Obituary: Lord Brimelow

Tam Dalyell
Friday 04 August 1995 00:02 BST

Eyebrows were raised the length of Whitehall when Sir Thomas Brimelow, Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office and Head of the Diplomatic Service, was in 1976 created a Life Peer - and took the Labour whip.

Actually, the Establishment should not have been surprised. For Tommy Brimelow, impeccably loyal as a civil servant, was a grammar-school boy with passionate convictions about equality of opportunity, and a less stratified, more European society for Great Britain in the second half of the century.

Yet there was a good excuse for surprise at Brimelow's left-wing inclinations. He was, in the words of the Konigswinter Conference organiser the late Professor Tom Mackintosh MP, ''the toughest-minded and most intransigent of all the Cold Warriors''. When I put this to him, late one balmy night in Strasbourg, his reply was typically laconic. ''Well, you see, I was brought up under Stalin!'' This was no exaggeration.

As the best Russian-speaker in the British Embassy in Moscow during the Second World War, it was the young Brimelow who was dispatched to cope face to face with the Russian dictator, who, having imbibed his vodka, was in the habit of summoning the Embassy late at night or in the early hours to convey his views to Churchill and the British government. It was an awesome cauldron for a 27/30-year old. But it forged a person of whom Lord Greenhill of Harrow, a former Permanent Secretary to the Foreign Office, could say in responding to his maiden speech in the House of Lords over 30 years later: "I hope he will intervene on future occasions, and particularly when matters concerning the Soviet Union are discussed, because there is no greater authority in the House than he, and indeed I think no greater authority in this country."

Thomas Brimelow was born of a Derbyshire yeoman father and a Scots mother. At New Hills Grammar School he excelled at both Mathematics and Greek, and won a scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford, in 1933; it gave him especial pleasure that exactly 40 years later, the college elected him as an Honorary Fellow. In days when the Foreign Office tended to recruit public schoolboys, Brimelow gained entry to the consular section of the diplomatic service, and was made a Probationer Vice-Consul; the place was Danzig and the year 1938-39. Later, he regarded this posting as a stroke of incredible luck. At 23, he was propelled into the centre of momentous events. In 1939, he was ordered up the coast to Riga, still Latvia, and the beginning of what his younger colleagues in the European Parliament discerned as a complex love-hate relationship with Mother Russia.

Fortunately for his education and his future - "career" is inappropriate in the Brimelow context, as he was not a scheming man - he was assigned to New York for the first two years of the Second World War. Then came the formative first period in Stalin's Moscow: Molotov, Mikoyan, Kaganovich, Voloshilov, Timoshenko, and Zhukov - he had dealings with them all.

In 1945, Brimelow was recalled to London, after a physically grinding three years. He married Jean Cull, a Glasgow girl, who was working as one of Herbert Morrison's civil service Private Secretaries. Lady Brimelow was an exceedingly competent, charming and able lady, and a wonderfully supportive wife, who, to Lord Brimelow's scarcely concealed heartbreak, died in 1993, after months of distressing illness. She displayed a shrewd, but healthy, interest in his work - and his cultural loves. When my wife and I were at the Strasbourg parliament with the Brimelows in the late Seventies, we would consult them about places we could visit on our return journey - whether it was the cathedrals at Autun or Laon, the Brimelows were full of scholarship and fascinating information.

It was when he was based in London, as a second secretary immediately after the end of the war, that Brimelow became embroiled in a bitter controversy, the embers of which are still hot to this day. As a diplomat, Brimelow was involved in the repatriation moves for thousands of Cossacks and Yugoslavs. The policy agreed by Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta, and insisted on by Stalin, was that all Russian nationals should be returned at the end of the war. The uncomfortable fact was that many, not all, of the Cossacks had indeed fought with the German army, and that many of the Yugoslavs (mostly Croats) had been among the cruellest operatives of the SS.

The whole tragic episode flared up when Count Nikolai Tolstoy published a book, The Minister and the Massacre (1986), bitterly criticising Lord Aldington and others. A committee was set up by the Foreign Office, under the Chairmanship of Brigadier Anthony Cowgill, including the journalist Christopher Booker and Brimelow. They published a properly thought-out report on the whole horrible business, ''The Repatriation from Austria in 1945.'' Acrimony was rife. Lord Aldington sued Count Tolstoy, in the event successfully, for libel. Brimelow devoted much of his retirement to compiling a history of the policy, devised in part by Harold Macmillan, then Minister of State, in an effort to understand it more fully.

In the late 1940s Brimelow was one of "our men" in Havana, but returned to Moscow in 1951 for three years. Relations with the Russians were cryogenic; Brimelow shared, and to some extent masterminded, the current wisdom that the West had to be exceedingly tough with our wartime allies.

There followed a happy three years as Counsellor in Ankara, where Brimelow's capacity to master difficult languages rose to the challenge posed by Turkish; 20 years later, Brimelow gave expert service to the European Parliament Committee on relations with Turkey.

In the year of Suez he returned to London as Head of the Northern Department of the Foreign Office, followed by three years as Counsellor in Washington under Sir Harold Caccia and Lord Harlech.

The Test Ban Treaty, and Macmillan's attempts at reconciliation with the Russians, dictated Brimelow's return to Moscow for the third spell of duty as Minister in the ambassadorship of Sir Humphrey Trevelyan (1963- 66). He greatly impressed the incoming prime minister, Harold Wilson, who had treasured his relations with the Russians ever since negotiating, when President of the Board of Trade in 1950, the Wheat Agreements with Mikoyan.

Brimelow was a natural choice in 1966 for the sensitive and important Warsaw Embassy. At the insistence of Michael Stewart, the Foreign Secretary - Stewart admired the quality of Brimelow's mind which dovetailed with his own - Brimelow went back to London as Deputy Under-Secretary of State in 1969, and succession to the Head of the Diplomatic Service in 1973. I am told, by those in a position to know, that during the mid-1970s Brimelow addressed himself to the nitty-gritty of the organisation of the office as few other Heads have done.

In the European Parliament in 1977-78, Brimelow was reticent in public session, but invaluable in the Political Committee, and wonderfully helpful to any colleague who sought his advice. One could count on his total candour, devoid of any self-interest. He was enormously popular, not only with his Labour colleagues from Britain, but with the Socialist Group from all Member States. They knew who he was, and were delighted to have him.

In the House of Lords, he was first to perceive in 1977 the crucial importance of the Green Currency Issue, a Byzantine controversy relating to farming subsidies. ''The History of the Green Currencies,'' he said in March that year, ''and the monetary compensation amounts to which they have given rise show how easily palliatives can create forces tending to deepen and perpetuate the divergencies they were intended to alleviate and to undermine the principles which they were devised to sustain.'' His attitude in the European Parliament was that the British, if they missed a bus, in the development of the Community, would find themselves paying the taxi fare.

Tommy Brimelow was the most skilful drafter of a document that any of the politicians or officials who came in contact with him at Strasbourg, Luxembourg, or Brussels, had ever seen in action. His was a Rolls-Royce mind.

The last time I saw him, in June last year, he was hobbling across Parliament Square to catch the 73 bus home after struggling in to help defeat the Government on the issue of criminal injuries compensation, during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill, a subject that was dear to his heart.

It is entirely in keeping with Tommy Brimelow's rational approach to life that he wished no fuss be made of his passing, with funeral rites attended only by his adored daughters, Alison and Elizabeth. Had Jean Brimelow not predeceased him he would, Alison tells me, have wanted a memorial service to which his Foreign Office colleagues could have come, for Jean's sake. Mercifully, his legendary clarity of mind remained with him until his last day.

Tam Dalyell

Thomas Brimelow, diplomat: born 25 October 1915; Foreign Office 1945- 48; First Secretary (Commercial) and Consul, Havana 1948-51, First Secretary (Commercial) and Consul, Moscow 1951-54; Counsellor (Commercial) Ankara 1954-56; Head, Northern Department of the Foreign Office 1956-60; CMG 1959, KCMG 1968, GCMG 1975; Counsellor, Washington DC 1960-63; Minister, Moscow 1963-66; Ambassador to Poland 1966-69; Deputy Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1969-73; Permanent Under-Secretary of State and Head of Diplomatic Service 1973-75; created 1976 Baron Brimelow; Member, European Parliament 1977-78; Chairman, Occupational Pensions Board 1978-82; married 1945 Jean Cull (died 1993; two daughters); died London 2 August 1995.

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