Diplomat and teacher

Born: April 6, 1949;

Died: April 29, 2016

ALYSON Bailes, who has died of cancer aged 67, was a diplomat, teacher and academic who had a long and successful career in the Foreign Office, the European Council and the Ministry of Defence. She was British Ambassador to Finland at a time when female ambassadors were still relatively rare and, as a member of the Scottish Global Forum think-tank, was an advisor to the Scottish Government on the independence of small states.

Early in her career, she was lucky to survive a terrorist attack by the IRA in the Netherlands in 1979 in which the British ambassador Sir Richard Sykes was killed. Ms Bailes had been in the Netherlands for an EC meeting and was sitting in Sir Richard’s Rolls-Royce when two gunmen ran towards it and opened fire. She managed to shield her face from the flying glass and was with Sir Richard as his chauffeur drove them to a hospital nearby.

At the time of the attack, Ms Bailes was working as assistant to the EC's Committee of “Three Wise Men”, which was appointed in 1978 to look at ways of making the Community institutions more effective and of promoting progress towards European Union. In her long career, she was also a visiting professor at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, lecturing on security topics, and was director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which is dedicated to research into conflict and disarmament.

In her later years, she lived in Selkirk in the Scottish Borders and was an influential contributor to the independence debate before the referendum in 2014, arguing that Scotland should form much stronger alliances with the Nordic countries. While in Scotland, Ms Bailes was also an active member of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, which celebrates the legacy of the Scottish historical writer whose novels centre on nobleman Francis Crawford of Lymond.

She was born in Liverpool, the daughter of two teachers, and attended Belvedere School in the city before winning a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford. After graduating with a first in modern history in 1969, she joined the Foreign Office aged 20 and was one of just four women among that year’s intake of 24.

At the time, the Foreign Office was still seven years away from appointing its first female ambassador and Ms Bailes’ duties as a junior diplomat in the West European Department included keeping the fire stocked with coal. However, she was marked out early on as talented and, in her own self-effacing way, nurtured an ambition to become an ambassador one day.

Her first posting was to Budapest, followed by a position with the British delegation to NATO in Brussels before joining the European Community Department in London.

It was while in this role that she witnessed the assassination of Sir Richard Skyes in March 1979 by two men. The killers had slipped down a back alley near Sir Richard’s home and rushed his car as he was getting in. They then ran back up the alley and disappeared.

Immediately after the attack, in which the ambassador’s Dutch envoy was also killed, Sir Richard’s chauffeur, drove to a nearby hospital, with Ms Bailes in the back of the car. Later, she spoke about the experience, saying “I instinctively raised my handbag in front of my head to protect myself from the flying glass and so saw nothing at all of what was happening. It was only when the chauffeur drove out into the street that I realised the ambassador had been shot and was unconscious.”

After the EC department, Ms Bailes joined the MOD for two years before working in the FCO’s policy planning department, where her responsibilities included writing speeches for the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe.

By the late 1980s, she was deputy head of mission in Beijing, then deputy in Oslo before becoming ambassador to Helsinki in 2000 – 30 years after joining the Foreign Office. Some of her colleagues believed she could have reached the level of ambassador much sooner had she been more conspicuous in playing office politics.

In the end, she stayed in the post for only two years, deciding to leave the Foreign Office altogether and pursue other interests, including teaching. In 2007, she accepted a teaching post at the University of Iceland, specialising in the security of small states. She also lectured at the College of Europe in Bruges and the University of the Faroes.

Peace, security and disarmament were among her constant interests and from 2002, she led the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which advises policy-makers on arms control and conflict. She was also a member of the Trident Commission on UK nuclear weapons policy established by the British American Security Information Council think-tank.

Ahead of the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, Ms Bailes also made many influential contributions to the debate, speaking to MSPs on the subject of small states, and sat on the advisory board of The Scottish Global Forum, which aims to analyse global issues affecting Scotland and its role in the world. Writing in The Herald last year, Ms Bailes described the elections in the Faroes and drew a comparison with the islanders’ debate about whether to seek independence from Denmark and the Scottish referendum. “In these islands, as in Scotland,” she said, “politics are divided along two spectrums: from left to right and from unionist to nationalist.”

She was an Honorary Fellow of her alma mater Somerville College, a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Military Science, chair of the scientific advisory committee of the Flemish Peace Institute, and a member of several other advisory, scientific and editorial boards.

Current chairman of SIPRI Sven-Olof Petersson paid tribute to Ms Bailes. “Alyson was a brave, straightforward and outspoken director of SIPRI who by her actions and statements further increased the credibility of the independence and relevance of the institute,” he said. “She was never afraid to refute poor or ignorant arguments, but always in a gentle, subtle and non-confrontational way.”

Away from political science, Ms Bailes’ interests included classical music – and perhaps more surprisingly, heavy metal; she also spoke seven languages and understood many more. She is survived by her mother, brother and sister.