Sir Geoffrey Wilson

Barrister, diplomat and international civil servant
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Geoffrey Wilson began his career as a barrister protégé and travelling secretary of the Labour politician Sir Stafford Cripps, and ended it - via passages as a diplomat and international civil servant - as vice-president of the World Bank in Washington and then chairman successively of the Race Relations Board and Oxfam. He had a hand in shaping many of the world's leading events and institutions of the 20th century.

Geoffrey Masterman Wilson, lawyer, diplomat and civil servant: born Birkenhead, Cheshire 7 April 1910; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1934; staff, HM Embassy, Moscow, and Russian Department, Foreign Office 1940-45; Assistant Secretary, Treasury 1947-51, 1953-56, Under-Secretary 1956-58; Director, Colombo Plan Technical Co-operation Bureau 1951-53; Deputy Head, UK Treasury Delegation and alternate executive director for UK, International Bank, Washington 1958-62, vice-president 1962-66; CMG 1962; Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Overseas Development 1966-68, Permanent Secretary 1968-70; CB 1968, KCB 1969; Deputy General Secretary (Economic), Commonwealth Secretariat 1971; Chairman, Race Relations Board 1971-77; Chairman, Oxfam 1977-83; married 1946 Judy Trowbridge (two sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1979), 1989 Stephanie Stainsby (née Ross); died Oxford 11 July 2004.

Geoffrey Wilson began his career as a barrister protégé and travelling secretary of the Labour politician Sir Stafford Cripps, and ended it - via passages as a diplomat and international civil servant - as vice-president of the World Bank in Washington and then chairman successively of the Race Relations Board and Oxfam. He had a hand in shaping many of the world's leading events and institutions of the 20th century.

He was born in Birkenhead in 1910, the fourth child of a Quaker family. The family moved to Manchester where Geoffrey attended Manchester Grammar School and won an exhibition to Oriel College, Oxford, in Classics. Like an elder brother, Roger, he was President of the Union. Geoffrey's parents were deeply religious and held views on the left in politics. These influences stayed with him throughout his life, particularly the beliefs and principles of the Society of Friends.

The second main influence on his life was the family of Sir Stafford Cripps. He met Stafford's son John at Oxford, where they were both members of the Labour Club. John Cripps was two years Wilson's junior but became and remained his best friend until John's death in 1994. In Wilson's final year at Oxford, John invited him to stay at the Cripps family home in the Cotswolds. During the years before the Second World War he became a frequent visitor and, as he himself said, was in effect adopted by the Cripps family.

When Wilson chose the law as his profession, Sir Stafford offered him a place in his chambers in the Middle Temple from which Wilson studied for the Bar on a law scholarship and watched the great man at work. He was called in 1934, moved to the chambers of H.D. Samuels and spent the pre-war years largely on common law cases at courts around London. However, Cripps was retained by the National Union of Mineworkers, with Wilson as his junior, in two prominent inquiries, one following the disaster at the Gresford Colliery in North Wales which killed some 250 miners, and the other after the 1938 Markham Colliery disaster in Derbyshire which killed 50.

While his life and interests in this period focused on Britain, Wilson visited Sweden in 1937 with a Fabian group to study that country's experiment in building a progressive and egalitarian society, in which there was much interest. In 1939, at the suggestion of Cripps and David Astor, he went to Germany with a German Rhodes Scholar, Adam von Trott, to assess the extent and potential of anti-Nazi sentiment, which von Trott shared although he was a strong German patriot. Von Trott was later involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler and was executed.

At the outbreak of war Wilson resigned from chambers, wondering what to do and whether to register as a conscientious objector. Before he had time to decide, Stafford Cripps invited him to go along as secretary- companion on his forthcoming mission to India and China. They left in November 1939 and were away almost five months. In India they stayed with Jawaharlal Nehru and talked to Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and other notables about Indian independence, including such problems as the integration of British India with the princely states, and the formation of a constituent assembly. Nothing concrete emerged from these talks but they may have helped to make the later negotiations on independence as uncontentious as they were.

Cripps and Wilson then travelled to China by land through Burma as the Japanese controlled the Chinese coast. Wilson came down with jaundice and took no part in Cripps's lengthy discussions with Chiang Kai-shek about China's many problems; again, little came of them. The mission did have one interesting consequence, an invitation through the Soviet ambassador to visit Moscow, which they also undertook by a hazardous land route.

Discussions with Vyacheslav Molotov, mainly about trade, may have given Cripps the idea of establishing a trade mission in Russia. Regarded as a travel adventure, the trip to the city of Chungking and back without money, documents, knowledge of the language or an idea of where they were going from day to day, would be hard to beat.

On returning to London by way of the Pacific, Cripps persuaded Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden to let him explore the trade-mission idea with the Russians, and left for Moscow in May 1940 with Wilson. Britain had withdrawn its ambassador to protest about Russia's invasion of Finland, and Molotov took the opportunity to insist that talks on trade could be held only with an ambassador. So Cripps assumed the office and Wilson became third secretary. There was not much to do until July 1941 when Germany invaded Russia and senior delegations from Britain began to arrive. Wilson acquired enough proficiency in Russian to conduct business in the language. In September they were able to leave with a visiting delegation by warship from Murmansk.

With his newly acquired knowledge of Russia, Wilson joined the Russian Department of the Foreign Office, having first appeared before a tribunal as a conscientious objector and been granted unconditional exemption from military service. The highlight of this period was his attendance at the Yalta conference in 1944 of Churchill, F.D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. He and Sir Robert Bridges, Secretary of the Cabinet, took the minutes at the plenary sessions.

After VE Day Wilson transferred to the new United Nations Department which sent him to America with an international team looking for an appropriate site for the UN headquarters. In New York he met and married an American, Julie ("Judy") Trowbridge. On their return to London Wilson left the Foreign Office and in the summer of 1946 rejoined his old law chambers.

That is when I first met Geoffrey Wilson and began our long friendship: one of his interests was membership of what would now be called a think tank, Political and Economic Planning, of which I had just been appointed Director after being de-mobbed from the Royal Navy.

Wilson found the practice of law rather tame after his wartime adventures, and re-entered the Civil Service in the Treasury as Assistant Secretary seconded to the Cabinet Office. His most interesting assignment was as Assistant Secretary of the India Committee preparing for independence, and he also took part in the negotiations over Marshall Aid.

In 1951 he applied for and got the job of Director of the Colombo Plan, a technical co-operation agency for economic development in south and south-east Asia, newly established by the Commonwealth in the Ceylon capital. It was not a major agency but popular with the less developed members as the donor-recipient relationship of other aid institutions was absent.

The Wilson family enjoyed life there and added a fourth child. The experience kindled in Geoffrey an abiding interest in the Third World and a view that rich countries owed poor ones greater access to the world's resources than just the provision of aid.

He was recalled by the Treasury in August 1953; the chance to renew contact with the Third World came five years later when he was appointed Economic Attaché in the Washington embassy, a post which included that of alternate executive director of the World Bank. Before his term ended, Eugene Black, president of the bank, invited Wilson to become director of the regional department responsible for bank operations in the subcontinent and the Middle East, and in 1962 promoted him to vice-president.

Our career paths crossed again at this juncture as I had joined the bank's staff some years earlier. Wilson's portfolio included the issuing of bank bonds, periodic tours of rich member countries seeking the replenishment of the bank's soft loan agency (IDA), the budget, and supervision of the Administration and Personnel Department. He persuaded me to leave operations for a spell to help run the latter.

Wilson had expected to serve the rest of his career in the World Bank but fell out with Gene Black's successor, George Woods - not a difficult thing to do. He returned to Britain in 1966 and was appointed Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Overseas Development, becoming Permanent Secretary two years later on the death of Sir Andrew Cohen, which made him a Whitehall mandarin with a knighthood. He retired in 1970 on reaching the age of 60.

After a few months with the Commonwealth Secretariat, Wilson left to become Chairman of the Race Relations Board, a post he held for six years until it merged into the Commission for Racial Equality. But he retained active links with development as Chairman of Oxfam, which had a strong Quaker element, a board member of the Overseas Development Institute and of the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex. He also joined the board of the International Development Research Centre of Canada, and for 10 years attended their quarterly meetings in Ottawa. He often travelled by way of Washington to look up old friends and colleagues.

Wilson's marriage to Judy ended in divorce in 1979, and she returned to America. In 1989 he married Stephanie Stainsby; they settled in Oxford. She survives him, as do his four children, Susan, Catherine and Peter in England, and John in Washington DC.

Raymond Goodman