OBITUARIES : John Wright

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The Independent Online
John Wright's life was one of unusually varied interests and talents. A brilliant start at Cambridge opened many career possibilities, but he chose what fascinated him most, that large area of government activity where economics and politics combine to shape policy, particularly in the field of foreign affairs and overseas aid. He brought to his work scholarship, intellectual honesty and wit.

Wright was a scholar of King's College, Cambridge, and took a First in history. On graduating in 1950 he was awarded the Forster Prize, which funded a year at Yale. From there he went for six months to the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC, now OECD) in Paris before returning to Cambridge to read economics and carry off another First and the Gladstone Prize for political science. Wright was always able to illuminate discussions of current political difficulties with unexpected and stimulating lessons from the past.

His career proper began with a return to OEEC, where he worked in the statistical and agricultural divisions; but in 1956 he came back to England to join the economics branch of the Atomic Energy Authority. He found increasing difficulty in squaring his professional judgements as an economist with the optimistic claims made for the new form of energy, and it was with some relief that he accepted an invitation from the Ministry of Defence to join the Chief Scientific Adviser's staff. Under Solly Zuckerman he was involved with the highly political issue of how the structure of the ministry should be reshaped in the interests of efficiency, and with arcane questions of deterrence and disarmament. He was a delegate to the 1962- 64 Disarmament Conference at Geneva.

There he showed a natural aptitude for diplomacy, so when an opportunity arose in 1956 he transferred as Senior Economic Adviser to the Commonwealth Relations Office. He spent the rest of his career, until his retirement as an under-secretary in 1984, closely involved with principal economic issues concerned with overseas aid.

Despite his distinguished bearing, Wright was dogged by poor health, which eventually shortened his career by several years. But it was not in his nature to remain inactive. He was a magistrate on the Dover and East Kent bench - he had made a second home in Sandwich in 1975 - and a member of the Board of Visitors at Canterbury prison. Among other appointments, he was on the Court of Governors of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and on the Councils of Queen Elizabeth College and King's College London.

He brought to his many interests - including music and gastronomy - a fastidious insistence on high standards, not least in pictorial art. He had been at school with John Bratby, whom he asked to teach him about painting. Bratby agreed on condition that there would be 10 days' intensive tuition, after which a painting would be submitted for hanging. The exercise took a few days longer; but this first serious painting was not only accepted by the Royal Academy, but hung on the line.

In his final years he applied his love of historical research to his adopted town of Sandwich. He spent a fortnight in Venice noting references in the archives of the Arsenale to the medieval tin and wool trade with Britain, where Sandwich was a convenient port of call for galleys returning from the Scheldt. He went on to study the French attack on the town in 1457, and only three months before his death completed a full-length paper on this subject for the local historical society. His researches failed to establish whether the mayor was killed in the attack - which is reputedly why Sandwich mayors still wear black robes - and at the time of his death he was endeavouring to test further the validity of that tradition.

Wright derived great pleasure from being the operator of an amateur short- wave radio station, through which he could contact individuals in other lands. But above all countries his greatest love was France. It was there that he had first worked as a young professional, and where he had met his wife Thrse. In their long years together she shared to the full his professional interests in education and art.

Terence Price

John Keith Wright, public servant: born Ealing 30 May 1928; Senior Economic Adviser, Commonwealth Relations Office 1966-68; Head of Economists Department and Director (Economic), Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1968-71; Under- Secretary, Overseas Development Administration, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1971-84; Chairman, Economists' Panel, First Division Association 1973-75; married 1958 Thrse Aubenas; died Canterbury 24 December 1994.

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