Obituary: Lord Sherfield
Monday 11 November 1996
A man of impressive physical stature and considerable personal charm, he presented the archetypal image of the British diplomat. The son of Brigadier-General Sir Ernest Makins, a Conservative MP, he was born in 1904, and educated at Winchester and Christ Church, Oxford, where in 1925 he took first class honours in History and was elected a Fellow of All Souls.
Two years later he was called to the Bar, but the following year joined the Foreign Office, and gained broad experience in posts as diverse as Washington, Oslo, and the League of Nations. Undisputed intellectual brilliance and prodigious capacity for work endeared him to similarly endowed superiors such as Harold Macmillan, with whom he served in North Africa from 1943 to 1944.
Back in the Washington embassy in 1945, he took charge of atomic energy co-operation and became minister for economic affairs. The latter took up most of his time, and involved working alongside the Russians in tediously protracted conferences of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration or the Food and Agriculture Commission. But both these strands of diplomacy, atomic energy and economic aid, moulded the direction of his career and he became unique among British diplomats in his understanding and experience of these two key factors which underwrote Britain's position in the post-war world. In turn both economic and atomic policy depended on the third and most important area of his expertise, which was Anglo-American relations.
Understandably, given his exceptional capability, he had little time for mediocrity, alternative views, or, for example, for the kind of minor factual errors which peppered the more purple passages of Winston Churchill's wartime telegrams and which he and his colleagues unflinchingly corrected. Later, his unassailable position in the atomic energy project gave him an unusually free hand in policy formulation. Such a strong personality inevitably drew strong responses, and, though held in great awe, he was not universally liked.
While recognising his ability, Clement Attlee and Hugh Dalton distrusted him, and it says much for the quality of his work that he nevertheless obtained rapid promotion from Assistant Under-Secretary in 1947 to Deputy Under-Secretary in 1948. The same year, aged 44, he was mooted for Permanent Under-Secretary, but the outgoing head of the Foreign Office, Sir Orme Sargent, regarded him as too young, and he had already blotted his copybook with Attlee, who suspected Roger Makins of trying to manipulate him.
Friends, however, enjoyed his sense of humour. More importantly, he was well liked in America, where, during his first appointment to Washington in 1934, he laid the foundation for lifelong friendships with figures such as Dean Acheson and "Chip" Bohlen. Marriage to the daughter of an American Senator ensured frequent visits to the United States even in wartime and this connection later confirmed his popularity in the White House and State Department where he was dubbed "Mr Atom", and where with his large and happy family he was regarded as the least "stuffy" British diplomat of his generation.
At a time when the whiff of cultural superiority was still strong in the Foreign Office, and marked in the Washington Embassy, this was an invaluable asset for a confirmed Atlanticist who believed fervently in the "special relationship", and was prepared to move mountains to maintain it. He skilfully deflected Bevin's European Union and the United Nations' ECE to promote Britain's best interests, as he saw them, under autonomous American regulation of the European Recovery Programme (the Marshall Plan). This led to the setting up of the OEEC (Organisation for European Economic Co- operation), in which he played a major part.
Despite his central role in setting the direction of Britain's post-war policy, it is for his work in atomic energy that Makins is best remembered. In 1945, knowing nothing of science, he was happily inducted into the complex and arcane world of nuclear energy by the best brains in the field. It was he who led the British team in Washington in the feverish diplomatic activity before Hiroshima, and who from 1947 be came Attlee's principal adviser on atomic affairs, and Churchill's after him.
In Sir Roger Makins, who became Ambassador to the United States in 1953, Britain could scarcely have had a more accommodating representative at a time when the Suez crisis was to bring Anglo-American relations to their lowest pitch. Back in Britain in October 1956 he be came Joint Permanent Under-Secretary at the Treasury with Sir Norman Brook, before returning in 1960, as chairman, to what had be come almost his natural habitat, the United Kingdon Atomic Energy Authority. Here he remained until retirement in 1964, when he received a peerage, taking the title Lord Sherfield. Yet the accolade which gave him most pleasure came in his eighties with his election, in 1986, as Fellow of the Royal Society. It was recognition of the exemplary part he had played in the development of British atomic energy.
Few diplomats of that generation rivalled Roger Makins's range of abilities and fewer still forged a career so influential to the course of post-war British foreign policy.
In the last 30 years there has been no more assiduous attender at the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee in Parliament than Roger Makins, Lord Sherfield, writes Tam Dalyell. He was our president from 1969 to 1973.
His contributions at the meetings in the annex to Westminster Hall or in Committee Room 14 were concise and invariably well-informed. Latteran octogenarian and then a nonagenarian - those of my colleagues who had not even been born when Makins was British ambassador in Washington could only marvel at this man's interest in and concern for the future; he had the mind and humour of a man half his age.
Parliament and science owe something else to Makins. He did as much as anybody to drive through the idea of Select Committees on Science and Technology, and from 1984 to 1987 he was the chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology.
The Lords Select Committee was a more serious body than the Commons Select Committee, for two reasons. First, MPs have many things which pull them out of sessions and make them like grasshoppers flitting in and out and sometimes not attending a session; the Lords having committed themselves to membership tend to give undivided attention. Secondly, in the House of Lords there are heavyweight scientists, Fellows of the Royal Society in their own right who cut a great deal of ice on account of whom they are for the witnesses which come before a committee.
Sherfield, albeit not a scientist himself, had been the accounting officer for the Atomic Energy Authority. I remember in 1963 when I was a new member of the Public Accounts Committee the sheer competence of his presentation on nuclear power; of which spontaneously at dinner afterwards Sir William Penney and other nuclear heavyweights vouchsafed their admiration.
Sherfield was also one of the dynamos who set up that excellent organisation, the Foundation for Science and Technology, a wide discussion group of changing membership which meets at the Royal Society and of which he conceived a need when he was chairman of the governing body of Imperial College London.
My last memory of Roger Sherfield was a 25-minute conversation when he was sitting down at the Savoy Hotel in the ante-room which is reserved to committee members on 21 February this year, before the speech given by Tony Blair to the huge assembled gathering. Sherfield told me that he would like to be remembered as a giver of good advice to leading politicians, from his patron Clement Attlee onwards.
He told me that in 1943 he had strongly advised Harold Macmillan, his friend, not to accept Churchill's offer of the rank of Major-General on going as the British government's representative at General Eisenhower's HQ in Algiers. Reluctantly Macmillan took Sherfield's advice. Sherfield then recounted how a grateful Macmillan had returned to him and related the following conversation. Churchill: "I'm going to make you a major-general!" "No you're not," said Macmillan. "I'll be under someone!" "I see what you mean," said Churchill. "Nothing between a Baton and a Bowler."
Makins's advice and Macmillan's instinct to take it prevailed. Makins had had the sagacity to realise that once Macmillan accepted high military rank he would be far more anaesthetised in terms of real influence than if he was the civilian representative of the British government.
The bounding, loping, almost kangaroo-like figure of the lithe and tall Roger Makins (only latterly with hearing aids) will remain in the memory of all who knew him, exuding energy.
Roger Mellor Makins, diplomat: born 3 February 1904; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1925-39, 1957-96; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1927; CMG 1944; Minister at British Embassy, Washington 1945-47; Assistant Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office 1947-48, Deputy Under-Secretary of State 1948-52; KCMG 1949, GCMG 1955; British Ambassador to the US, 1953-56; KCB 1953, GCB 1960; Joint Permanent Secretary of the Treasury 1956-59; Chairman, UK Atomic Energy Authority 1960-64; Chairman, Governing Body of Imperial College of Science and Technology, 1962-74; Chairman, Ditchley Foundation 1962-65 (Vice-Chairman 1965-74); created 1964 Baron Sherfield; chairman, Hill Samuel Group 1966-70; President, Parliamentary and Scientific Committee 1969-73; President, BSI 1970-73; Chancellor of Reading University 1970-92 (Emeritus); chairman, Wells Fargo Ltd 1972-84; President, Centre for International Briefing 1972-85; Chairman, House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology 1984-87; FRS 1986; married 1934 Alice Davis (died 1985; two sons, four daughters); died 9 November 1996.
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