12 November 2017
I record here, belatedly, the death in September of my friend, Sir Brian Barder, former British diplomat and author of one of the best books on diplomacy. There were very good obituaries of him in the British press and to these I added a lengthy personal footnote on the University of Leicester website. Having discovered in April 2023 that it is no longer there, I paste it in here, with just a few corrections:
Long obituaries of Sir Brian Barder, former senior ambassador and Honorary Visiting Fellow of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester, have already appeared in The Guardian (2 October 2017) and The Times (12 October 2017). These provide good accounts of his most important postings and his taxing post-retirement service on the Special Immigration Appeals Committee. Drawing on a long friendship and scholarly collaboration with him, I shall, therefore, confine myself to filling in some of the gaps. Before proceeding to this I shall, however, say this about his diplomatic career. Its highpoint – rightly emphasised in both obituaries – was his time as ambassador to the vicious, pro-Soviet Ethiopian government at the time of the great famine in the mid-1980s, when he correctly assured London that it was safe for RAF planes carrying aid to land despite the absence of official clearance and his need to rely on local knowledge and the view of a high-level contact that it was ‘almost’ certain that they would not be fired on. Anyone still believing the nonsense that the need for a shrewd diplomat on the spot has been made obsolete by jet airliners and direct electronic communications between governments would do well to brood on this episode.
Neither of the long obituaries mentions the long association of Brian (‘I’ll drop the “Sir” if you’ll drop the “Professor”’) with the University of Leicester. This is perhaps in part because his association with us was not by any means as deep as he would have liked. The reason for this was that, shortly after his appointment – in the heroic days of Leicester’s Centre for the Study of Diplomacy – he fell off his bike while riding in London and severely injured a knee. This required an operation and I believe it was the best part of two painful years before he was properly mobile again. Nevertheless, before this happened he spoke to my own students and, in much more recent times, addressed larger audiences at the University. On his last visit, which followed publication of his What Diplomats Do (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), I have it on good authority that he also had the rapt attention of colleagues at lunch with stories of his years at the Moscow embassy in the early 1970s. These years were particularly tense because it was at this juncture that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office expelled from London 105 Soviet intelligence officers with diplomatic cover, and brought down on the British mission the inevitable retaliation, including physical intimidation.
Diplomacy in general was not the only point of overlapping interest that Brian had with the Department of Politics at Leicester; another was South Africa. We had begun to develop this as a teaching and research subject when Jack Spence became Professor of Politics and head of department, and is still very much alive in the department today. Brian had been head of Southern African Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1978 until 1982.
As well as having a brilliant mind, Brian Barder was a kind and generous man, and I shall always be grateful for his guidance. Despite his many important retirement preoccupations, he took great pains to read and comment carefully on every draft I sent him, which is why I dedicated to him the fourth edition of my own textbook on diplomacy. He also agreed readily to be an editorial consultant on all three editions of our Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Diplomacy, and in this capacity not only marked up the entire manuscript but also sent us dozens of long, trenchant, tightly argued but unfailingly polite emails on individual entries. This sort of communication, I learned from another source, had legendary status in the Diplomatic Service and actually had a name: the ‘bardergram’. As a tribute to him, and which I am proud to say he enjoyed, I drafted the following entry and included it in the preface to the first edition:
bardergram. An ambassadorial *telegram which is at once robust and graceful. As well as being pithy in expression, the bardergam is sometimes passionate in tone, not always short and usually fired in salvos. It ends typically with the following: ‘I await your homicidal riposte.’
Brian more than once described himself as ‘a card-carrying pedant where use of the English language is concerned.’ A loose word was not to be found in anything he wrote and he was always careful to use the correct word, although by the time I knew him this was second nature. Some of this reflex he developed while drafting speeches for Hugh Foot when the latter was British permanent representative at the UN in New York in the mid-1960s. For example, Foot disliked the use of ‘of course’, a phrase which Brian had used too often in his drafts. ‘If something is obvious,’ Foot asked him, ‘why do you have to say so?’ I know this because the same advice was gently passed on to me. Such was Brian’s joy in language that he became a ‘major contributor’ to R. W. Burchfield’s New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, as will be seen in the Acknowledgements to the third edition (Clarendon Press, 1998).
Brian was a life-long member of the Labour Party, except for an interlude towards the end of his diplomatic career when he judged it professionally inappropriate. In fact his whole life was a master class in how to juggle firm left-wing views with diplomacy in the employment of a liberal-democracy with a strong tradition of non-partisan civil service. In his retirement his politics came to the fore, chiefly in the form of letters published regularly in The Times and The Guardian, frequent articles in Labour List, and website blogs. He was an eloquent, forensic and persistent campaigner for civil liberties (which he saw his own party threatening) and for a federal solution for the UK as the answer to the agitation for Scottish independence. He was a great defender of international law and the United Nations, and strongly disapproved foreign military interventions that lacked Security Council approval; he made no secret of the fact that he regarded Tony Blair as ‘a war criminal’. His last great crusade was against Brexit, which he regarded as sheer lunacy. He had supported Ed Miliband for the Labour leadership, and was an early cataloguer of what he regarded as Jeremy Corbyn’s long list of disqualifications for being prime minister.
Brian died of pancreatic cancer, aged 83, on 19 September 2017. There was no funeral because, public spirited as always, he had decided that his body should be left to medical science. Nor was there a memorial service – just a party to celebrate his splendid life.