Obituary: Lord Gillmore of Thamesfield

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The Independent Culture
DAVID GILLMORE was a surprise appointment by Margaret Thatcher as Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Head of the Diplomatic Service in 1991. He had first caught her eye when he was Assistant Under-Secretary responsible for defence and security issues 10 years earlier.

It was a period then of intense co-ordination in Nato, and bilaterally with the Americans, in response to the build-up of Soviet and Warsaw Pact conventional forces and the forward deployment of Soviet intermediate- range missiles. Given the classification of much of the information involved, the key policy advisers - and Gillmore was at the centre of the British team involved - had to rely on their own knowledge and judgement to an unusual degree.

The Prime Minister, with her passion for detail, frequently summoned Gillmore to No 10 to brief her personally. It was the knowledge that he enjoyed the confidence of the Prime Minister and her senior colleagues that enabled Gillmore to play a central role in co-ordinating British and US views. His standing was further enhanced by his ability, during the Falklands War, to provide advice to the Chiefs of Staff and to the Prime Minister on the United Nations and Nato implications of their actions in the South Atlantic.

Gillmore was born in 1934, the son of an Air-Vice Marshal, and educated at Trent College and King's College, Cambridge, where he studied French and Russian, two languages which were to play an important role in his later service in the FCO.

His first and abiding love was France, its language which he spoke fluently, its culture and its countryside. One of his first jobs was with a plastic company in Paris and some years before he retired from the Diplomatic Service he and Lucile, his wife, bought a house at Signes in the hills behind Toulon where he, his family and friends spent many happy holidays. In 1967 he published a novel, A Way from Exile, about the fate of the Cathars at the hands of the Normans.

After the book was finished, he spent some time teaching in the East End of London, where his ability to understand and communicate with people of all backgrounds was remarkable. In 1970, at the age of 36, and on the advice of a friend who was already in the FCO, Gillmore joined the Foreign Service by the late entrants examination.

His first posting, in 1972, was to Moscow, where, together with the rest of the embassy, he was affected by the measures taken by the Russians to bring home their displeasure at the expulsion from London of over 100 Soviet diplomats on charges of spying. This time was, however, a valuable preparation for his later career as an arms control expert in the great multilateral negotiations with the Russians which dominated most of that decade.

In 1978 he began the first of a series of postings which were to mark him out as a high flyer in the Foreign Service. He went to Vienna in 1978 as the Counsellor and Deputy Head of the British Delegation to the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction negotiations. There he displayed an ability to master the detail of these complex discussions while making them comprehensible to ministers. He was rewarded by a return posting to London first as Head of the Defence Department and then, in 1981, as Assistant Under-Secretary of State with overall responsibility for defence and security issues.

Unlike his predecessors who became Heads of the Diplomatic Service, David Gillmore did not have a series of important posts abroad. He became High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur in 1983 but found that he had inherited a major challenge as relations between Britain and Malaysia were going through a rough patch. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamed, had adopted a very critical stance towards Britain which evolved into the policy of "buy British last". It was largely due to Gillmore's calm good sense that the affair did not spiral out of control.

On his return to London, Gillmore became Deputy Under-Secretary of State with responsibilities for a wide area of the world including the Far East. He was in charge of developing closer contacts and a better understanding with Japan and for shaping policy towards China at a significant period of that country's development. And, although he was preparing himself to go to the UN as the United Kingdom's representative on the Security Council for his last post, it was not to be. Prime- ministerial intervention resulted in his staying in London to lead the Diplomatic Service for the last three years of his service.

It was as Permanent Under- Secretary that David Gillmore's personality shone through most clearly. While his political judgement was called on by his Secretary of State, Douglas Hurd, on the great questions of Europe, he also had a statutory duty as Chief Accounting Officer to see that the Diplomatic Service got the resources it needed. His interest in all members of the service and their problems, combined with his transparent honesty and kindness, made him universally popular.

He did not just indulge in the great set-piece battles with the Treasury over the annual financial settlements with the aim of enhancing his ministry's standing in the Whitehall pecking order. For him the settlement represented both the tools to do the essential work of promoting British interests as well as the means to help individual officers and their families to do their jobs in an increasingly volatile and dangerous world.

After he retired Gillmore's many interests and abilities were reflected in the wide variety of jobs he undertook, which covered banking, insurance, education, foreign affairs and antiques. Ennobled in 1996 as Lord Gillmore of Thamesfield, he played an active role on the crossbenches of the House of Lords.

The charm and courtesy with which David Gillmore handled every matter conveyed a slightly old- fashioned air which was misleading, writes Lord Hurd of Westwell.

As Permanent Under-Secretary he set in hand the fundamental reforms of structure and management which have transformed the Foreign Office. But he did not forget policy. I remember a discussion with him at the time of his appointment, during which he bridled at the idea that he would be mainly a manager of the service. But unlike some of his predecessors and successors he did not try to cover the whole range of policy. He certainly did not assert any right to be the funnel through which all advice should reach the Foreign Secretary.

Rather, he watched out for any lurch of the boat which he thought might be dangerous. In the excitement of crisis management fundamentals can sometimes be forgotten. David had his own wise contacts at home and abroad. He was always there to put in a word, quiet but if necessary persistent, to get us back on an even keel.

I have never known a public servant who was more completely liked and trusted by those with whom he dealt.

David Howe Gillmore, diplomat: born Swindon, Wiltshire 16 August 1934; First Secretary, Moscow 1972-75; Counsellor, UK Delegation, Vienna 1975- 78; Head of Defence Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1979-81, Assistant Under-Secretary of State 1981-83, Deputy Under-Secretary of State 1986-90, Permanent Under-Secretary of State and Head of the Diplomatic Service 1991-94; CMG 1982, KCMG 1990, GCMG 1994; High Commissioner in Malaysia 1983-86; director, Vickers plc 1995-99, vice-chairman 1997-99; created 1996 Baron Gillmore of Thamesfield; married 1964 Lucile Morin (two sons); died London 20 March 1999.

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