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Sir John Margetson KCMG
Late The Life Guards

John William Denys Margetson was born on 9th October 1927, the younger son of the Very Reverend WJ Margetson, provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, and the former Marion Jenoure. He went to Blundell’s School and in retirement wrote a book about its reforming headmaster Neville Gorton: Gorty: Neville Gorton’s years at Blundell’s.

He was a choral scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, under the composer Herbert Howells, reading Anthropology and Archaeology. During his time at Cambridge he was commissioned as a National Serviceman into The Life Guards and was posted to Palestine for the final months of the British mandate, commanding scout cars escorting potash convoys to Jerusalem from the Dead Sea and patrolling the Jaffa road. Coming up from Jaffa one day, his car was ambushed by guerrillas and blown clean off the road. Years later, he met an Israeli diplomat who had been the Haganah commander who ordered the attack. They became firm friends, despite Margetson losing his hair through the shock of the attack.

He finished his degree in 1951, joined the Colonial Service and was appointed a district officer in Tanganyika. He spent most of his time up-country, always with his clavichord, on which he played Bach outside his tent in the evenings. For two years from 1956 he was secretary to the governor, Sir Edward (late Lord) Twining, whom he reckoned was ‘the last great paternal governor of British imperialism’. Julius Nyerere’s Tanganyika African National Union party was pressing for independence, but the Colonial Office wanted first to attract investment and create a multiracial state. When the UN Trusteeship Council demanded independence, Margetson blamed a ‘blinkered American representative’. This gave Nyerere a platform at the UN, where the non-aligned countries treated him as a world figure.

With an early end to British rule inevitable, Margetson resigned from the Colonial Service in 1959 and joined the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). David Cornwell (John le Carré) joined at the same time and became a friend. Margetson learnt the spy’s ‘tradecraft’, including running agents, using firearms, and how to kill with a single blow. Once on the strength, Margetson found Rudolf Hess’s long-forgotten trousers in a secret safe as MI6 moved its headquarters. He was posted to The Hague in 1962, boarding Soviet ships at Rotterdam at night to obtain photos of Russian port facilities. Two years on, he resigned from MI6 (as did Cornwell) and took a late-entry exam into the Diplomatic Service.

At the Foreign Office, he soon found himself writing speeches for George Brown, the Foreign Secretary. Before making a speech, Brown would gather the relevant senior officials, with Margetson recording the discussion, then crafting a draft. However, the system broke down because Brown’s reputation for drunkenly humiliating his staff made such meetings hard to convene. So instead, Brown huddled with Margetson and the permanent under-secretary, or just left the task to him. Once Brown, ‘a sort of genius, but impossible to work for’, rang him at 2 am asking for a speech on Vietnam for a Commons debate that evening. Margetson located a typist, found a senior official homeward bound from an embassy dinner to clear the text, and posted it through Brown’s letter box in Carlton House Terrace. Another time, after Brown asked Margetson for alterations, the official helping him noticing the Foreign Secretary was heading for the sherry cupboard and shot through and pocketed the key. ‘Sherry was George’s downfall’, Margetson recalled, ‘and there was a gigantic explosion from him. But [on this occasion] he was sober, and the speech was a great success’.

When Brown resigned in 1968, Margetson was posted to Saigon as Head of Chancery. During his time there, he oversaw a large British medical team working at the city’s children’s hospital. Once a week, he briefed the British media, picking up information from the US ‘five o’clock follies’ (military press briefings). Returning home in 1970, he spent a year on the Indo-China desk, and was then seconded to the Cabinet secretariat, where he briefed the Prime Minister on foreign affairs and worked with the Cabinet’s defence and foreign policy committee. Taking minutes could be difficult, as Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Foreign Secretary, always had a ballpoint pen in his mouth, rendering him inaudible. With the liberal Tory Home Office minister David Lane, Margetson co-ordinated the settlement in Britain of Asians with UK passports expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin. He also worked up with the future Conservative MP Michael Mates, then a colonel at the Ministry of Defence, contingency plans for a major terrorist incident involving British subjects. One scenario they planned for was the occupation of an embassy, work that proved invaluable in 1980 during the Iranian embassy siege.

In 1974, Margetson went to Brussels as Head of Chancery in Britain’s delegation to NATO. He helped draft the alliance’s brief for the Helsinki Conference, guaranteeing free movement of printed matter and ideas across the Iron Curtain. In 1978, he was posted as ambassador to the newly re-united Vietnam, a posting regarded in the Foreign Office as the toughest in the world. Arriving in Hanoi, Margetson found low morale and rat-infested accommodation. His wife did the cooking at the Residence (a former brothel), after the cook was electrocuted and a replacement was refused. While there, he alerted the Foreign Office to Vietnam’s imminent split with China; his sources were non-aligned ambassadors, notably Egypt’s, with whom Margetson took up yoga classes. The Vietnamese accepted Margetson, despite his time in Saigon, although matters became more difficult when British aid to Vietnam ended as a response to the invasion of Cambodia in support of the Khmers Rouges.

In 1981, he was back in London as senior civilian instructor at the Royal College of Defence Studies. Then, in 1983, he became deputy to Sir John Thomson at the UN. While there, Margetson proposed to the General Secretary, Perez de Cuellar, a plan to end fighting in the Lebanon by using UN observers to monitor crossing points between the rival factions’ territory and tried with Perez to break the deadlock over Cyprus created by the Turkish North declaring independence. He also blocked the distribution of a UN teaching guide on decolonisation, drafted by communist diplomats, which condemned colonial rule without mentioning its benefits. Margetson presided over the UN Trusteeship Council, by then responsible only for Micronesia, a former German colony administered by the United States. He oversaw its progress to independence as three separate countries, personally supervising two plebiscites.

His final posting, from 1984 to 1987, was to The Hague, where he concentrated on convincing the Dutch that Britain was a reliable member of the EEC. He hosted visits from Margaret Thatcher and senior ministers and kept Ruud Lubbers’s government on side as Britain orchestrated progress toward the single market. While in The Hague he oversaw the move to a new more secure Residence; the IRA had assassinated a previous ambassador, Sir Richard Sykes, on its doorstep.

Margetson retired in July 1988, to Woodbridge in Suffolk. From then until 1994, when he suffered a brain haemorrhage, he chaired the Royal School of Church Music, the Yehudi Menuhin School, the Joint Committee of the Royal College of Music, and the Royal Academy of Music. A notable achievement was securing the reversal of the Gowrie Report’s recommendation to amalgamate the Royal College and the Royal Academy of Music to form a single conservatoire. He was appointed CMG in 1979, KCMG in 1986, and from 1992 to 2002 served as Gentleman Usher of the Blue Rod. John Margetson married Miranda Coldstream, younger daughter of the painters Sir William Coldstream and Nancy Spender, in 1963. They had a son, Andrew, a film director, and a daughter, Clare, an editor on The Guardian.

Sir John Margetson died on 17th October 2020, aged 93.

With acknowledgment to The Daily Telegraph

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