Obituary: Sir Algernon Rumbold

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Horace Algernon Fraser Rumbold, diplomat: born 27 February 1906; Deputy High Commissioner, Union of South Africa 1949-53; CMG 1953, KCMG 1960; Assistant Under-Secretary of State, Commonwealth Relations Office 1954-58, Deputy Under-Secretary of State 1958-66; Deputy Chairman, Air Transport Licensing Board 1971-72; President, Tibet Society of the UK 1977-88; author of Watershed in India 1914-1922 1979; married 1946 Margaret Hughes (two daughters); died Guildford 23 October 1993.

ALGERNON RUMBOLD was a staunch friend of Tibet and a forceful champion of the right of Tibetans to determine their own destiny.

His interest in Tibet dated from his service, from 1929 to 1943, at the desk in the India Office concerned with Afghanistan, Tibet, and other territories bordering on Northern India.

Rumbold was born in 1906 into a family with military and diplomatic connections; his uncle, Sir Horace Rumbold, was British ambassador in Berlin from 1928 to 1933. Algy was educated at Wellington College and at Christ Church, Oxford. In 1929 he entered the civil service at the India Office, where he served as Private Secretary to a succession of Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State for India and then to the Permanent Under-Secretary until 1934. By 1943 he had become Assistant Secretary at the India Office; and when India became independent in 1947, he moved to the Commonwealth Relations Office. From 1949 until 1953 he was Deputy High Commissioner in South Africa.

In 1954 he became Assistant Under-Secretary of State at the Commonwealth Office, and four years later Deputy Under-Secretary with responsibility for economic affairs. He was deeply involved in the negotiation of Commonwealth preferences in the European Free Trade Area (Efta) and was instrumental in securing special treatment for New Zealand butter, but his outspoken hostility to Britain's entry into the Common Market brought him into conflict with the then Commonwealth Secretary, Duncan Sandys.

It was Rumbold who briefed Sir Anthony Eden in 1943 before his crucial meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister, TV Soong. At this meeting Britain's view on the status of Tibet was reiterated in its most authoritative form. While Britain recognised Tibet as having enjoyed de facto independence since 1911, and stated that the British government had 'always been prepared to recognise Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, but only on the understanding that Tibet is regarded as autonomous'. The British government's definition of autonomy covered Tibet's complete internal freedom and her right to conduct her own external relations with other countries without reference to China.

When Tibet finally lost her freedom in 1959 and the Dalai Lama was forced into exile, Rumbold, and old India hands like Sir Olaf Caroe (a former Foreign Secretary to the Indian Government and Governor of the North-West Frontier Province) and Hugh Richardson (Head of British Mission, Lhasa), joined with Francis Napier Beaufort- Palmer to found the Tibet Society of the UK, an organisation that for many years stood alone in advocating Tibet's independence. Members of the society persistently challenged Chinese propaganda, principally by letters to the broadsheet papers, until the British media came to understand that there was a more reliable source for news about Tibet than the Anglo-China Association and the Chinese Ambassador.

For 11 years, from 1977 to 1988, Rumbold served the Tibet Society as its president. In 1991, with Hugh Richardson, he produced for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Tibet a pamphlet, Tibet, the Truth about Independence, which remains the most succinct and authoritative account of Tibet's status and the British government's relations with Tibet.

He retired from the Commonwealth Relations Office in 1966 but soon found himself in further conflict, on this occasion with Harold Wilson, who claimed in his memoirs that he had been badly advised by the Commonwealth Relations Office in a statement on the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war.

Wilson claimed that in making a statement deploring the extension of the fighting into Kashmir and the Punjab, at the time when India was winning, he had appeared to be supporting Pakistan and had damaged Britain's relations with India. He laid the blame on an official at the Commonwealth Office who was clearly identifiable as Rumbold. He even suggested that the official had been forced into early retirement.

Rumbold broke silence to defend himself and forcefully denied these charges and Wilson subsequently withdrew the implied slur and publicly apologised. Rumbold maintained that Wilson knew very well that there were important international reasons for wanting to bring the Indo-Pakistan conflict to a speedy conclusion in 1965 and that the reasons would be available to historians in 1996.

Rumbold continued to work actively, throughout his retirement, with a commitment in a variety of fields but especially in the cause of Tibet, where he aimed to correct the bias that the Foreign Office held in favour of the Chinese interpretation of events in that country.

A scholarly man, and one of great personal integrity, Rumbold was a stickler for detail and accuracy, and outspoken in denouncing misrepresentation of facts.

(Photograph omitted)

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