Sir Michael Palliser: Senior diplomat who helped take Britain into the Common Market

Relations with Thatcher were strained, and she refused to put him forward for a peerage

For decades Sir Michael Palliser played important roles at the highest levels of British diplomacy, working closely with prime ministers and foreign ministers. Perhaps the most striking feature of his distinguished career was his passionate pro-Europeanism. He played a crucial part during the often politically fraught times when Britain sought and eventually gained entrance to European institutions.

The soul of professional discretion while head of the Diplomatic Service, he felt free in later life to describe Enoch Powell as "mad". He also recalled that when George Brown was Foreign Secretary officials would attempt to limit his drinking by hiding the key of the ministerial drinks cabinet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their diametrically opposed views on Europe, his relationship with Margaret Thatcher, was difficult. He described her as "immensely obstinate"; she blamed his Foreign Office for helping bring about the Falklands War.

Arthur Michael Palliser was the son of Admiral Sir Arthur Palliser, who served as aide to King George VI. Educated at Wellington, and Merton College, Oxford, he served with the Coldstream Guards in the Second World War before joining the Diplomatic Service in 1947.

He was quickly picked out as a high-flyer, with spells in London and Athens, before landing the plum post of Private Secretary to the Foreign Office's Permanent Under-Secretary. He went on to Paris and Dakar before spending a year at the Imperial Defence College. A colleague who served with him in Dakar remembered a quiet self-confidence which he attributed, among other things, to a family background of public service, an exceptionally happy marriage and the firmness of his belief in the European project.

In 1966 Palliser became a key aide to the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, liaising between Number 10 and the erratic George Brown. Before being confirmed in the job he was sent to see Wilson. He felt bound to outline his personal views to the Prime Minister, telling him: "There's one thing I must say to you which is that I'm a very convinced believer in British membership of the European Community, and I wouldn't want you to take me under false pretences."

Wilson had no problem with this. According to Palliser, "He puffed away at his pipe and said, 'You must be all right, because anyway you are the only candidate the Foreign Office have put to me and you come with a perfectly respectable chit.'"

Three years later he began a long spell across the channel, first at the British Embassy in Paris, and then as Ambassador and British Permanent Representative to the European Communities in the first three years of British membership. The mid-1970s saw political turbulence as Labour sought a renegotiation of Britain's European membership, but Palliser's contacts in France, not to mention his immaculate French, helped soothe the troubled waters.

His skills were recognised in his subsequent appointment as head of the Diplomatic Service. Variously described as authoritative, careful, clear-minded and lucid, he is said to have won the trust of both Wilson and Edward Heath. In religious terms he has been described as a Catholic "of a strongly liberal bent."

In a surprisingly frank 1999 academic interview Palliser spoke of Wilson's "devious crab-like" style which he said made it almost impossible to know what his views were. James Callaghan was, he found, very friendly and cordial "but with a degree of the bully". Enoch Powell was not at the Foreign Office but Palliser, listening to him deliver a lecture, thought him brilliant in a way. But he also detected "a lunatic quality," recalling turning to an army brigadier and saying, "That man's mad."

Many ministers, he noted, tended to have a suspicion about the Foreign Office, but in Margaret Thatcher's case this was deeper rooted than most. He thought her obdurate and found working with her "very difficult, very challenging." He added: "I can't say I ever greatly enjoyed meetings with her, or indeed travelling with her."

This feeling was probably mutual, since on his retirement she refrained from recommending him for the peerage normally given to departing Foreign Office heads. The apparent snub was criticised by Labour's Denis Healey; Palliser himself declined to comment. He did, however, receive many other honours, including CMG, KCMG and GCMG, along with the prestigious membership of the Privy Council. From other countries came awards including the Legion d'Honneur.

He had a long and active retirement, going into banking with Midland Bank and Samuel Montagu and becoming a non-executive director of major concerns such as Eagle Star, Shell Transport and Trading, and United Biscuits. He also held many non-paying positions. He was president of the China-Britain Trade Group, a director of the UK-Japan 2000 Group, and a member of the Trilateral Commission.

In retirement he remained committed to the European ideal, calling for a campaign "to remind people generally of the fundamental reasons for maintaining and strengthening the European Community and for further enlarging it. The basic reasons for pursuing European unity are more valid than ever."

His wife Marie, who was the daughter of the former Belgian Prime Minister Paul-Henri Spaak, died in 2000 after 52 years of marriage. He is survived by their three sons.

***

As one of the last surviving Labour MPs who defied a three-line whip and tramped into Edward Heath's lobby on 28 October 1971 in the crucial vote to enter the Common Market, I must pay tribute to the significant role of Michael Palliser in the European cause, writes Tam Dalyell. With the unsurprising agreement of Edward Heath, and his immediate boss Christopher Soames, then Ambassador in Paris, Palliser, as Minister at the Paris Embassy, spent time and trouble briefing John P Mackintosh, MP for East Lothian and a leading orator in the pro-European cause, and a number of the rest of us who were ardent pro-Europeans. His position as Minister in Paris allowed him to give Labour MPs, through his network of European friendships, access to the German Ambassador in London, Karl-Günther von Hase, and to others, which we would not otherwise have had.

Palliser was a key figure at the influential Anglo-German Königswinter Conferences of those years. This did not endear him to Margaret Thatcher. And, since in April 1982 he told her that military action against Argentina would not have a friend in Europe, "not least because Buenos Aires is the fourth most populous Italian city," MPs were not astonished that Palliser was shamefully denied the peerage which was normally bestowed on Permanent Secretaries at the Foreign Office.

The last occasion I saw Palliser was at a Foreign Office reception in the Locarno Room some years after he retired. He came up to me and volunteered, "one of my regrets is that when I became Permanent Under-Secretary in 1975 I did not delve more deeply into the British Indian ocean territory position and the rights of the Chagosians [who were forcibly removed from Diego Garcia to make way for a US/UK military base]. I just took on trust what Eleanor Emery [head of the Pacific department from 1969-73] and Sir Bruce Greatbatch [Governor of the Seychelles] told me about the Chagosians, that they were not 'belongers' and therefore had no rights to return to their ancestral atolls. I should have focussed on the issue." Palliser was one of the few senior British diplomats who did not accept the wishes of Washington being paramount in determining British policy.

Arthur Michael Palliser, diplomat: born 9 April 1922; Head of Diplomatic Service 1975–82; CMG 1966, KCMG 1973, GCMG 1977; married 1948 Marie Spaak (died 2000; three sons); died 19 June 2012.

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