It is with sadness we mark the passing of Michael Williams, Baron Williams of Baglan, aged 67. He was one of the finest diplomats of his generation, but also kind, witty, and generous. His friend and colleage Ed Owen remembers the tumultuous years they spent together at the British Foreign Office.
Michael was a wonderful man, and his early death this week is both a huge loss to the diplomatic community and deprives many of a great friend.
I first met Michael in the FCO in London after the General Election in 2001 and we hit it off immediately. He had been working as a special adviser to Robin Cook for a couple of years when I arrived in Jack’s Straw’s baggage from the Home Office with little prior knowledge of foreign affairs. He probably didn’t think too much of this young upstart initially but he hid it well and was a crucial guide and mentor to me in picking up the diplomatic ropes.
We became a great double-act – and Jack always like to joke that he appointed Michael for his brains and know-how, and me for my political guile and low cunning. Whatever the truth, Michael was a massive influence on Jack and the wider Foreign Office team during what was an extraordinarily difficult period following the September 11 attack, running through the intervention in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq.
Michael was a source of huge wisdom and advice through this period – and he became a close friend. What shone through always was his strong commitment to international justice underpinned not from a superficial love of the diplomatic game and ritual but because of his genuine, deeply-held commitment to humanity. For Michael, above all else, was a truly fantastic human being. Always generous, warm-hearted and modest in temperament, he was a mentor and friend to many of us who were lucky enough to know him.
Michael was fantastically clever and had a great sense of humour too. I remember many occasions of uncontrollable laughter – often during times of high drama and tension – as a result of his cutting wit, and he was not immune from good old-fashioned gossip too, although never with malice.
Michael moved from the Foreign Office in 2006 to rejoin the UN – for which he had worked for in Cambodia and later in Bosnia in an earlier part of his career – to become Kofi Annan’s special adviser on the Middle East before taking the role of the UN’s special co-ordinator in Beirut and then Under Secretary General.
He returned to the UK in 2011 after being made a life peer and became a distinguished fellow at Chatham House focusing on the Middle East and South East Asia. He also served on the board of the BBC Trust.
I have never met anyone who had a bad word to say about Michael. He was loved and admired by many, and he will sorely missed by us all too.
Ed Owen was a Special Advisor at the FCO. You can see more tributes to Michael here.