The Marquess of Lansdowne

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BUT FOR the insistence of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, that they travel in separate planes, George Lansdowne might have died with him in the Congo just under 38 years ago.

As a junior minister in the Foreign Office, he had been sent by Harold Macmillan to report on the military efforts undertaken by the UN to bring Katanga's secession from the Congo to an end and to persuade them that diplomacy rather than force might be a more appropriate means. The British government, as Lansdowne made clear, feared that the UN action might leave Soviet-backed insurgents in charge of the province rather than return it to the control of the central government. Hammarskjold was persuaded and agreed to meet with Moise Tshome, the Katangese leader, to negotiate a ceasefire and a settlement.

"This is very good news," Macmillan recorded. "Lansdowne has done well." But on his way to Ndola, where the talks were to take place, Hammarskjold's plane crashed. Nevertheless a provisional ceasefire was arranged and Macmillan was impressed by the way that Lansdowne had taken his first great opportunity. Within months he promoted him to be Minister of State at the Colonial Office and later in 1962, when both the Commonwealth Relations and Colonial Offices were brought under a single minister, Lansdowne was made his deputy.

He played a major role in negotiating the details of the federation between Malaysia and Singapore and his diplomatic skills were put to extensive use in persuading the Tunku that he had to work with Lee Kuan Yew if the federation was to become a success. Subsequently he was involved in trying to resolve the dispute with Malta over the future of the dockyard, which rather unexpectedly led to the British government's acceding to Malta's request for independence. Labour's election victory in 1964 and a personal tragedy in the following year, when Lansdowne's first wife committed suicide, brought a promising public career to an untimely close.

George John Charles Mercer Nairne Petty-Fitzmaurice was a grandson of the fifth Marquess of Lansdowne, who had served as Viceroy of India and had then as Foreign Secretary brought about the Anglo-Japanese alliance and the entente cordiale with France. While George Lansdowne was a boy, his grandfather, first as a member of Asquith's Coalition Cabinet and then from the backbenches, had called for a negotiated peace with Germany. It is not altogether surprising that his grandson nursed political ambitions from an early age.

His father, Lord Charles Petty-Fitzmaurice, was the second son of the fifth Marquess and his mother, Lady Violet, a daughter of the fourth Earl of Minto, like Lansdowne a former Viceroy of India. In 1914 Lord Charles changed his name to Mercer Nairne in order to inherit the Meikleour estate in Perthshire. Later the same year he was killed in action in France and his widow remarried in 1916. George's stepfather, John Astor, subsequently bought The Times and became the first Lord Astor of Hever.

Born in 1912, George Petty- Fitzmaurice (shortly to be Mercer Nairne) was educated at Eton and Christ Church and, on coming down with a not particularly distinguished degree, he plunged into the social round. In 1938 he married Barbara Chase, from a wealthy Californian family. Having taken over the house and estate at Meikleour, he made his first essay into politics as secretary of the Junior Unionist League for East Scotland. He had also taken up a commission in the Territorial Army and on the outbreak of war joined the Royal Scots Greys. He was promoted to Captain in 1940.

Virtually bilingual in French and English and a descendant of Talleyrand into the bargain, George Mercer Nairne was the perfect choice to be seconded to the Free French forces and he took part in Leclerc's successful effort to win French equatorial Africa for the Free French. (Leclerc subsequently became godfather to his eldest son, Charles, born in 1941.) During the abortive attempt to seize Dakar in September 1940, he was aboard the battleship Barham, but de Gaulle was unwilling to take any action which would involve a great many Frenchmen dying at the hands of their blood brothers. Promoted to Major in 1944, Mercer Nairne was dropped into enemy-occupied France to pass intelligence to the Resistance in preparation for the Normandy landings. For his work during the war he won the Croix de Guerre and was appointed to the Legion d'honneur.

Mercer Nairne can have had no expectations of succeeding to the Lansdowne titles - there were nine in all - even though his eldest cousin had predeceased the sixth Marquess a decade earlier. However, his youngest cousin was killed in Normandy in August 1944, only a few days before the seventh Marquess died in action in Italy, and Mercer Nairne therefore succeeded as eighth Marquess. After the liberation of Paris, he became private secretary to Sir Alfred Duff Cooper, who was British ambassador to de Gaulle, and remained with him until the war was over.

Later he would look back on this period in his life as one of the happiest and most fruitful, and there can be no doubt that his passionate devotion to the cause of France when coupled to seemingly inborn diplomatic skills was an asset to Duff Cooper's mission. Anglo-French relations were at a surprisingly low ebb and were exacerbated by differences of policy over the Levant.

Had he not felt forced to take personal control of the family estates, it is possible that Lansdowne would have used his appointment in Paris as a passport to a career in diplomacy or politics. However, although he had inherited estates in Kerry and the family seat in Wiltshire, Bowood House, much of the family wealth had passed to his cousin Kitty. Unkind friends would observe that neither his education nor his upbringing had equipped him with the business acumen he now needed, and there was some truth in that. But he showed enormous courage, not to say ruthlessness, in tackling the problems posed by Bowood, an enormous mansion in Wiltshire built by Keene and Adam between 1754 and 1768 with a park designed by Capability Brown.

It had been taken over by a girls' school in the Second World War, but no institution was now willing to take it on. Reluctantly Lansdowne had two-thirds of the house pulled down in 1954, leaving only the beautiful Adam Diocletian section standing. He subsequently made Bowood over to his son, choosing to live at Meikleour, where he created a magnificent new garden, now open to the public.

In 1957 Lansdowne felt able to turn his attention to politics and, after a brief spell as a whip, he was appointed joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs in 1957, a position which he retained after the 1959 election. Promoted to Minister of State at the Colonial Office in 1962, he added a second portfolio as Minister of State for Commonwealth Relations in 1963 and was appointed to the Privy Council in 1964.

Lansdowne had already lost a daughter, Caroline, a decade before and the suicide of his wife in 1965 hit him hard. He withdrew from public life, but emerged to take charge of the fortunes of the Franco-British Society in 1972. A year later he took over as Chairman of the Franco-Scottish Society and he remained chairman of both until 1983. He was then elevated into the presidency of both societies. He was made a Commander of the Legion d'honneur in 1979. He matched his command of French with an ability to make lively, charming speeches in both languages.

He had married again in 1969, to Polly Carnegie, daughter of Viscount Eccles, but that marriage was dissolved in 1978. He then married Gillian Morgan, but she died in 1982. In his last years a series of strokes impaired his mobility, but he took to a golf buggy as a way of getting around his gardens. He had served as President of the Royal Surgical Aid Society from 1985 and in 1989 took on the role of patron of Invalids at Home. In 1995 he married for the last time, to Penelope Astor, the widow of his half-brother John.

Lansdowne was a man of great charm and intelligence, enormously attractive to women, whom he adored. He was good with the young, but he loved nothing more than a good argument, which often lasted late into the night and which often left more bruises than he realised. He could be abrasive in conversation and only those who knew him well realised that the technique was being used to make people reveal themselves. He had an insatiable curiosity about people and their every activity and took them as he found them.

Life at Meikleour allowed him to indulge in his favourite sports of shooting and fly-fishing. He was an expert at both, but he also made himself into a considerable expert on gardening, particularly his own, to which he devoted much time and trouble and which will serve as a lasting legacy long after his political achievements have been forgotten.

In 1962 I was a member of the Labour MPs' delegation, led by Arthur Creech Jones, Attlee's Secretary of State for the Colonies 1946-50, to the Foreign Office about Sarawak and Sabah, writes Tam Dalyell. It had been intended that we meet Lord Home, then Foreign Secretary; he had to apologise for calling off at the last minute for a cabinet meeting. Some days later Home said to me in the corridor, "You got better value from George Lansdowne than you would have from me," and probably we did.

Lansdowne knew a lot about South-East Asia. He took the view that the boundaries between Sabah and Sarawak and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) were ethnically and topographically artificial, tribes such as the Dayaks and the Punan straddling frontiers. He thought it unwise to be dragged into prolonged military conflict with Indonesia.

Out of office in 1965/66, though reluctant to criticise the Labour government, let alone British servicemen, Lansdowne told me of his qualms about British troops getting involved in an Indo-China situation in Borneo. With his knowledge of France, he was haunted by the defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Perhaps on account of his aristocratic background he had an empathy with the Tunku Abdul Rahman, and the rulers of Malaya, that was not to be shared by Harold Wilson and other admirers of Lee Kuan Yew, the then young dynamic prime minister of Singapore. Lansdowne was a man of great intelligence and understanding of Asia.

And, by virtue of his patient retirement work over 30 years, he bequeaths a wonderful garden, and the marvellously enhanced Great Beech Hedge at Meikleour, one of the glories of spring and autumn in Scotland.

George John Charles Mercer Nairne Petty-Fitzmaurice, politician and landowner: born 27 November 1912; succeeded 1944 as eighth Marquess of Lansdowne; Private Secretary to HM Ambassador in Paris 1944-45; Lord-in- Waiting to the Queen 1957-58; Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Office 1958-62; Minister of State for Colonial Affairs 1962-64, and for Commonwealth Relations 1963-64; PC 1964; married 1938 Barbara Chase (died 1965; two sons, one daughter, and one daughter deceased), 1969 Polly Carnegie (nee Eccles; marriage dissolved 1978), 1978 Gillian Morgan (died 1982), 1995 Penelope Astor (nee Bradford); died Meikleour, Perthshire 25 August 1999.