You’ll recall my tribute to the late Alyson Bailes, perhaps the brainiest diplomat of All Time.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography asked me to write their entry on her, and here it now is as posted today.
There’s rightly a strong factual format to these ODNB entries, many of which can end up being rather ‘dry’. But I did my best to do justice to Alyson and her remarkable life and work in an honest assessment of her FCO career:
Bailes loved geology and rocks, much preferring cold and austere northern European landscapes to hot and dusty Beijing. But she also enjoyed parties and company, risqué jokes, all sorts of music, quilting, and cooking. If anyone needed at short notice a new comic opera set in Budapest involving Faroese heavy metal music, communist ideology, rock samples, and obscure but oddly efficient medieval torture instruments, Alyson Bailes could knock out a reasonable first shot over a long lunch-hour. A colleague at SIPRI recalled that ‘Alyson was regularly host to lively dinner discussions at restaurants in the southern part of Stockholm, where she knew, and was known by, staff everywhere. Less frequent but equally lively discussions took place at her apartment over champagne and fish paste sandwiches’ (private information).
As a colleague she was typically helpful, friendly, and straightforward, albeit in what might come across as an overly ‘logical’ way on some personnel issues where a lighter touch could have been appreciated. She showed some eccentricity: she kept a stockpile of scarce embassy table-lamps in a cupboard in her flat in Beijing.
That said, Bailes’s thitherto galloping FCO career drifted sideways after her stressful posting in Beijing and subsequent secondments outside Whitehall. Her extraordinary ability to produce at high speed page after page of intricate precise foreign policy analysis perhaps was just too much for the system to absorb. She was ardently, if not obsessively, ‘pro-Europe’, making little secret of her low opinion of successive US presidents and what she saw as endemic corruption in US politics. This did not help her convince ministers or senior colleagues in the late 1990s and early 2000s that it made sense to move from transatlantic defence structures (i.e., NATO) in favour of a strong new European defence identity based on a rejuvenated Western European Union. The forlorn (and by then quite irrelevant) Western European Union duly expired in 2010.
In 2016 Bailes’s cancer returned. She died at the Borders General Hospital in Melrose on 29 April 2016 with her mother, her sister Jane, her brother Martin, and his wife Rachel at her hospice bedside. She asked that her ashes be scattered by St Mary’s Loch.
Before her death she had arranged for a message to be sent to her friends and colleagues at the University of Iceland, in which she stated that ‘If you receive this message I will have departed this life … I am glad that the final breakdown came quickly (at my home in the Scottish Borders) as I would have wished’, and went on to thank them for their ‘support, cooperation and friendship over the years, which have helped me to live a full, free, enjoyable and rewarding life up to the end’. In 2018 Somerville College created the Alyson Bailes history prize in her honour.
Oh, and for the record she also was an ardent Star Trek fan.
As my first piece here noted:
Back in Planners when we were all getting excited about Gorbachev and glasnost, I wrote a paper about ‘Europe and the Superpowers in 2000’. What would happen? Would a reforming ‘nice’ European USSR come to look a more attractive partner for western Europe than a grouchy aggressive cowboy-style USA?
Alyson said something dry and astute: “The thing about Planning papers is that if you wait long enough they’re always right”.
Alyson of course understood scale. We miss her.