Sir Oliver Wright: Diplomat who served under two Prime Ministers in Downing Street and as ambassador
John Oliver Wright was born on 6 March 1921, and educated at Solihull School and Christ’s College, Cambridge. His wartime service was four years in the Royal Navy, where his performance as a RNVR officer won him a DSC at the age of 24 for bravery in command of a torpedo boat. He joined the Foreign Service soon after the end of the war.
After the usual initiation period in the Foreign Office, he spent the next six years in rapid succession at New York, Bucharest and Singapore, before returning to the Foreign Office for two years and then on for similar periods in Berlin and South Africa. This was an unusual diversity of experience for a young diplomat and his good performance in each post was rewarded by a sabbatical year unusually early in his career, aged 38, at the Imperial Defence College (now the Royal College of Defence Studies).
This was always seen as a stepping stone to higher things, and so it proved. The following year he was appointed an assistant Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Home, on whom he made an immediate and lasting impression. Home first made him, on promotion to Counsellor, his Principal Private Secretary and then took him to No 10 when the now Sir Alec Douglas Home became Prime Minister in succession to Harold Macmillan. This partnership continued until Home lost the 1964 general election. This did not, however, mean a change of job for Wright, since the new Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, asked him to continue as his Foreign Office Private Secretary (a procedure that was fairly common at that time though probably unlikely now.)
Wright remained at No 10 for the next 18 months, until the 1966 general election, when, still only 45, he had a highly successful four years as ambassador to Denmark. He returned to London to be seconded for nine months to the Home Office as the senior official dealing with Northern Ireland. This seemed a surprising appointment for a Foreign Office man, but it reflected the confidence in Wright’s political judgement and in his skill in dealing with politics and politicians that Harold Wilson had recognised during Wright’s service at No 10.
He returned to the Foreign Office in March 1970 to the key post of Chief Clerk (the Head of Administration, Personnel and Finance), which he handled with skill and sensitivity for the next three years. When the UK joined the European Community in 1973 he took on the post of Deputy Under-Secretary for European Affairs and Political Director, responsible for the work on the co-ordination of policy in the EEC.
In 1975 Wright was considered as a possible successor to Sir Thomas Brimelow, the then Permanent Under-Secretary. But he went instead for the final five years of his career (60 was then the mandatory retirement age) as ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany. He said privately that he was just as pleased to be in that post as to be in the top job in London, and the gusto which he displayed in Germany bore that out. He was a resounding success, travelling widely in the Federal Republic and with frequent visits to West Berlin. He got to know virtually all the significant political personalities inside and outside the hothouse of Bonn and his advice to London was wise, knowledgeable and authoritative. He retired in 1971 a GCMG and GCVO, as well as a holder of the Grand Cross in the German Order of Merit.
Wright had then planned to move to the more peaceful waters of his old college at Cambridge, Christ’s, where the Fellows had already approached him and “pre-elected” him to a Fellowship on the understanding that he would be elected Master in 1982. But Lord Carrington, then Foreign Secretary, seeking someone who would empathise with the Reagan regime, threw a spanner into the works by inviting him to rejoin the Service and go to Washington as ambassador. This was a post to which Wright had silently long aspired and an opportunity that could not be missed. There was consternation at Christ’s for a while, but the Fellows recognised that Wright could not refuse the post and he spent four happy years in Washington.
On his final retirement, Wright was involved in a number of activities corresponding to his interests and lifelong experience. He served on the Board of the British Council and was a Trustee of the British Museum and of the International Shakespeare Globe Centre. He was a Director inter alia of Siemens Ltd., of General Technology Systems Inc. and of the Savoy and Berkeley Hotels, and a Visiting Professor at several American universities. In short, an interesting, diverse and moderately remunerative portfolio.
Oliver Wright was a tall, handsome man, with the erect posture and slightly military bearing that recalled his years in the Royal Navy. This appearance and manner certainly contributed to his success; as did a genuine kindness, jovial good humour and an ability to put any visitors at their ease. But the key to his success and to his real enjoyment of life was the happiness of his marriage and the part in it played by his wife. Oliver and Marjory Osborne were married during the war and celebrated their golden wedding in 2002. They were proud of their three sons. And at every stage of Oliver’s career, Marjory was always there, encouraging and helping; but also leading an independent life, especially in anything to do with the theatre, which was her passion, largely shared with Oliver. She, with children and grandchildren, survives him.
Sir Michael Palliser
John Oliver Wright, diplomat: born 6 March 1921; Diplomatic Service, 1945-86: Assistant Private Secretary to Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 1960; Counsellor and Private Secretary, 1963; Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, 1964?66; ambassador to Denmark, 1966?69; seconded to Home Office as UK Representative to Northern Ireland Government, 1969?70; Chief Clerk, Diplomatic Service, 1970?72; ambassador to Federal Republic of Germany, 1975?81; ambassador to Washington, 1982?86; DSC 1944; GCVO 1978; GCMG 1981 (KCMG 1974, CMG 1964); married 1942 Lillian Marjory Osborne (three sons); died 1 September 2009.
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