John Robinson was an unusually independent diplomat. He worked single- mindedly on successive negotiations to join the European Community, with a mastery of the complex issues. But he remained wryly aloof from the smooth niceties of diplomacy, impatient of flattery and extravagance, and held strong views which he made clear to colleagues as well as opponents.
The son of a successful but modest senior civil servant, he became a King's Scholar at Westminster School, where he showed an excellent mind and a debunking streak, in a schoolboy trio who called themselves Les Trois Cyniques. In the post-war RAF, where he remained an aircraftman, he worked with Italian prisoners of war who taught him Italian. At Oxford he read Greats and surprised many friends by becoming a diplomat.
After serving in Delhi and Helsinki he became deeply involved with the European Community, in Paris, Brussels and London. He was committed to Britain's entry, while suspicious of Gaullist attitudes and relishing confrontations with the Quai d'Orsay. His opportunity came when Ted Heath made the third and successful attempt to join the Community: Robinson worked tirelessly with Heath and Sir Con O'Neill, his senior in the Foreign Office, who shared his abrasive approach. Heath would always pay tribute to Robinson's European knowledge and attention to detail, which contributed greatly to Britain's eventual entry in 1973.
The Foreign Office rewarded him doubtfully, with tricky and thankless assignments; first as ambassador to Algiers, just after Opec's show of strength; then to Washington as Minister under the controversial new ambassador Peter Jay, whom they wanted to put in his place. It was a silly mis-match, which Robinson could not enjoy.
After a spell at the UN, specialising in Palestinian problems, he was surprisingly made ambassador to Israel, where he was regarded with suspicion. After that he took early retirement to become a market gardener in France, where he had already bought land. He later retired to Switzerland for neurological treatment, selflessly cared for by his Swiss wife, Marianne.
His more conventional colleagues saw him as having stumbled on the road to a knighthood. In fact he turned down a senior ambassadorship and was bored by the pomposity and dressing-up of the grander European embassies. He was always his own man, with a rare fearlessness and probity, and he had been indispensable to the most important diplomatic achievement of post-war Britain.
- Anthony SampsonReuse content