This obituary appeared in The Times, Wednesday August 02 2023, and is posted here by kind permission.
When John Baird, the Labour MP for Wolverhampton, turned up in a hotel lobby in Baghdad in 1961, he greeted Peter Marshall, the head of chancery, with the words: “I’ve no use for your sort! I’m here because I’m chairman of the Hands Off Iraq Committee.”
Marshall, unperturbed, invited Baird to a garden party the following evening, and to meet the ambassador.
Baird duly attended and lodged his complaints, but soon after returning home sent a letter to Marshall. “Although I remain implacably opposed to everything you stand for, you’re really not at all a bad chap,” he wrote.
“Hospitality is an essence — perhaps the essence — of the job,” Marshall would advise his protégés.
He became the flag-carrier for the virtues of the Commonwealth in the decades when anti-colonial fervour put its existence on the line, and the organisation’s endurance through waves of controversy owes much to his guidance. He completed his diplomatic career as British ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva.
Upon retirement he was appointed as Commonwealth deputy secretary-general, and after retiring for a second time he became the chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society. An Atlanticist and latterly something of a Eurosceptic, he was a well-known figure on London’s diplomatic circuit, in the ranks of what he described as “the diplomatic rent-a-crowd”. With a background in economics and an eye for multilateral diplomacy, he eschewed the generalist tendencies of some of his colleagues, demanding instead precise technical and financial details when undertaking negotiations. In this way he would, with a robust courtesy, often buffer the plentiful supply of bumptious egos in international affairs.
Peter Harold Reginald Marshall was born in 1924 in Reading to Winifred and Reginald Marshall, an auditor, and was educated at Tonbridge School. At 19, like his father and three brothers before him, he joined the RAF. A navigator, he began active service by flying a Liberator from Montreal to Calcutta. In an epic journey, he confessed that although he was never lost, “the circle of uncertainty was at times improbably large”.
Marshall aged 97
After the war he went up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as a choral scholar. He well suited the college’s approach to life — “High Church, High Tory, High Table” — and would be made an honorary fellow 40 years later.
He took a good economics degree in 1949, and joined the Diplomatic Service, apparently to spite his Cambridge tutor, who told him he was “aiming very high”. His first 20 years took him in turn to posts in Washington, Baghdad, Bangkok, Geneva and Paris.
His entrée into American high society came as much from his contribution, with a rousing tenor voice, to the Washington National Cathedral choir in the early 1950s, as from his first diplomatic post, and he continued to indulge in light opera in amateur choirs on returning home.
A posting to Geneva in 1979 brought to the fore Marshall’s skills in multilateral diplomacy and he embraced his role with characteristic enthusiasm. Halfway through his time there, in 1981, his wife Patricia (née Stoddart) died, after nearly 25 years of marriage. Their daughter Fiona, a recruiter, and Guy, who works in finance, survive him.
Marshall had initially dubbed the Commonwealth “the after sales service of Empire” but he soon came to appreciate its modern value as a “network of networks”. As did Margaret Thatcher, who when the idea of Marshall joining the Commonwealth Secretariat was first mooted, did not conceal her lack of enthusiasm, saying “the Commonwealth is not an entity”.
It was a time of strained relations between Thatcher’s government and the rest of the Commonwealth, particularly over the issue of South Africa during apartheid. By the time Marshall retired for the second time in 1988 he was as well known elsewhere in the Commonwealth as in London. He remarried in 1991 to Judith, widow of the essayist EWF Tomlin. She died in 2013.
For ten years he oversaw the Commonwealth Day multifaith Observance at Westminster Abbey, invariably attended by Queen Elizabeth II. He was a vice-president of the Council for Education in World Citizenship, a governor of the English-Speaking Union and a trustee of St Catherine’s Foundation.
He continued to move around London’s diplomatic circuit and was a visiting lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy of London for more than a decade. He published his Foreign Office experiences in a guide to the profession titled Positive Diplomacy, a true reflection of his philosophy. He opted against writing a memoir, believing there were far too many diplomatic memoirs already. His deep Anglican faith, like his love of opera and golf, fulfilled his old age.
Peter Marshall in the 1940s
With a roster of friends of all ages, he was a robust raconteur, with a prodigious memory and a keen sense of the longue durée. His diplomatic neutrality wore off slightly during many a Eurosceptic intervention around the Brexit negotiations, where he saw encapsulated the frustrations he had found with the style of European diplomacy. Leaving the EU would, he believed, finally allow British diplomats to realise there is a “C” in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The diplomatic hospitality Marshall espoused had always extended both ways. An especially keen Cuban dignitary, in an inevitably unsuccessful attempt to lobby the UN Trade and Development Board to hold their conference in Havana, gifted its chairman, Marshall, a large box of Cuban cigars.
Marshall sent a telegram to London explaining the situation, asking, “I take it that it would be in accordance with Diplomatic Service regulations if these cigars were burnt under my personal supervision?” They agreed on the course of action.