Sir Stephen Egerton

'Camel Corps' ambassador
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The Independent Online

Ambassador to Iraq, to Saudi Arabia and to Italy - Stephen Egerton was not only one of the heavyweights of the Foreign Office but a classical scholar and a connoisseur of art who did a great deal to enhance the prestige of his country wherever he was posted.

He was born in Indore, central India, the son of William Egerton, Resident in Indore, the fifth generation of his family to serve the Raj. Schooled in India until he was 11, Egerton was then sent to the Oxford preparatory school Summer Fields, where after two years he achieved the amazing feat of top scholarship to Eton, against formidable competition that included Mark Roskill and Neal Ascherson.

The Master in College at the time was Walter Hamilton, who had been a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and was subsequently to be Headmaster of Westminster School, Headmaster of Rugby and Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Hamilton was the first of three Craven Scholars to have taught Egerton; the second was Richard "Mange" Martineau, whom Egerton throughout his life thought the most wonderful teacher (a view I share), and the third, David "Dippy" Simpson, who epitomised profound scholarship.

As the Oppidan Secretary of the Eton College Junior Archaeological Society when Egerton was the College Secretary, I can vouch for his precocious knowledge in his early teens. Those who heard it were amazed that a 13-year-old could hold forth on Sutton Hoo with the same authority as he displayed about the treasures of that part of India in which he'd been brought up.

After National Service, which he hugely enjoyed, rising to Assistant Adjutant of the King's Royal Rifle Corps stationed at Winchester, he took up his open scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, achieving first class honours in Part I. To his lifelong disappointment he got only a 2:1 in Classics and Philosophy Part II, commenting, "No philosopher ever agrees with what you write."

However, he came top in the Foreign Office exam and was immediately posted to the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies in Beirut. In 1958 he became Political Officer and Court Registrar in Kuwait, striking up an excellent relationship with the old men of the al-Sabah family; his good calligraphy in Arabic was much appreciated by them. Three decades later he came to feel that the younger members of the family had been very arrogant and were not faultless in provoking the Iraqi attack and the first Gulf War.

After a spell in the Northern Department of the Foreign Office in London he became Head of Chancery in Baghdad, working as Oriental Secretary to Sir Richard Beaumont, the ambassador. All his career, Egerton got on extremely well with his bosses, who were attracted by his acerbic wit and intuitive intelligence laced with personal loyalty. Egerton was thrilled to sit in the office, among her books, of a former Oriental Secretary, Gertrude Bell.

In 1967, appointed First Secretary of the UK Mission in New York, he worked to Hugh Foot, Lord Caradon, who had been appointed by Harold Wilson as a rather political ambassador to the United Nations. Egerton was thrown in at the deep end, arriving straight off the Queen Mary and into a meeting of the Security Council then in crisis over Israel and the Arab States.

Returning home in 1970 he was appointed Assistant Head of the Near Eastern Department of the Foreign Office and two years later became Head of Chancery in Tripoli. I know from various sources that he was a huge success there, partly on account of his intense interest in the archaeology of the great sites of Leptis Magna, Sabrata and Cyrene, the Greek site near Benghazi.

Experience of Libya's light oil production made him a natural choice for Head of the Energy Department of the Foreign Office, 1973-77. With a twinkle he would tell me that Tony Benn, then Secretary of State for Energy, in a friendly way would call him "the spy from the Foreign Office".

Egerton had the knack of being in a pivotal position when the area which he covered was important. He was central to the handling of the oil crisis. In his (unpublished) diary for 18 October 1976 Tony Benn records that Egerton accompanied him, along with the Minister of State Dr J. Dickson Mabon MP, Peter Le Cheminant, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Energy, and Benn's press secretary, Bernard Ingham, on a visit to the Energy Council. Benn and Egerton had a friendly relationship and Egerton played a significant role in European energy policy at a difficult time.

While he had been in New York, Egerton had travelled to South America and was thrilled in 1977 to be appointed Consul-General in Rio de Janeiro. I had led the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Brazil in 1976 and therefore we talked a lot about Rio. He and his wife Caroline - to be extremely happily married for 48 years - immersed themselves in the life of the city.

But in 1980 it was back to the Middle East as ambassador to Iraq. He met Saddam Hussein on a significant number of occasions and according to his wife got on well with him. But at the time the perceived threat came from Ayatollah Khomeini. Egerton was always deeply concerned about Iran. When I talked to him about responsibility for the murder of 250 people on Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie and suggested that the Iranian Minister of the Interior, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, had paid $10m into the coffers of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, Egerton replied: "I know Mohtashemi. He is quite capable of such a crime." Egerton knew most of the important players in the Near East.

From 1982 to 1985 he was back at the Foreign Office as Assistant Under- Secretary responsible for the Middle East, and in 1986 he was appointed ambassador in Riyadh. He particularly enjoyed this job because the work was bilateral, government to government, and not involving a third party as was the case for ambassadors to European states.

On the other hand, he was thrilled to be appointed as his last job as ambassador in Rome, from 1989 to 1992. He could give full vent to his interest in classical archaeology and Roman history, which endeared him to Italian leaders, particularly Giulio Andreotti and the then president Francesco Cossiga.

In retirement based in his beloved Norfolk, Egerton was active as President of the Society for Libyan Studies and, from 1994 until his death, as Vice-President - and fund-raiser - for the British School of Archaeology in Iraq. Harriet Crawford, Chairman of the British School, describes him as "greatly generous with his time and intimate knowledge of the country".

Vehemently he believed that the Iraq war had been wrong-headed and nobody had read their history before launching military action in Mesopotamia and Afghanistan. When he was in post it was difficult for him to talk to me, as a controversial politician, but in retirement he would sigh that the "Camel Corps" of the Foreign Office had some accumulative wisdom, and that he was incandescent with anger about the foreign policy in the Middle East of the present government.

Taken by a quick cancer, Egerton died seething at the British government's reaction to the Israel-Lebanon situation.

Tam Dalyell

Stephen Loftus Egerton, diplomat: born Indore, India 21 July 1932; Oriental Secretary, later also Head of Chancery, Baghdad 1963-67; First Secretary, UK Mission to the UN, New York 1967-70; Assistant Head of Arabian and Near Eastern Departments, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1970-72, Head of Energy Department 1973-77, Assistant Under-Secretary of State 1982-85; Counsellor and Head of Chancery, Tripoli 1972-73; Consul- General, Rio de Janeiro 1977-80; CMG 1978, KCMG 1988; ambassador to Iraq 1980-82; ambassador to Saudi Arabia 1986-89; ambassador to Italy 1989-92; ambassador (non-resident) to Albania 1992; President, Society for Libyan Studies 1994-98; married 1958 Caroline Cary-Elwes (one son, one daughter); died Norwich 7 September 2006.

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