Sir Oliver Wright: Diplomat who served under two Prime Ministers in Downing Street and as ambassador to the US

Sir Oliver Wright was an outstanding member of a group of young men who, after experience of battle in the Second World War, joined the then Foreign Service soon after the war. They brought to their new careers qualities forged in that experience, including a profound sense of duty to the nation, of quick and well-judged decision-making and the sympathetic management of subordinates. They have all now been long retired, but they contributed greatly to British diplomacy over some 30 difficult post-war years.

John Oliver Wright was born on 6 March 1921, and educated at Solihull School and Christ's College, Cambridge. His wartime service was four years in the Royal Navy, where his performance as a RNVR officer won him a DSC at the age of 24 for bravery in command of a torpedo boat. He joined the Foreign Service soon after the end of the war.

After the usual initiation period in the Foreign Office, he spent the next six years in rapid succession at New York, Bucharest and Singapore, before returning to the Foreign Office for two years and then on for similar periods in Berlin and South Africa. This was an unusual diversity of experience for a young diplomat and his good performance in each post was rewarded by a sabbatical year unusually early in his career, aged 38, at the Imperial Defence College (now the Royal College of Defence Studies).

This was always seen as a stepping stone to higher things, and so it proved. The following year he was appointed an assistant Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Home, on whom he made an immediate and lasting impression. Home first made him, on promotion to Counsellor, his Principal Private Secretary and then took him to No 10 when the now Sir Alec Douglas Home became Prime Minister in succession to Harold Macmillan. This partnership continued until Home lost the 1964 general election. This did not, however, mean a change of job for Wright, since the new Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, asked him to continue as his Foreign Office Private Secretary (a procedure that was fairly common at that time though probably unlikely now.)

Wright remained at No 10 for the next 18 months, until the 1966 general election, when, still only 45, he had a highly successful four years as ambassador to Denmark. He returned to London to be seconded for nine months to the Home Office as the senior official dealing with Northern Ireland. This seemed a surprising appointment for a Foreign Office man, but it reflected the confidence in Wright's political judgement and in his skill in dealing with politics and politicians that Harold Wilson had recognised during Wright's service at No 10.

He returned to the Foreign Office in March 1970 to the key post of Chief Clerk (the Head of Administration, Personnel and Finance), which he handled with skill and sensitivity for the next three years. When the UK joined the European Community in 1973 he took on the post of Deputy Under-Secretary for European Affairs and Political Director, responsible for the work on the co-ordination of policy in the EEC.

In 1975 Wright was considered as a possible successor to Sir Thomas Brimelow, the then Permanent Under-Secretary. But he went instead for the final five years of his career (60 was then the mandatory retirement age) as ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany. He said privately that he was just as pleased to be in that post as to be in the top job in London, and the gusto which he displayed in Germany bore that out. He was a resounding success, travelling widely in the Federal Republic and with frequent visits to West Berlin. He got to know virtually all the significant political personalities inside and outside the hothouse of Bonn and his advice to London was wise, knowledgeable and authoritative. He retired in 1971 a GCMG and GCVO, as well as a holder of the Grand Cross in the German Order of Merit.

Wright had then planned to move to the more peaceful waters of his old college at Cambridge, Christ's, where the Fellows had already approached him and "pre-elected" him to a Fellowship on the understanding that he would be elected Master in 1982. But Lord Carrington, then Foreign Secretary, seeking someone who would empathise with the Reagan regime, threw a spanner into the works by inviting him to rejoin the Service and go to Washington as ambassador. This was a post to which Wright had silently long aspired and an opportunity that could not be missed. There was consternation at Christ's for a while, but the Fellows recognised that Wright could not refuse the post and he spent four happy years in Washington.

On his final retirement, Wright was involved in a number of activities corresponding to his interests and lifelong experience. He served on the Board of the British Council and was a Trustee of the British Museum and of the International Shakespeare Globe Centre. He was a Director inter alia of Siemens Ltd., of General Technology Systems Inc. and of the Savoy and Berkeley Hotels, and a Visiting Professor at several American universities. In short, an interesting, diverse and moderately remunerative portfolio.

Oliver Wright was a tall, handsome man, with the erect posture and slightly military bearing that recalled his years in the Royal Navy. This appearance and manner certainly contributed to his success; as did a genuine kindness, jovial good humour and an ability to put any visitors at their ease. But the key to his success and to his real enjoyment of life was the happiness of his marriage and the part in it played by his wife. Oliver and Marjory Osborne were married during the war and celebrated their golden wedding in 2002. They were proud of their three sons. And at every stage of Oliver's career, Marjory was always there, encouraging and helping; but also leading an independent life, especially in anything to do with the theatre, which was her passion, largely shared with Oliver. She, with children and grandchildren, survives him.

Sir Michael Palliser



John Oliver Wright, diplomat: born 6 March 1921; Diplomatic Service, 1945-86: Assistant Private Secretary to Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 1960; Counsellor and Private Secretary, 1963; Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, 1964–66; ambassador to Denmark, 1966–69; seconded to Home Office as UK Representative to Northern Ireland Government, 1969–70; Chief Clerk, Diplomatic Service, 1970–72; ambassador to Federal Republic of Germany, 1975–81; ambassador to Washington, 1982–86; DSC 1944; GCVO 1978; GCMG 1981 (KCMG 1974, CMG 1964); married 1942 Lillian Marjory Osborne (three sons); died 1 September 2009.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
books
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Day In a Page

Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference