Sir James Mellon, diplomat who promoted Britain’s business interests across the world – obituary

His greatest achievement, he said, was keeping the Concorde project alive in the face of opposition from the Treasury and the DTI

Sir James Mellon
Sir James Mellon Credit: Courtesy of the Mellon Family

Sir James Mellon, who has died aged 94, was an imaginative, unstuffy Glaswegian who was Britain’s High Commissioner to Ghana, Ambassador to Denmark – a country in which he took a lifelong interest – and Consul-General in New York.

A distant cousin of the Mellons of Pittsburgh, he spent much of his career promoting British business. He reckoned his greatest achievement was keeping Concorde alive, when heading the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s scientific and technology department, so that London, not Frankfurt, became Europe’s financial centre, as the flying time for Americans was shorter.

Mellon wrote a (largely complimentary) book about the Danes, Og Gamle Danmark (1992), which made No 4 in their bestseller list. He developed a particular affection for the country’s churches, with their pre-Reformation wall paintings chronicling the life of Christ; his visits, creating a bond with local people, gave rise to a further book, Jesu Liv i Kalkmalerier.

Despite his lifelong interest in Denmark, Mellon did not particularly like its people. He found them especially difficult in Nato, but said they had been “trained to be nice in English”. He found them not a nation in the normal sense, but a tribe whose dynamics reminded him of the Ashanti in Ghana.

In retirement, he observed: “The Danes are an intensely selfish nation. They played it both ways during the war. They had more people fighting on the Eastern Front than there were ever in the Resistance, and until 1944 it is highly unlikely Denmark could have been a founder member of the United Nations – it was the ‘Showcase Province’ of the Germans. But you don’t hear that.”

His readiness to tour Greenland and the Faeroes impressed his hosts, but his dispatches made uncomfortable reading. From Greenland he reported: “50 per cent of the population has VD, 50 per cent is under 16. The average consumption of liquor is probably £4,000 to £5,000 per year. You cannot throw people out of their houses in minus 300, so they don’t pay their rent. They drink and fornicate and do all sorts of things.”

Mellon’s connection with Denmark began with postgraduate study at the University of Aarhus. In the RAF he qualified as a Danish interpreter, and he arrived in Copenhagen in 1960 from the Scottish Office as agricultural attaché to find himself the only Briton in the embassy who could speak the language.

Passing through, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Home, asked Mellon what Denmark was like. He replied, candidly, that the Danes were a very different people – “manic, rather than depressive” – when talking English.

Mellon's success in fighting for Concorde meant that London and not Frankfurt became Europe's financial centre Credit: Antony Nettle/Alamy

Difficult negotiations over fisheries were under way, and Mellon told Home: “you just have to hit the Danes hard and not be too kind”. The tactic worked, and before long he was invited to join the FCO. He would return to Denmark as ambassador in 1983.

James Mellon was born in Glasgow on January 25 1929, the son of a teacher, also James, and Margaret; his brother and sister became doctors. From St Aloysius College, he read Classics, then economics & political science, at Glasgow University.

His further studies at Aarhus were cut short after three months when the Civil Service accepted him. National Service intervened, with RAF signals intelligence in Germany, then in 1953 he joined the Scottish Office’s Department of Agriculture. This led in 1960 to his posting to Copenhagen.

He covered the Hague during Britain’s first attempts to join the Common Market, then in 1963 joined the FCO’s West Africa Department. The next year he was posted to Dakar as head of chancery, with responsibility also for Mauritania until that country broke off relations with Britain after UDI in Rhodesia.

His next posting, in 1967, was to Britain’s delegation to the European Communities in Brussels. When Edward Heath’s government reapplied to join, Mellon built up a network of Commission contacts.

Within half an hour of a Commissioners’ meeting breaking up, he could send London a detailed account of their negotiating position for the next round of talks. He also gave the Council of Ministers an assessment of the political and technical impact its decisions would have on Britain.

Mellon left Brussels the day before Britain joined at the start of 1973, to head the FCO’s scientific and technology department. With both the Treasury and the DTI – which sponsored Concorde – out to kill the project, he pulled every string to save it.

After a year in East Berlin as commercial counsellor, he returned to the FCO in 1976 to head its trade relations and export department.

One day, Mellon saw a telegram from the High Commission in Lagos naming a British businessman as reportedly having had to pay a bribe. He then discovered that a senior colleague had forwarded it to the Attorney-General without consulting him.

At 8.30 next morning he was in with the Foreign Secretary, David Owen. Mellon told him: “If this goes through you, will never have a British businessman inside any of your embassies in future.”

The note to the Attorney-General was withdrawn, and Mellon was instructed to tell every Head of Mission that on no account should anybody get involved with bribery. He also wrote a private “Destroy as soon as you’ve read” letter to every commercial counsellor, saying: “I know quite well that if someone walks through your door and says how do I this, you have to point him in the direction of the agent who will do it, so carry on.”

Mellon: his main job, he said, was 'making sure everybody knew that there were investment possibilities in Britain'

Owen had been horrified to discover going round Africa that many heads of mission did not like Africans. So when Mellon was in the frame to be High Commissioner to Ghana in 1978, he was asked if he did. Replying in the affirmative, he was posted to Accra, also becoming Ambassador to Togo.

His priority was to help over the line a deal to support Ghana that had been laboriously agreed with the International Monetary Fund. Mellon shepherded it through two military coups, firming it up with Ghana’s civilian president Hilla Limann, and crucially gained American support.

Then, at the last minute, President Reagan cooled toward the IMF, and its incoming director, Jacques de Larosière, did not want to upset Washington. It fell to Mellon to tell Limann the deal had fallen through. “His face went absolutely plastic,” Mellon recalled. “He knew this was the end for him. He had nothing to offer his people.”

In Ghana, Mellon found, the British were too well regarded. People were saying: “This independence is a wonderful thing, but when is it going to stop?” The Bishop of Kumasi even asked if it was time to bring the British back. Mellon, anticipating the country’s present prosperity, was convinced Ghana could be the “breadbasket of Africa”.

Mellon went to Togo whenever President Gnassingbé Eyadéma asked for him. Once he found that two British mercenaries who had gone there to shoot the president had instead decided to inform on their backer.

Eyadéma, who was rumoured to have personally killed his predecessor, turned out to be a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher. Coincidentally, Togo was on the UN Security Council when Argentina invaded the Falklands, and gave Britain total support.

In 1983 Mellon became Ambassador to Denmark, succeeding Anne Warburton. He stayed three years, before his final appointment as Consul-General in New York and Director General for Trade and Investment in the USA. There he promoted investment in Britain, hosted Cabinet ministers on the look-out for ideas (three in one day), and touched base every month with Britain’s other consulates.

His real job, Mellon said, was “making sure everybody knew that there were investment possibilities in Britain and all our people speak English and we have the rule of law etc, etc. You tell them about the Common Market and the European Union and all that, and the way in is through the UK.”

Retiring in 1989, he was asked by the Scottish Secretary Ian Lang to chair the newly established Scottish Homes. His appointment, and that of its chief executive George Irvine from private industry, was criticised as they had never worked in the sector. Mellon quelled the sceptics by visiting all of Scotland’s 57 local authorities to discuss their problems.

Success with Scottish Homes led to his being headhunted for a challenge in London: Thamesmead, the township developed from the 1960s and best known for its brutalist architecture and for A Clockwork Orange having been filmed there.

Mellon became executive chairman of Thamesmead Town with local unemployment running at 14 per cent and the authority losing money. He brought in board members with commercial experience and started the building of more welcoming homes as the jobless rate fell back.

He was also active in the City, as chairman of Regent Pacific Finance (from 2000 Charlemagne Capital), which specialised in buying into “bombed-out” investment trusts. Regent was started by his son, the financier and philanthropist Jim Mellon, who would be a heavy contributor to the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum. Mellon senior’s diplomatic skills proved particularly useful in 1996 when Hambros took fright at Regent’s emergence as a major shareholder.

Mellon’s other books include A Danish Gospel (1986) and The Great African Bangle Culture (2018). He was appointed CMG in 1979, and KCMG in 1988.

James Mellon married firstly, in 1956, Frances Murray. She died in 1976, and in 1979 he married Philippa Shuttleworth (née Hartley). She survives him with his son and three daughters from his first marriage and four stepchildren.

James Mellon, born January 25 1929, died July 2 2023