Sir Peter Ramsbotham, 90

Sir Peter Ramsbotham dies; bumped as British envoy to U.S.

Sir Peter and Lady Frances Ramsbotham in Alexandria in 1974.
Sir Peter and Lady Frances Ramsbotham in Alexandria in 1974. (Charles Del Vechio/the Washington Post)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sir Peter Ramsbotham, 90, a career British diplomat who was controversially removed as ambassador to the United States in 1977 and replaced by the prime minister's son-in-law, died April 9 at his home in southern England. He had pneumonia.

The son of a prominent Conservative politician, Mr. Ramsbotham joined Britain's Foreign Office in 1948 and climbed the ranks with a reputation for mild-mannered and astute professionalism.

He served with the British delegation to the United Nations during the 1956 Suez Crisis. He was high commissioner in Cyprus from 1969 to 1971 and was British ambassador to Iran before being appointed to Washington in 1974 by Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath.

As Britain's top envoy to the United States, Mr. Ramsbotham made dozens of trips to industrial centers far from the Beltway to get a pulse for the country and strengthen economic ties with England. Mr. Ramsbotham was well-liked by the Ford and Carter administrations, according to published reports at the time, and used his warm, personal manner to talk to regular citizens across America.

He attracted news media attention for occasionally stepping out of his button-down demeanor. A man whose most outlandish trait was his love of birding, he pasted on a small black mustache and did some warbling of his own at a British Embassy production of musical hall acts.

He was a hit with the embassy staff and won accolades from Washington's cultural tastemakers for hosting fancy dress balls and other festivities. He threw a highly anticipated garden party for Princess Anne. At a U.S. bicentennial reception for Queen Elizabeth, Mr. Ramsbotham and his wife set up a blind date between actress Elizabeth Taylor and future Virginia senator John W. Warner.

Taylor later called the ambassador a "superb representative of Britain who has done an absolutely remarkable job of diplomacy in Washington."

The news of Mr. Ramsbotham's removal from Washington was a shock, not the least for the ambassador, who said he learned about it from a newspaper report.

David Owen, the foreign secretary under then-Prime Minister James Callaghan, replaced Mr. Ramsbotham with Peter Jay, a rising young star in British journalism who was economics editor of the Times of London.

Jay was inexperienced in diplomacy and happened to be Callaghan's son-in-law -- facts that prompted accusations of nepotism among many members of Mr. Callaghan's own Labor Party.

Jay's supporters were just as adamant, pointing out that his youthful dynamism was more suited to the Carter White House. They painted Mr. Ramsbotham as an unimaginative "fuddy-duddy" out of step with the times. There were also criticisms that Mr. Ramsbotham's lavish entertaining was tone-deaf to the continuing economic crisis at home.

In the loud debate that followed his removal, Mr. Ramsbotham took to a graceful near-silence. "Wheels turn," he explained at the time.

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