Obituary: Sir Anthony Parsons

Michael Adams,Tam Dalyell
Tuesday 13 August 1996 23:02

Anthony Parsons was one of the most invigorating characters in British public life.

When I met him first, in the late 1950s, he was a junior attache in the British Embassy at Ankara, and I admired his familiarity with the Turkish political scene as much as I enjoyed his company and that of his wife, Sheila. In subsequent years, when he was a rising diplomat, our paths crossed frequently in various Arab countries and I used to think that he would have been a great success in my own profession of journalism. With his quick intelligence, his command of Arabic, Turkish and Persian, and his individualistic approach to life, I thought him much more suitable material for a foreign correspondent than for a diplomat. Indeed, I thought in those days that it was not so much a question of whether he would get to the top in the Foreign Office as whether he would last the course at all.

Not for lack of ability, you understand. Soon after winning a Military Cross as an artillery officer during the Second World War, he was given the opportunity to read Oriental Languages at Oxford as an apprenticeship to a career in the diplomatic service and emerged, from Balliol, with First Class honours. But the question mark would have been over his willingness to stay in line when he found himself required to accept and to implement policies whose wisdom he doubted; and there were indeed to be occasions during his 40-odd years as a public servant when his loyalty was severely tested. The Suez crisis in 1956 was one, and for Anthony Parsons there was another near thing in 1967 when his masters in Whitehall dithered over the question of whether or not to abandon Britain's imperial role in the Persian Gulf.

That he survived these and other moments of less acute tension was due to a personality which combined a number of disparate, even contradictory, characteristics but which had at its core an unshakeable integrity. He would have balked at that phrase, for of all things he hated any suggestion of pomposity, and the assurance with which he pursued his public career was tempered always with informality and a sense of humour which could make fun of his own necessary posturing, for instance as Britain's representative at the United Nations. And when he misjudged events, as he frankly admitted he had done in Iran during the months which led up to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, he was the first to say so, omitting to mention that everyone else had made the same mistake - except, he would add with a smile, his wife.

It was above all that sense of humour, masking as it did as grasp of affairs which was very seldom at fault, which carried him to the top; that and an ability to win the trust even of those who disagreed with him. With Arabs, among whom he spent the greater part of his professional life, this combination of frankness and an always imminent sense of humour brought instant success. In Egypt, in Sudan, in Bahrain and the smaller Gulf sheikhdoms, there were many occasions when angry diatribes against the sins of British imperialism ended in gusts of laughter as each side acknowledged its own pretensions.

Nor was it only Arabs whom Anthony Parsons was able to disarm in this way. His opposite number at the UN during the presidency of Ronald Reagan was Jeanne Kirkpatrick, an ideologue of the far right whose outlook could scarcely have been further removed from his own; but she was seduced (if such a word can be applied to so implacable an opponent) by the Parsons technique of forthright but always genial argument. The way he tackled what looked at first like an impossible task in the early days of the crisis over Argentina's invasion of the Falklands Islands drew from Kirkpatrick a reluctant tribute to the enduring skills of British diplomacy as demonstrated by Sir Anthony at this crowning moment of his career.

It was indeed an outstanding success. In the face of hesitancy from the Americans and downright hostility from some of the other members of the Security Council, Parsons managed to muster the 10 essential votes for a mandatory resolution condemning the Argentine action and so opening the way for Margaret Thatcher's government to embark on its ultimately successful counter-action. No doubt it was this, among other things, that persuaded Thatcher, when Parsons retired from the Foreign Office not long afterwards, to enlist him as her personal adviser on foreign affairs. He accepted the appointment, after some hesitation and on a part-time basis, anxious not to find himself at odds with his diplomatic colleagues. All was well, and the other members of the Prime Minister's staff marvelled at the way she accepted from Parsons interruption and even criticism which, coming from anyone else, would have been brusquely overruled.

After that, at the age of 62 and with time at last to indulge his fancies, his inclination leaned towards the academic life. He often said that given the choice he would have liked to read English Literature at university, and he would have made a stimulating tutor. As it was, he had acquired in the spare moments of an active career a familiarity with the works of everyone from Beowulf to P.G. Wodehouse, with Conrad as a particular and suggestive favourite. It was (or so I sensed) the romantic in him that embraced Conrad, as well as the conviction, grounded in experience, that success is there to be grasped but is only a hair's-breadth away from failure; and that the right approach to life involves the readiness if necessary to accept failure, but to use it as a milestone on the way to success.

However, it was his background in the language and culture of the Arab world that claimed his attention when he was invited to become a Research Fellow and presently a Lecturer in the Centre for Arab Gulf Studies at Exeter University, for which he was uniquely qualified both by experience and by academic knowledge. At the same time he found himself much in demand as a speaker at meetings of all kinds and as one who could explain clearly and with authority to radio and television audiences the ins and outs of successive foreign affairs crises. In this way he developed presently what was almost a second career - and it was characteristic that he was always as ready to address audiences in schools and the equivalent of the local mothers' union as to take part in seminars at St Antony's in Oxford.

Anthony Parsons would have described his life as a happy one and so it was; and yet fate struck him two fearful blows when first one and then the other of his two sons died without warning. These were wounds from which he never recovered, even though he had the solace of an exceptionally happy marriage and two daughters with whom he enjoyed a very close and affectionate relationship.

Apart from this, if he had one enduring regret it was that as an Englishman and a diplomat with long experience in the field of international affairs, he had not been able to correct the injustices to which, in part through the mistakes of British governments, the Palestinian people had been subjected and are still being subjected today. This was something he felt deeply and which was close to his heart throughout his long involvement with the politics of the Middle East.

When he was United Kingdom Permanent Representative to the United Nations between 1979 and 1982, writes Tam Dalyell, Anthony Parsons and his wife Sheila opened their home and gave of their time to the regular rotating visiting group of Members of Parliament who went annually to New York in the autumn. One felt, genuinely, that they welcomed elected representatives, warts and all, and did not regard us, as sometimes happens in the Foreign Office, as a nuisance and "visiting firemen".

Parsons adored argument and was engagingly open to opinions certainly other than his government's, and, I believe, his own. It was perhaps typical of him, that when in a round-table briefing I vehemently dissented from Mrs Thatcher's anti-Russian, pro-Mujahedin line on Afghanistan, he replied in kind, and at the end of the meeting asked me to wait a moment. "As you are seriously interested, I will arrange for you to go and see my Russian colleague, Oleg Tryanovsky, who will give you comfort for your view."

As good as his word he arranged that the following day I should turn up at the fortress in New York which was the headquarters of the Russian delegation in New York. Conducted to Mr Tryanovsky's study, I opened with the remark that it was kind of him to give me time. The veteran Russian diplomat, accompanied by Anataly Dobrynin, the long- standing Soviet ambassador to Washington, said, "We wouldn't have seen you normally. But since Anthony Parsons suggested that we should and we have such a high regard for Anthony Parsons, we decided that we would." To impress Tryanovksy, Dobrynin and in the same year Margaret Thatcher was quite some achievement for a diplomat.

It was not only the Russians who were impressed, so were most of his UN colleagues; and those who heard his frequent contributions in the last 15 years to the BBC radio programme The World Tonight will have no difficulty in understanding why. Parsons was extremely eloquent and always had something worth saying. Even those of us who were appalled by Mrs Thatcher's attitude to the 1982 Falklands crisis recognise that it was Parsons and Sir Nicholas Henderson in Washington who played a crucial role in rallying Americans to the British cause and neutralising many potentially hostile members of the UN. Parsons was a tremendously energetic operator.

In later years, a possible mea culpa had a pre-eminent place in his mind. It concerned what he called without doubt the most compelling and absorbing experience of his diplomatic life, ending up when he left Tehran towards the end of January 1979, a few days after the Shah and his family had fled into exile.

"Could I," he would ask, "as British ambassador have been more perceptive in the years immediately before the revolution broke out?

"Should I have anticipated that the forces of opposition to the Shah - the religious classes, the bazaar, the students - would combine to destroy him, although each of these groups was hostile to the regime for a different reason? Could I," Parsons would ask his friends, "have known in advance that the combination of these civilian, unarmed, elements would prove too strong for a regime whose power was based on united, well-armed, well- equipped and loyal armed forces backed by what appeared to be a formidable security apparatus - the dreaded Savak?

"Had I been able to see so deep into the heart of Iranian society," he would sigh, "would I have advised my government, as well as the British private and public sectors to adopt different policies - different in all fields including our political and strategic relationship with the Shah, our commercial and financial links with Iran oil, the sale of military equipment and much else?

"If we had adopted different policies across the broad spectrum of our dealings with Iran, would this," he murmured, "have lessened the damage to British interests when the collapse finally came?"

Historians in the 21st century and later, when they come to study our century, and its most momentous events, cannot possibly ignore the book The Pride and the Fall in which Parsons addresses so perceptively these questions.

He was a man of enormous insight, a most impressive representative of the Foreign Office.

Anthony Derrick Parsons, diplomat: born 9 September 1922; MC 1945; staff, HM Embassies, Ankara 1955-59, Amman 1959-60, Cairo 1960-61, Khartoum 1964- 65; Political Agent, Bahrain 1965-69; LVO 1965; CMG 1969, KCMG 1975, GCMG 1982; Counsellor, UK Mission to UN 1969-71; Under-Secretary, FCO 1971- 74; Ambassador to Iran 1974-79; UK Permanent Representative to UN 1979- 82; Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on foreign affairs 1982-83; Research Fellow, Exeter University 1984-96, Lecturer 1984-87; author of The Pride and the Fall 1984, They Say the Lion 1986, From Cold War to Hot Peace: UN interventions 1947-1994 1995; married 1948 Sheila Baird (two daughters, and two sons deceased); died Ashburton, Devon 12 August 1996.

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