Lord Henniker

Diplomat and former Director-General of the British Council
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The Independent Online

John Patrick Edward Chandos Henniker-Major, diplomat and administrator: born London 19 February 1916; MC 1945; Head of Personnel Department, Foreign Office 1953-60, Assistant Under-Secretary of State 1967-68; CMG 1956, KCMG 1965; ambassador to Jordan 1960-62, to Denmark 1962-66; CVO 1960; Director-General, British Council 1968-72; Chairman, Suffolk Rural Housing Association 1984-2004; President, Suffolk Agricultural Association 1989; married 1946 Osla Benning (died 1974; two sons, one daughter), 1976 Julia Poland (née Mason); died Thornham Magna, Suffolk 29 April 2004.

An outstanding diplomat, soldier, charity worker and administrator, John Henniker was, like Winston Churchill, the sort of aristocrat who takes for granted the duty of leadership and self-denial.

All his life he worked furiously, devoting his intellectual and material resources to the service of others. In the early 1960s, when the Government imposed swingeing cuts in public spending, he ignored personal difficulties and dipped into his own pocket to ensure that high standards were maintained at the embassy in Jordan where he was then the British ambassador.

He was born John Henniker-Major, in 1916. His uncle was the sixth Baron Henniker; his father was a sixth son, succeeding in 1956 as seventh Baron only after the death without issue of all his brothers. John, the elder of two sons, was educated at Stowe and at Trinity College, Cambridge, which he left in 1937 with a First in Modern Languages.

After racing to London on the back of a friend's motorcycle, he took the Foreign Office entrance examination and came top. Though he was placed in the Far Eastern Department, his area of expertise was Germany. During visits to Munich as a student he came to despise Hitler, whom he dismissed as a mouldy-looking fellow in a seedy raincoat, "always saluting".

When war broke out, he insisted on fighting and with much difficulty gained his release from the Diplomatic Service in order to join the Rifle Brigade, with which he served in North Africa. It was there that he earned the Military Cross during a confrontation with German gunners near Tobruk. After treatment for severe wounds, he joined Fitzroy Maclean in directing guerrilla operations on behalf of Tito and the partisans in Yugoslavia. These Balkan adventures were later recorded in Maclean's 1949 book Eastern Approaches and in the novel Unconditional Surrender (1961) by Evelyn Waugh, who visited the Croatian headquarters with Randolph Churchill. Though Henniker rather disliked Waugh, he fully endorsed the accuracy of his account.

After demobilisation, Henniker-Major hoped to leave Yugoslavia. Instead, having rejoined the Foreign Office, he was sent back to open the embassy in Belgrade. He was thus obliged to witness the onset of the Cold War and a steep decline in British relations with Tito. Unlike many Englishmen, and even more Englishwomen, he was not impressed by the picturesque qualities of the partisans or the Chetniks; and he deplored the recent resurgence of fanatical Serbian nationalism.

According to his colleagues he was never happier than during the next stage of his career when he worked in the Private Office of the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, whom he enormously respected for his intelligence and humanity. In those years of Clement Attlee's Labour government, 1945-51, he especially admired Bevin's loyalty to the Prime Minister (despite the feud between their wives) and his courageous attempts to achieve a fair deal for the Palestinians. Bevin, in turn, returned his admiration. Even today, contemporaries recall how, whenever faced with a thorny problem, Bevin would unfailingly bark, "Where's that Henniker?"

But it was in a later post as head of the Foreign Office's Personnel Department that he made his strongest mark. When he arrived there in 1953 the staff were still suffering from the after-effects of the spy scandal caused by the defection to Russia of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. Besides striving to reform the department and break down its "Old Boy" network, Henniker-Major introduced a new sensitivity to the preferences of recruits when selecting corners of the world to which they would be sent.

The formality of the Foreign Office never appealed to him and he once described it as "a funny old outfit with too many Sir Somebody-Somethings running around in cocked hats". A colleague whom he found specially unsympathetic was Anthony Eden ("one of Churchill's mistakes"), who, despite his First in Oriental Studies, was, in Henniker's view, "for ever resisting Johnny Foreigner". In 1956, he was only half surprised when Eden shocked the world by linking Britain with France and Israel in the attacks on Egypt that followed the take-over of the Suez Canal by President Gamal Abdul Nasser. Yet throughout the crisis he put loyalty to Queen and country first and struggled to prevent resignations and hold the Foreign Office together.

Henniker-Major's first overseas posting was as head of Chancery in Argentina. Much later, in 1960, he became ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Though not an Arabophile, he was fascinated by the complexities of Middle Eastern affairs and by the implications of Nasser's popularity. Revolutionaries had already removed the kings of Egypt in 1952 and of Iraq in 1958 in his name. Now Jordan's 25-year-old monarch, King Hussein, seemed next in line.

Faced with this danger, King Hussein and most others considered the traditional Anglo-Hashemite alliance more important than ever before. But Henniker-Major was concerned about its provocative aspect and felt that everyone, including the King, would be safer if it were made less obvious. He was therefore alarmed to hear that King Hussein was obsessed by an English girl, Toni Gardiner, and was going to marry her. After trying to persuade him to change his mind, Henniker-Major accepted his decision despite the grim predictions of his staff. In the end, as everyone knows, the marriage went ahead with no ill-effects. Toni Gardiner, re-named Princess Muna, became a wonderful wife and the mother of Jordan's present ruler, King Abdullah.

In 1962 Henniker-Major was appointed ambassador in Copenhagen, where he was much excited by the prospect of Denmark's entry into the Common Market. When President Charles de Gaulle uttered his unequivocal "Non!" plans were cancelled and the posting lost its allure. Nevertheless it was a happy time that lasted till 1966.

Back in London, Henniker-Major was promoted to Assistant Secretary of State and was offered the embassy in Brazil and, later, Ireland. By now, however, he had decided to work in England. One position that was suggested was that of Private Secretary to the Queen; another was the director-generalship of the British Council. The latter appealed strongly and in 1968 he took it on - a step that he later came to regret.

After moving into his office on the sixth floor of the council's headquarters he soon encountered prejudice against his Foreign Office background and resentment that he had been parachuted on to the top rung of a career ladder that internal candidates had been climbing for a lifetime. The latter were supported by the Chairman, Lord Fulton. Though Henniker-Major stayed four years at the council, this was a difficult period in which he had also to witness the deteriorating health of his adored wife, Osla Benning. A close friend of the Duke of Edinburgh before his marriage and internationally admired for her beauty and charm, she died of cancer in 1974.

Henniker-Major now directed his immense energy to social issues including homelessness, alcoholism and mental health. As director of the Wates Foundation from 1972 to 1978, he used his diplomatic contacts to assist peace initiatives abroad; and, as Deputy Chairman of Toynbee Hall, he sponsored self-help schemes for deprived communities.

On his father's death in 1980, he inherited the peerage - created in 1800 for his four-times-great-grandfather, a sometime MP - and went with his second wife, Julia Poland, to live in the agent's house on the family estate at Thornham Magna near Eye, in Suffolk.

In the 18th century the Hennikers acquired great riches through trade with Russia and a marriage link with the first Duke of Chandos. In the 19th century, when the fifth Lord Henniker was carousing with the future King Edward VII, the family owned 40,000 acres. Later, however, taxation reduced the holdings to 3,000 acres, and much of the main house, Thornham Hall, with its 95 rooms, was demolished. Nevertheless a lot remained and henceforth Henniker fought to preserve his inheritance and use it to stimulate the economy of his neglected corner of Suffolk.

Combining his own funds with assistance from the Mid-Suffolk District Council, he converted his outhouses into craft workshops and his farm buildings into premises for small businesses. A campsite was made and footpaths were created for ramblers on his land and a field centre was set up to encourage conservation and teach children about the countryside.

When I once asked Lord Henniker what he considered his greatest achievement as a diplomat he answered, "Rescuing the pensions of the dismissed railwaymen and their families in Buenos Aires in 1952." It was a reply that evinced the hidden agenda of his whole life.

Alan Rush