Obituary: A tribute to the consummate diplomat Thomas Bridges (1927 – 2017)
George Bridges reflects on the life of his uncle, who was son of Second World War-era cabinet secretary Edward Bridges
What makes a great diplomat? Charm, patriotism, open mindedness, integrity – those are just some of the qualities. And when I think of such a diplomat, I cannot but think of my uncle Tom, who died in May. He devoted his life to protecting and advancing this country's interests, in a career that began when the Cold War was threatening to turn hot, and ended just before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
Entering the Foreign Office in 1951, Tom clearly had inherited a sense of public service from his father, Edward, who had been cabinet secretary from 1938-45, and was then permanent secretary at the Treasury. Postings in Bonn, Berlin, and Rio were followed by a stint as private secretary to the foreign secretary. Having shown his prowess – Tom served four foreign secretaries in just three years – he was posted to Athens. After this, a series of roles put him at the epicentre of the UK’s role in Cold War diplomacy, and the UK’s entry to the European Union: head of chancery in Moscow, head of the Western Organisations Department in the Foreign Office, and then (from 1972 to 1975) private secretary to Edward Heath and Harold Wilson. After a promotion to be minister (commercial) in Washington, he returned to London to be deputy under secretary for economic affairs – which included responsibility for the EEC – until he became ambassador in Rome in 1983.
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Throughout this itinerant career, his wife Rachel was his rock. When I think of Tom, I cannot but think of Rachel – Rachel the organiser, the hostess, and of course the mother of their three children. She was the one who, quite literally, kept “the Bridges show” on the road as it travelled from continent to continent. Her energy was infectious – and Tom shared it well into retirement. He was an active member of the House of Lords (he inherited his father’s peerage in 1969), serving on the European Select Committee and was elected to remain as one of the hereditary peers. He also became chairman of Unicef’s UK Committee. And when he was not doing that, he was campaigning for Orford Ness, near the family’s Suffolk home, to be protected by the National Trust. Rachel’s death in 2005 left a void in his life which, despite the love and support of his family and many friends, never could be filled.
To those who did not know him, Tom might be caricatured as a “Europhile”. While I am sure he supported the UK’s membership of the EU, he did not give unconditional support to “le projet”. Well aware of the dangers of a European blueprint, I remember him giving me a mini-lecture on the dangers of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Having worked in the cockpit of global diplomacy, he would no doubt have ideas on how to win the game of multi-dimensional chess we are now playing as we leave the EU. Sadly, Tom’s illness meant I was unable to ask him what he made of Brexit. I somehow think he would have parried back by asking – with his trademark wry smile and mischievous look in his eye – “How do you define Brexit?” A good question.
Thomas Bridges, subsequently Lord Bridges, was born on 27 November 1927. He died on 27 May 2017
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