Sir Roy Denman

Civil servant who helped take Britain into Europe and continued to argue for closer integration
Click to follow
The Independent Online

George Roy Denman, civil servant: born Liverpool 12 June 1924; civil servant, Board of Trade 1948-50, Assistant Private Secretary to successive presidents 1950-52, Under-Secretary 1967-70; First Secretary, British embassy, Bonn 1957-60; UK Delegation, Geneva 1960-61; Counsellor, Geneva 1965-67; CMG 1968; Deputy Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry 1970-74, Department of Trade 1974-75; CB 1972, KCB 1977; Second Permanent Secretary, Cabinet Office 1975-77; Director-General for External Affairs, EEC Community 1977-82; ambassador and Head of European Communities Delegation in Washington 1982-89; married 1966 Moya Lade (one son, one daughter); died London 4 April 2006.

Roy Denman was a member of the negotiating team that took Britain into Europe in January 1973. A convinced European since his twenties, and immensely experienced from his previous Civil Service postings, Denman was a most influential member - one on whom Sir Con O'Neill, the leader of the delegation, and Geoffrey Rippon, Ted Heath's minister in charge, relied with absolute trust and who exercised influence far beyond his nominal position as the representative of the Board of Trade and, later, the Department of Trade and Industry.

At the end of the negotiations Denman continued to work on Europe and became the Cabinet Office co-ordinator for European affairs. From there he took the step - most unusual for a British civil servant of Permanent Secretary rank - to transfer to the EEC Commission in Brussels as Director-General for External Affairs. With his deep knowledge of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, of the European Free Trade Association, of the history and workings of the Community, of the problems of New Zealand butter and Australian meat, of tariffs of all kinds all over the world, it was an ideal appointment. He did this, travelling the world, negotiating for the new Europe, from 1977 to 1982. Then, at the age of 58, he became the European Community's ambassador in the United States.

He retired seven years later - but it was hardly a retirement. He continued to beat the drum for European integration fortissimo - with letters to The Financial Times and The Times and to all other likely sources of influence. He was the arch-federalist and made enemies in being so - not that he was in the least concerned. He looked back on Jean Monnet and Heath and even Jacques Delors as the pace-makers, the great men with their vision of one united Europe. He kept his ear closely to the ground, maintained a flat in Brussels as well as his house in Chelsea and was ever to be found in the great restaurants and famous drinking holes of Brussels, learning, persuading, hectoring, and acidly commenting on the progress, or lack of it, of the GREAT CAUSE.

In 1996 he published his important book - Missed Chances: Britain and Europe in the Twentieth Century - telling the sorry tale of the obscurantism of successive UK governments, starting with our refusal to join the Coal and Steel Community in 1951 and continuing with our inadequate representation and premature withdrawal from the Messina Conference in 1955. The book, which is beautifully written, must be required reading for all who are interested in the tragic story of Britain's post-war relations with Europe. All this time he was a valued correspondent on Europe for the New York Herald Tribune and his pungent articles were much appreciated throughout the United States.

In 2002 he published his autobiography, The Mandarin's Tale, explaining how he became a convinced European, describing his war (he was a brave and successful soldier, becoming a major at the age of 21), and a hilarious account of his entry into the Board of Trade and bringing up to date the latest developments in Europe; also his despair at the vacillations of the Thatcher and Blair governments and their side-lining and destruction of the old and tested Civil Service. Again, a fascinating read.

Roy Denman was born in Liverpool in June 1924, the only son of humble parents. His grandfather on one side was a docker and on the other the master of a clipper. Roy used to love walking the docks of Liverpool with either grandfather. His father ran away from home at the age of 14 and joined the Post Office, becoming a telecommunications expert. Roy had a happy childhood, not only in Liverpool but in Newcastle and north Wales.

In 1935 the family moved to London and Denman went to the excellent Harrow Grammar School, soon to be turned into a comprehensive. He came particularly under the influence of an inspiring teacher of German, Roland Birch, and started a life-long love affair with German literature and music. He later tells how in a ghastly moment in the Second World War, on the Burma front, likely to be shelled at any minute, he got out his Stefan George and prepared himself for death with those moving lines "Komm in den totgesagten park und schau . . ."

He spoke perfect German and French and got a Modern Languages scholarship to St John’s, Cambridge, which he was able to enjoy for a year before being called up in 1942. After Octu, he was appointed to the Royal Corps of Signals – the intelligentsia of the Army. Posted to India he became a Signals Lieutenant in a Gurkha Brigade and for ever after had a deep affection for those brave and indomitable men from Nepal. He decreed, in his final years, that donations in his memory should go to the Gurkha Welfare Trust.

He finished the war in GHQ, Delhi and tells a horrifying story of bureaucracy, passing paper from one in-tray to the next. This was not the Denman style - he did things, he achieved things.

Returning to St John's in 1946 he got a First in Modern Languages and entered the Civil Service. He applied for the Foreign Service but was turned down, in his view, on the grounds of class. He got the Board of Trade and forever after had a love-hate relationship with the Foreign Office as well as pure hate for the Treasury, redeemed only when his great hero, Sir Frank Lee, was in charge, and by his close friendship with Raymond Bell, the Treasury representative in the UK negotiating team.

I first met Roy Denman in 1970 when I was appointed the Ministry of Technology representative in the team, covering the other two treaties, the Treaty of Paris and the Treaty of Euratom and a few other random subjects, like regional policy and metrification. When Mintech was merged into the new DTI I found myself working directly for Denman. He was good to work for. He did not muck about with drafts. He either passed on your submission, unaltered and with approval, or completely re-wrote it himself. "A dog", he would say, "should not be made to eat its own vomit."

His own writing was always sharp, economical, to the point and convincing. He worked enormous hours. Those were the days before Thatcher and Blair, when without fear or favour Sir Humphrey could and would say "No, Minister", and ministers, if they were wise, would take it. Political advisers were few and mostly unnoticeable.

Denman was a great trencherman - 6ft 5in and at worst 18 stone - and with his bosom pal, Freddie Kearns, of the Ministry of Agriculture, a great drinker. When I arrived on the scene they thought I was of the same ilk. I started, but could not keep up, and after some months said wetly that I must retire to bed at more normal times (these were hard days, negotiating in Brussels Tuesdays, Wednesdays and sometimes Thursday, returning on Friday to inform ministers and colleagues of what had transpired; working throughout the weekend and returning to the fray in Brussels on the Monday.) I was never best pleased when Roy and Freddie would rollock home at 2am or 3am, bang on my door in that fifth-floor corridor of the old Metropole Hotel, which was our Brussels home for two years, to insist that in my pyjamas I joined them for a final (or two or three final) jars.

He was appointed ambassador for the European Community to the United States in 1977. Denman's stay in Washington was as usual influential and convinced many Americans of the value to them of a United Europe. But his appointment was marred by one incident. He was threatened by a Commission employee (female) with a sexual harassment case. The news got publicity in the American and British press. Denman airily waved the charge aside saying "the woman's deranged", and the Commission secured him diplomatic immunity.

Another tale that must be told is Roy Denman's encounter with Churchill, when the great man had come to see Peter Thorneycroft, President of the Board of Trade, to whom Denman was Assistant Private Secretary. Denman records the occasion in The Mandarin's Tale:

At that moment the door to the inner sanctum opened and Jove, in the form of Winston Churchill, appeared. He looked as though he had just woken up from a post-prandial sleep,and did not seem in the best of tempers. Gazing at

me with evident distaste, he enquired grumpily and loudly of Peter Oates, one of his Secretaries, "Who's he?" "The President of the Board of Trade's Private Secretary, Sir," replied Oates. The great man was then pretty deaf. "Who?", he repeated. "THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE'S PRIVATE SECRETARY," bellowed Oates. "Huh," said Churchill scornfully: "Tell him to bugger off". I did.

In fact Denman buggered off shortly afterwards to the embassy in Bonn as Commercial Counsellor. There he was appalled to find the ambassador and his staff still broadly anti-German and most of them unable to speak German. Denman with his impeccable mastery of the language and his intimate knowledge of their culture made friends with many Germans (a then unheard-of move) and became more than ever a true European and convinced of the repeated failures of the British Government.

Returning to London in 1960 and then going on to the UK Delegation to Gatt (twice), he rose steadily in the Board of Trade hierarchy. It was appropriate that next door to his room in 1 Victoria Street was a sign warning "Danger - Service Riser".

When I first met Roy Denman I asked him how he thought all of this would end. "Oh", he said in a throwaway line, "Westminster's going to be a parish council". This was a staggering view to me, who was a bit Eurosceptic in those days. It was also the view of those that knew - Heath and others. But it was an aphorism which dare not speak its name.

Denman married late in life (he was 42) to Moya Lade, of a well-known Kentish family. It was a very happy and successful marriage, resulting in a son, James, and a daughter, Julia, both of whom were influenced by their parents to be ardent Europeans. Denman would always advocate to any young aspiring man or woman to "Go Europe".

Roy Denman, rightly, was showered with honours - CMG in 1968 after Geneva, CB in 1972 during the Common Market negotiations, promoted to KCB in 1977 for his work in the Cabinet Office. From 1972 until 1975 he was a member of the British Overseas Trade Board and in 1989-90 a Business Fellow of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

He was writing well up to 2004 but then ill-health got him. First his legs went and Moya loyally wheeled him around in a wheelchair (she was appalled when she brought Roy to lunch with me at Brooks's last year and was not allowed in). His body was sadly breaking down, but from his bed would come the usual acid comments on the state of the world, Europe, the Blair government, the Conservatives and the "modern" Civil Service. He was ever the fighter.

Patrick Shovelton

Comments