Sir Julian Bullard

First Political Director at the Foreign Office who went on to become ambassador to Bonn


Julian Leonard Bullard, diplomat: born Athens 8 March 1928; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1950-57, 1988-2006; staff, HM Foreign Service (later HM Diplomatic Service) 1953-88, minister at Bonn 1975-79, ambassador to Bonn 1984-88; Head of East European and Soviet Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1971-75, Deputy Under-Secretary of State 1979-84, Deputy to the Permanent Under-Secretary of State and Political Director 1982-84; CMG 1975, KCMG 1982, GCMG 1987; Member of Council, Birmingham University 1988-97, Chairman of Council and Pro-Chancellor 1989-94; married 1954 Margaret Stephens (two sons, two daughters); died Oxford 25 May 2006.

Julian Bullard was regarded by many as the outstanding British diplomat of his generation. Reckoned unlucky not to have been selected by Margaret Thatcher for the top job of Permanent Under-Secretary, he was perhaps luckier than he seemed. Instead he became in 1982 the first Political Director at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), a function and a title imported to enable Britain to work closely with our new European partners. In that job, he perhaps found even more creative scope for his personal qualities. He was also uniquely given the rank of Deputy Permanent Under-Secretary.

A former Prize Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a brilliant linguist and scholar, Bullard was above all an easy man to know, a good listener, ready when necessary to suffer fools gladly and leave them less foolish than he met them.

As Political Agent in Dubai at the end of the Sixties, he had the difficult task of maintaining a semi-colonial relationship with the sheikhly rulers of what were then still the Trucial States, later to be the United Arab Emirates. The political atmosphere was fragile, following the humiliation of the Arabs in the 1967 war and the undignified British departure from Aden. The relationship was evidently obsolete and could only be sustained on the basis of personal friendship, operating almost entirely in Arabic, which Bullard had learnt mainly in his spare time at previous posts (which had included Vienna, Amman, Bonn and Moscow). This ancient and advantageous relationship was kept green by Bullard, only to be abruptly cut off by the Wilson government.

Another example of the contribution made by his personal diplomacy was during the Falklands War of 1982, when as Political Director Bullard established warm relations with his European colleagues and played a major part in maintaining the vital European embargo on arms sales to Argentina. He also found time to look after the juniors on his team working the long nights in the upper reaches of the FCO. That is the tradition of the service, but a tradition often neglected.

I remember him explaining the new system of European Co-operation - meetings of so-called experts from the foreign offices of the member states to try to agree on the policy issues of the day - to me, somewhat sceptical and very much his junior. He compared it to a cheap screwdriver. Very often it will do the job perfectly well, but if you try to shift a really difficult screw, you end up damaging both screw and screwdriver. Since that conversation, I have observed that life contains many cheap screwdrivers.

Before one meeting in Rome, he insisted that I should come to the meeting place half an hour early. It turned out to be because he wanted to show me the staircase, which was designed by Michelangelo. It was worth the effort.

Bullard had shown in 1971 that he could also be wily and tough, when he was head of the East European and Soviet Union Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the time of the sensational decision to expel 105 Soviet diplomat spies from London. He is credited with devising the formula by which the decision was presented to Moscow, which successfully avoided the expected Russian retaliation, let alone a damaging breach.

Like many British diplomats, Bullard had two diplomatic strings to his bow. He knew Arabic and the Arab world, and he also knew Europe and several of its languages, particularly the Europe of East and West including Russia and Germany. His last post in the service was as ambassador to Bonn, 1984-88, then one of the most important jobs in the service, though his retirement at 60 came just before the old pattern of Cold-War Europe was finally broken.

After retirement in 1988 he was active in the formation at Birmingham University of the Institute for European Law and the Institute for German Studies, and he was the university's Chairman of Council and Pro-Chancellor from 1989 to 1994.

In 2004 he was one of the 52 retired ambassadors who wrote to the Prime Minister questioning British policy in Palestine and Iraq.

Julian Bullard was born in 1928 in Greece. His father, Sir Reader Bullard, was the son of a tally clerk in London docks and had come through the grammar school and county scholarship route which was then open to children of exceptional ability, to enter the Levant Consular Service and end his career as ambassador to Persia. Julian's maternal grandfather was the historian A.L. Smith, Master of Balliol College, Oxford.

When Julian's father was posted to Moscow in the 1930s no schooling was available, and his mother remained with the children in Oxford - which as his father recorded in his memoirs, The Camels Must Go (1961), proved a wise choice, as Oxford did not suffer in the Blitz. Life was not easy, of course, and his father also wrote that Julian's mother helped to feed the children by keeping ducks, which she fed by bringing home on her bicycle pails of swill from the nearby Dragon School.

Julian Bullard, asked later in life why he chose to follow his father into the diplomatic service, said that it was because he remembered his father's letters arriving home with the most wonderful postage stamps. After the Dragon he went to Rugby and to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied Greats. Following two years' National Service with the Army in Germany in 1950-52, he joined the Foreign Service (as it then was), with his first overseas posting, to Vienna, in 1954.

His death follows a long illness, which he bore with great courage, nursed with heroic devotion by his wife Margaret; they celebrated their golden wedding in 2004.

Oliver Miles

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