colleague at SIPRI recalled that ‘Alyson was regularly host to lively dinner discussions at restaurants in the southern part of Stockholm, where she knew, and was known by, staff everywhere. Less frequent but equally lively discussions took place at her apartment over champagne and fish paste sandwiches’ (private information). As a colleague she was typically helpful, friendly, and straightforward, albeit in what might come across as an overly ‘logical’ way on some personnel issues where a lighter touch could have been appreciated. She showed some eccentricity: she kept a stockpile of scarce embassy table-lamps in a cupboard in her flat in Beijing.

That said, Bailes’s thitherto galloping FCO career drifted sideways after her stressful posting in Beijing and subsequent secondments outside Whitehall. Her extraordinary ability to produce at high speed page after page of intricate precise foreign policy analysis perhaps was just too much for the system to absorb. She was ardently, if not obsessively, ‘pro-Europe’, making little secret of her low opinion of successive US presidents and what she saw as endemic corruption in US politics. This did not help her convince ministers or senior colleagues in the late 1990s and early 2000s that it made sense to move from transatlantic defence structures (i.e., NATO) in favour of a strong new European defence identity based on a rejuvenated Western European Union. The forlorn (and by then quite irrelevant) Western European Union duly expired in 2010.

In 2016 Bailes’s cancer returned. She died at the Borders General Hospital in Melrose on 29 April 2016 with her mother, her sister Jane, her brother Martin, and his wife Rachel at her hospice bedside. She asked that her ashes be scattered by St Mary’s Loch. Before her death she had arranged for a message to be sent to her friends and colleagues at the University of Iceland, in which she stated that ‘If you receive this message I will have departed this life … I am glad that the final breakdown came quickly (at my home in the Scottish Borders) as I would have wished’, and went on to thank them for their ‘support, cooperation and friendship over the years, which have helped me to live a full, free, enjoyable and rewarding life up to the end’. In 2018 Somerville College created the Alyson Bailes history prize in her honour.


  • The Times (3 May 2016); (5 May 2016); (6 May 2016); (7 May 2016)
  • The Herald [Glasgow] (4 May 2016)
  • The Guardian (10 May 2016)
  • The Scotsman (10 May 2016)
  • WW (2016)
  • personal knowledge (2020)
  • private information (2020)


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death certificate
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