Sir Donald Maitland: Energetic and versatile diplomat who championed the British cause in Europe and the Middle East

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The Independent Online

Although he was one of the leading Arabists in the Foreign Office and held a number of senior positions in the diplomatic service, including a foreshortened spell as Britain's Permanent Representative at the UN and an invaluable term as Permanent Representative to the European Community, Donald Maitland ended his career in Whitehall as Permanent Secretary to the Department of Energy. Good judges thought him unlucky not to have made it to the top in the Foreign Office and it may well be that had Heath rather than Wilson won the February 1974 General Election, his career might have taken a different path.

It is a myth that Harold Wilson recalled Maitland from the United Nations in order to create a place for a leading Labour figure, Ivor Richard, who had unexpectedly lost his seat at Blyth. The Labour Party had made a manifesto promise that they would create a ministerial post at the UN and the choice fell on Richard, not Lord Caradon. What is true, however, is that Wilson was suspicious of Maitland's close connection with Heath. He had handled the press as one of Heath's team during the abortive negotiations for British entry into the EEC from 1961-63 and was recalled from the embassy in Libya in 1970 to become Heath's Chief Press Secretary. Maitland had an enormous regard for Heath and became one of his closest advisers.

Nevertheless, Wilson's suspicions were wholly unjustified and did not last. The Foreign Office had at short notice to create a position for Maitland as Deputy Under Secretary in charge of economic questions, and in that capacity he devised a plan to amend the 1947 Havana Charter for Wilson to present at the Commonwealth Conference in Jamaica in April 1975. Maitland knew that it had gone well when he was summoned to sit at Wilson's side at the press conference which followed. A message from Wilson came: "Tell Donald he can have his medals back." The move to Brussels followed.

However, Wilson's choice for the top Foreign Office job was Maitland's predecessor in Brussels, Sir Michael Palliser; and when Maitland returned to London to become Palliser's deputy in 1979, he was 57 and seemingly fated never to be Permanent Secretary. Margaret Thatcher had other ideas, making him Permanent Secretary at the Department of Energy. He set in train preparations for the privatisation programme which Nigel Lawson was set on achieving and the two got on so well that Lawson extended Maitland's tenure beyond retirement age until he had the replacement he wanted.

Maitland's contribution to public life continued well after his retirement, his most significant contribution made perhaps in the field of international telecommunications. In 1983 he was asked to chair the International commission for World Wide Telecommunications Development and found that three-quarters of the world's telephones and television sets were to be found in nine countries. The Maitland Report, delivered in January 1985, emphasised the centrality of modern telecommunications to development, and led to major changes.

Maitland combined high intelligence with courage both moral and physical, an almost terrier-like energy and what has been variously described as "an almost goon-like" or "giggling" sense of humour. His ability to mimic others was legendary and his portrayal of the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko made an indelible impression. The Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, took comfort in the fact that Maitland did not think it proper to imitate his political masters while still in office. Stewart was responsible for his appointment to as Ambassador to Libya, where he proved adept at handling Colonel Gaddafi's new regime.

A good example of Maitland's physical courage was on display soon after he arrived in Libya and was confronted in interview by a man who thrust a revolver into his stomach. Maitland gently pushed it aside and got on with the business in hand. Earlier he had had to evacuate the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies under Syrian and Lebanese crossfire, but he found a track behind the village and brought his party out safely. His moral courage was equally notable. He got on well with Nigel Lawson when the latter was Secretary of State for Energy, but that did not prevent him from writing to Glyn England, whom Lawson had sacked as Chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board, rebutting some of the reasons Lawson had given to the House of Commons for his decision.

Donald James Dundas Maitland was born in Edinburgh on 16 August 1922, the son of Thomas Maitland, a member of the Colonial Service, and Wilhelmina Dundas. He was educated at George Watson's and Edinburgh University, where he took a modern languages degree before joining the Royal Scots in 1941. Subsequently he served with the 6th Rajput Rifles and the Intelligence Corps in India, the Middle East and Burma. He stayed on in the forces a year to learn Arabic and joined the Foreign Office in 1947. A posting as Consul to Amara was followed by three years in Baghdad and then two years as private secretary to Lord Reading in the Foreign Office, giving him valuable insights into the workings of Whitehall. He returned to the Middle East to run the Centre for Arab Studies in the Lebanon, but was forced to evacuate it under fire when Lebanon fell apart in the summer of 1958.

He became deputy head of news in the Foreign Office and from 1961 to 1963 ran the press side of Heath's negotiating team during Britain's first attempt to join the EEC. In 1963 he was posted to Cairo, but within two years he was back in London, as head of the news department then as PPS to the Foreign Secretary George Brown. Maitland saw him as a Jekyll and Hyde character, unfair in his demands on staff in the small hours after he had left Annie's Bar the worse for wear, but absurdly contrite in the morning.

He refused to be intimidated by Brown's demands and after one particular outburst told him, "you don't think somebody my size has got where I am by kow-towing to bully-boys, do you?" Maitland was just 5ft 4in. He found Brown's successor Michael Stewart much easier to deal with, and in 1969 was rewarded with appointment as Britain's Ambassador to Libya.

His credentials were made out to King Idris, but by the time he reached his post he found he was dealing with the young revolutionaries. He recommended the evacuation of British troops in Cyrenaica, and, when to Gaddafi's evident surprise that was agreed, that British delivery of Chieftain tanks should continue alongside British training of Libyan forces. With continued access to Libyan oil seen as a priority, his advice was taken. His fluency in Arabic and knowledge of Arab history served him well in dealing with Gaddafi, but his informal manner proved of greater value in securing their trust. However, he was not given time to build a secure relationship.

In June 1970 Edward Heath made him his Chief Press Officer. The two men got on well, Maitland thought, because of their shared wartime background, but it is also clear that Maitland was one of the few men who appreciated Heath's rather sardonic sense of humour. Whenever there was a key decision to be taken, Heath wanted him to be present and he played a key role in relation to the successful EEC negotiations and to Northern Ireland.

His reward was appointment as Permanent Representative to the United Nations, a glittering prize in itself and a stepping stone to the appointment on which his ambitions were quietly set, Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office. Maitland had everything going for him, above all his ease with people from a wide range of backgrounds, his ability to get to the heart of any issue and a gift for expressing his views clearly and concisely. He inspired confidence, but the incoming Labour Government in February 1974 had promised that it would be a ministerial post and replaced him.

It was a savage blow. He was appointed a Deputy Secretary and given charge of economic issues. He found himself engaged with European questions, finance, economics, trade policy and energy, good preparation for his next posting, which was to replace Michael Palliser in Brussels as Britain's Permanent Representative to the EC; Palliser was to be the new Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office. Dedicated to European unity, Maitland enjoyed the work and was good at it.

His last Foreign Office post was as Palliser's deputy. It was something of a non-job, although the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave it temporary substance, and he worked with Lord Carrington to ensure that Europe was at one in its response and that Britain's allies in the region were reassured. Nevertheless he was both surprised and pleased when out of the blue he was appointed Permanent Secretary to the Department of Energy. He quickly came to see flaws in the Morrisonian concept of the public corporation and welcomed Lawson's brief to investigate how they might be restructured.

In retirement Maitland plunged into a new set of activities. While the most important was his chairmanship of the International Commission for Worldwide Telecommunications Development he also served as Chairman of the Health Education Authority, putting most of his energy into the drive to curb tobacco sponsorship and helping formulate the media strategy to combat HIV and Aids.

John Barnes

Labour MPs liked, respected, and trusted Donald Maitland as Ted Heath's chief press secretary, writes Tam Dalyell. Ever affable, Maitland never allowed his office to give out statements that could be interpreted as party political; he was appalled at Bernard Ingham's partisan role in promoting Margaret Thatcher's policies. Years later, when I mentioned Alistair Campbell, he raised his eyes to the heavens and muttered that compared to Campbell, Ingham was a model of rectitude.

My last conversations with him were about Libya. Maitland was incredulous that a Libyan operative would have put a bomb on a Malta-Frankfurt plane. "Libyans are more intelligent than initiating fanciful schemes," he said; besides, he knew Malta well, and it weighed with him that the Maltese government and police, Air Malta and the airport authorities all denied that any unidentified baggage had slipped through. He was incredulous about the guilty verdict on Abdelbaset al-Megrahi of the Scottish judges at Zeist. He believed at the very least that they should have returned the Scots verdict of "not proven" with which he was so familiar from his Edinburgh upbringing.

Donald James Dundas Maitland, civil servant: born Edinburgh 16 August 1922; Private Secretary to Minister of State, Foreign Office 1954–56; Director, Middle East Centre for Arab Studies, Lebanon 1956–60; Foreign Office 1960–63; Counsellor, British Embassy, Cairo 1963–65; Head of News Department, Foreign Office 1965–67; Principal Private Secretary to Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary 1967–69; Ambassador to Libya 1969–70; Chief Press Secretary, 10 Downing St 1970–73; UK Permanent Representative to UN 1973–74; Deputy Under-Secretary of State, FCO 1974–75; Ambassador and UK Permanent Representative to EEC 1975–79; Deputy to Permanent Under-Secretary of State, FCO 1979–80; Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy 1980–82; OBE 1960; CMG 1967; Kt 1973; GCMG 1977; married 1950 Jean Young (one son, one daughter); died 22 August 2010.

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