John Barnes, Historian

Lord Lansdowne

But for the insistence of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, that they travel in separate planes, Lansdowne might have died with him in the Congo just under 38 years ago. As a junior minister in the Foreign Office, he had been sent by Macmillan to report on the military efforts undertaken by the UN to bring Katanga's secession from the Congo to an end and to persuade them that diplomacy rather than force might be a more appropriate means to that end. The British Government, as Lansdowne made clear, feared that the UN action might leave Soviet-backed insurgents in charge of the province rather than return it to the control of the central government. Hammarskjold was persuaded and agreed to meet with Tshome, the Katangese leader, to negotiate a ceasefire and a settlement. "This is very good news", Macmillan recorded. "Lansdowne has done well." But on his way to Ndola, where the talks were to take place, Hammarskjold's plane crashed. Nevertheless a provisional ceasefire was arranged and Macmillan was impressed by the way that Lansdowne had taken his first great opportunity. Within months he promoted him to be Minister of State at the Colonial Office and later in 1962, when both the Commonwealth Relations and Colonial Offices were brought under a single minister, Lansdowne was made his deputy. He played a major role in negotiating the details of the federation between Malaysia and Singapore and his diplomatic skills were put to extensive use in persuading the Tunku that he had to work with Lee Kuam Yew if the Federation was to become a success. Subsequently he was involved in trying to resolve the dispute with Malta over the future of the dockyard, which rather unexpectedly led to the British Government acceding to Malta's request for independence. Labour's election victory in 1964 and a personal tragedy in the following year, when his first wife committed suicide, brought a promising public career to an untimely close.

George John Charles Mercer Nairne Petty-Fitzmaurice, 8th Marquess of Lansdowne, was a grandson of the 5th Marquess, who had served as Viceroy of India and had then as Foreign Secretary brought about the Anglo-Japanese alliance and the entente cordiale with France. While George Lansdowne was a boy, his grandfather, first as a member of Asquith's Coalition Cabinet and then from the backbenches, had called for a negotiated peace with Germany. It is not altogether surprising therefore that his grandson nursed political ambitions from an early age.

His father, Lord Charles Petty-Fitzmaurice, was the second son of the 5th Marquess and his mother, Lady Violet, a daughter of the 4th Earl of Minto, like Lansdowne a former Viceroy of India. In 1914 Lord Charles changed his name to Mercer Nairne in order to inherit the Meiklour estate in Perthshire. Later the same year he was killed in action in France and his widow remarried in 1916. George's stepfather, John Astor, subsequently bought The Times and became the first Lord Astor of Hever.

Born on 27 November 1912, George Mercer Nairne was educated at Eton and Christ Church and on coming down with a not particularly distinguished degree, he plunged into the social round. In 1938 he married Barbara Chase who came from a wealthy California family. Having taken over the hose and estate at Meiklour, he made his first essay into politics as secretary of the Junior Unionist League for East Scotland. He had also taken up a commission in the territorial army and on the outbreak of war, joined the Royal Scots Greys. He was promoted to Captain in 1940.

Virtually bilingual in French and English and a descendant of Talleyrand into the bargain, Mercer Nairne was the perfect choice to be seconded to the Free French forces and he took part in Leclerc's successful effort to win French equatorial Africa for de Gaulle. Leclerc subsequently became godfather to his eldest son, Charles, who was born in 1941. During the abortive attempt to seize Dakar in September 1940, he was aboard the battleship Barham. De Gaulle understandably was unwilling to take any action which would involve a great many Frenchmen dying at the hands of their blood brothers. Promoted to Major in 1944, Mercer Nairne was dropped into enemy-occupied France to pass intelligence to the Resistance in preparation for the Normandy landings. For his work during the war he received the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d'honneur.

Mercer Nairne can have had no expectations of succeeding to the Lansdowne titles - there were nine in all - even though his eldest cousin had predeceased the 6th Marquess a decade earlier. However his youngest cousin was killed in Normandy in August 1944 only a few days before the 7th Marquess died in action in Italy. After the liberation of Paris, he became private secretary to Sir Alfred Duff Cooper, who was our Ambassador to de Gaulle and remained with him until the war was over. In later life he would look back on this period in his life as one of the happiest and most fruitful, and there can be no doubt that his passionate devotion to the cause of France when coupled to seemingly inborn diplomatic skills was an asset to Duff Cooper's mission. Anglo-French relations were at a surprisingly low ebb and were exacerbated by differences of policy over the Levant.

Had he not felt forced to take personal control of the family estates, it is possible that Lansdowne would have used his appointment in Paris as a passport to a career in diplomacy or politics. However, although he had inherited estates in Kerry and the family seat in Wiltshire, much of the family wealth had passed to his cousin, Kitty. Unkind friends would observe that neither his education nor his upbringing had equipped him with the business acumen he now needed, and there was some truth in that. But he showed enormous courage, not to say ruthlessness, in tackling the problems posed by Bowood, an enormous mansion in Wiltshire built by Keene and Adam between 1754 and 1768 with a park supplied by Capability Brown. It had been taken over by a girls school in the second world war, but no institution was now willing to take it on. Reluctantly Lansdowne had two thirds of the house pulled down in 1954, leaving only the beautiful Adam Diocletian section standing. He subsequently made Bowood over to his son, choosing to live instead at Meiklour, where he created a magnificent new garden, now open to the public.

In 1957 Lansdowne felt able to turn his attention to politics and after a brief spell as a whip, he was appointed joint Parliamentary Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs in 1957, a position which he retained after the 1959 election. Promoted to become Minister of State at the Colonial Office in 1962, he added a second portfolio as Minister of State for Commonwealth Relations in 1963 and was appointed to the Privy Council in 1964.

Lansdowne had already lost a daughter, Caroline, a decade before and the suicide of his wife in 1965 hit him hard. He withdrew from public life, but emerged to take charge of the fortunes of the Franco British Society in 1972. A year later he took over as Chairman of the Franco-Scottish society and he remained Chairman of both until 1983. He was then elevated into the Presidency of both societies. He was made a Commander of the Legion d'honneur in 1979. He matched his command of French with an ability to make lively, charming speeches in both languages.

He had married again in 1969, to Polly Carnegie, daughter of Lord Eccles, but that marriage was dissolved in 1978. Later that year he married Gillian Morgan, but she died in 1982. In his last years a series of strokes impaired his mobility, but he took to a golf buggy as a way of getting around his gardens. He had served as President of the Royal Surgical Aid Society from 1985 and in 1989 took on the role of patron of Invalids at Home. In 1995 he married for the last time, to Penelope Astor, the widow of his half brother, John.

Lansdowne was a man of great charm and intelligence, enormously attractive to women, whom he in turn adored. He was largely self-taught, but he had acquired a wide knowledge of history and countryside matters and that he loved to share. He was good with the young, but he loved nothing more than a good argument, which often lasted late into the night and left more bruises than he realised. He liked to put people on their mettle and could be acerbic in conversation. Only those who knew him well realised that the technique was being used to make people reveal themselves. In fact he had an insatiable curiosity about people and about their every activity, but he always took people as he found them..

Life at Meiklour allowed him to indulge in his favourite sports of shooting and flyfishing. He was an expert at both, but he also made himself into a considerable expert on gardening, particularly his own, to which he devoted much time and trouble and which will serve as a lasting legacy long after his political achievements have been forgotten.