Sir Michael Jenkins: Diplomat who helped establish Britain's position in postwar Europe


Sir Michael Jenkins served Britain's pressing need to comprehend her near neighbours in the second half of the war-damaged 20th century, serving as a diplomat in all the major western embassies. The boy who would become his country's ambassador to the Netherlands, and help construct her role in the emerging European Union, saw even at the age of 14 how different were the wounds left by the two world wars on the European mainland, from those done to Britain. He made himself into a conciliator, having been pitched in as a schoolboy among passions not felt in his own background, while on an extended trip to France.

His part in events happened when an old Frenchman, Oncle Auguste, whom the young Jenkins was accompanying into town near the Belgian border, caused an incident on spotting a German couple visiting. The furious Auguste ran at the pair holding his walking-stick like a gun and shouting "Ra-ta-ta!", but fell over and hurt himself. The couple proved generous, and gave Auguste a lift home in their Mercedes, also returning his cracked glasses, which they had picked up.

"It was left to me to convey a mixture of apology and gratitude to our rescuers," Jenkins recalled in A House in Flanders (1992), his long-brooded-over memoir at last written down 40 years later. The embarrassment was thereafter never spoken of. Yet that half-crazed France still licking her wounds of anger and humiliation – he heard many other stories – appeared to Jenkins a warm and lovely place compared with the coldness and austerity of his existence at boarding-school in post-war England.

Michael Jenkins was born in Cambridge; his father was the Byzantine scholar Professor Romilly Jenkins, and his aunt the writer Elizabeth Jenkins. His parents had sent him to France that summer to escape an outbreak of illness at school, St Christopher, Letchworth. He lodged with some old family acquaintances, six "aunts", though not actually related, who had been long out of touch. The eldest sister's unfulfilled youthful love of Jenkins's long-dead grandfather, who had married someone else, connected the families, and the five of the six still living dwelled with other relatives in a big house on the twice-fought-over Flanders plain.

It was here that Jenkins fell in love not only with the unattainable young Frenchwoman he called in his memoir Madeleine, but also the power of knowing someone else's language to open doors to other worlds. Alain-Fournier's novel Le Grand Meaulnes proved seminal, and by his own admission he read it "far into the night, entranced by the magical place into which Meaulnes wandered, and by his passion for its princess, Yvonne de Galais".

To French he added Russian, learnt to simultaneous interpretation standard during his National Service with the Army a few years later, and in which he got a First in part one of his Cambridge Tripos while reading Modern Languages as an exhibitioner at King's College. He changed to History, obtaining an Upper Second in his finals, and was soon to combine this with the practical abilities he had already displayed in France at 14, to ensure him swift progression upwards in the Foreign Office from 1959.

He learnt more of the diplomatic craft as private secretary to Sir Pierson Dixon, who had been Britain's envoy at the United Nations during the 1956 Suez crisis, and was from 1960 Ambassador in Paris. By 1973, after stints in Bonn and Moscow, Jenkins was deputy chef de cabinet (chief of staff) in Britain's first year as a member of the then European Economic Community to one of the two new commissioners to Brussels, the Labour politician George Thomson (later Lord Thomson of Monifieth). Jenkins rose to be Thomson's chef de cabinet from 1975, and by 1977 was Principal Adviser to the President of the European Commission, at that time Roy Jenkins (later Lord Jenkins of Hillhead).

Jenkins stayed in Brussels for the next decade, masterminding areas such as regional policy and in 1985 the preparations for Spain's entry the following year, in particular arrangements on the status of Gibraltar. From 1985 he was Minister (deputy head) at the British Embassy in Washington, and from 1988 Ambassador at The Hague.

True to his nature, he learnt fluent Dutch, and stayed until 1993. But a man whose career so closely echoed his country's development from war-survivor to European player was perfectly suited to be taken up by her next trend, the end-of century burgeoning of the City, and he agreed to join the investment bank Kleinwort Benson, becoming an executive director and later vice-president.

That alertness to commercial matters is prefigured as far back as Jenkins' 18 months in Moscow in the late 1960s, when he researched a biography of the early 19th-century Tsar Alexander I's right-hand man, Alexei Arakcheev (Arakcheev: Grand Vizier of the Russian Empire, 1969). Jenkins notes the faithful imperial counsellor's desire in his will that 50,000 roubles should be awarded with compound interest to the best writer of a life of the tsar a century after the ruler's death in 1825. A Russian newspaper calculated in 1901 that this would by 1925 reach 2 million roubles, but, Jenkins records, the new Soviet government sequestrated the money in 1917.

Jenkins held a clutch of other City posts including director of the Dutch-based insurance concern Aegon NV, from 1995 and president of Boieing UK from 2003. He worked for the Prince's Trust, and in 1999 secured membership for women of the 226-year-old Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), of which he was treasurer in 1999, then chairman in 2000. An MCC women's side now plays many matches. He was Commissioner of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, from 2007 and deputy chairman from 2011, helping raise funds for a new infirmary, opened in 2009.

Michael Romilly Heald Jenkins, diplomat and financier: born Cambridge 9 January 1936; married 1968 Maxine Hodson (one son, one daughter); CMG 1984; KCMG 1990; died London 31 March 2013.

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