Remembering an extraordinary diplomat
Sir Thomas Brimelow, [later Lord Brimelow] who succeeded [Sir Denis] Greenhill [as Permanent Under-Secretary of State (PUS) of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Head of the Diplomatic Service] in November 1973, was, unlike his immediate predecessor, an outstanding linguist. Raised in a Lancashire working class family, he spoke French, German, Spanish, Polish, Italian, Swedish and superb Russian. He was once asked in Moscow, ‘Mr Brimeloff, where did you learn to speak such good English?’ Self-effacing and well-mannered, the PUS possessed a formidable intellect that put those who worked with him on their mettle. During 1942-45, as head of the Consular Section in the British Embassy in Moscow, Brimelow had on more than one occasion a face-to-face meeting with the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. After the war in Europe had ended, he returned to the [Foreign] Office in the summer of 1945 to play a role in the implementation of repatriations to the Soviet Union already agreed by Britain. After spending a period in Ankara, where he learnt Turkish, he returned to London in 1956 to act as interpreter during the visit of Khrushchev and Bulganin, and became head of the Office’s Northern Department. Brimelow also served as Counsellor in Washington, Minister in Moscow, Ambassador to Poland and Deputy Under-Secretary during 1969-73. Once described as ‘the toughest-minded and most intransigent of all the Cold Warriors’, Harold Wilson valued Brimelow’s counsel when it came to pursuing a tough line with the Soviet Union. His tenure as PUS, however, was a brief affair, lasting barely two years. [Quoted from HISTORICAL PAPERS: HISTORY OF THE FCO]
Among many other things, Tom Brimelow will be long remembered for invariably reading the previous day’s ‘Pravda’ in his room in the Foreign Office whenever he was serving in London, and no doubt when serving overseas too. I was reminded of the memorable sayings of Tom Brimelow by something in a recent e-mail from a friend, a much more distinguished former British diplomat (more distinguished than me, not than Brimelow): ‘The late Tom Brimelow had a wise precept, originally coined in the context of dealing with the KGB: "Never get into a pissing match with a skunk"’.