Roger Beetham: British diplomat noted for his Europhilia

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The Independent Online

Roger Beetham was a British diplomat who suspected that linguistic and managerial abilities, his own strengths, were somewhat undervalued in the modern Foreign Office. Born in Burnley, Beetham attributed his reputation for straight talking to his Lancastrian heritage, but he was educated at Ryde School, Isle of Wight, and Peter Symonds' School in Winchester, where he excelled in languages and performances in school plays.

His fluency in French and German inspired him to hope for a diplomatic career, and after reading modern languages at Oxford he entered the diplomatic service in 1960. He was quickly involved as a member of the British delegation to the Disarmament Conference in Geneva, where he found it "relatively easy" to get along with ministers "as long as you treat them as ordinary people, which many diplomats don't". In his three years there, 1962-65, the Conference achieved the Partial Test Ban Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty – more progress than in the next four decades.

Having gone to Washington four times in those years, as the British diplomats joked "to go and get instructions", Beetham was posted to the US capital as commercial secretary in 1965, principally concerned with organising British Weeks and trade fairs. His stay reinforced his view that Britain really was a European country, and he left America the day after Nixon was elected, gloomily predicting that no good would come of it.

To his surprise he found he had been chosen to work in the Foreign and Commonwealth News Department as press spokesman on Europe. He took easily to press relations, and from that time on many of his best friends were journalists. Some FCO superiors felt that on occasion his frank and open dealing went a little far. Beetham recalled: "I remember Lord Brimelow remarking: 'I see the whole of our briefing was on the front page of the Daily Express today'. I said: 'Yes, but was it accurate?', and he said: 'Well, I suppose for the Daily Express it was'."

Beetham was press spokesman in the UK's entry negotiations with the Common Market first for Antony Barber, whom he found dry, nervous and troubled, and then Geoffrey Rippon, whose relaxed "cigars and brandy" approach he felt was better appreciated by the Europeans. After four years as Head of Chancery in Helsinki, he returned to press work as spokesman for Roy Jenkins during his term as President of the European Commission. Even he, though, struggled to interest the British press or government in Jenkins' proposal for European monetary union. On the day Jenkins launched the plan with a speech in Florence, the Daily Telegraph diverted its Rome correspondent because somewhere else in Italy a British tourist had gone missing.

Beetham went on as commercial councillor in New Delhi to run Britain's biggest bilateral aid programme with exemplary efficiency, and to prove the worth, as ambassador to Senegal, Cape Verde, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Mali, of cultivating the politicians of even such small and far-flung countries. The Cape Verde opposition leader he cultivated proved valuable after winning elections and acceding to Cape Verde's seat on the UN Security Council. Beetham finished his career as Permanent Secretary to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, a city he loved and to which he retired.

Having been in at the birth of the idea of monetary union, Beetham retained an interest in it and in 2002 edited a balanced collection of essays, The Euro Debate: Persuading the People. A lifelong Europhile, he was sure accepting the euro would prove the right choice for Britain, but accepted a referendum would be needed. He died in Strasbourg following an accident.

Robin Young

Roger Campbell Beetham, diplomat: born Burnley 22 November 1937; married 1965 Judith Rees (divorced 1986), 1986 Christine Malerme; CMG 1993, LVO 1976; died Strasbourg 19 September 2009.