James ActonSir Michael Quinlan (1930—2009)

It was with genuine and deep sadness that I learnt yesterday of the death of Sir Michael Quinlan, aged 78, on Thursday.

In a career within the UK civil service that spanned 40 years, Sir Michael served in a variety of roles and departments, including as Permanent Under-Secretary (the most senior civil servant) at the Ministries of Employment (1983—88) and Defence (1988—92). Indeed, defence was his primary interest and focus and he earned a reputation as one of the finest strategic thinkers in post War Britain, particularly on nuclear issues.

After “retiring”, Sir Michael became a more public voice on defence and security matters: first, as Director of the Ditchley Foundation (1992—99) and subsequently as a writer and academic. He wrote three books: European Defense Cooperation: Asset or Threat to NATO? (2001), Just War (with General Lord Guthrie, 2007) and Thinking About Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects (2009). The last of these was published just two weeks ago.

I got to know Sir Michael in late 2007, when he was a Senior Consulting Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and “thesis adviser” to George Perkovich and me for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons.

In fact, it was Sir Michael who first conceived of this project, in the spring of 2007. Although a firm believer in the importance of nuclear deterrence in today’s world, he also thought that if the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was to be “load-bearing” component of the broader non-proliferation regime, it was imperative for the nuclear weapon states to take their article VI commitment—to work in good faith towards disarmament—seriously. For him, this started with undertaking an intellectually rigorous exploration of the feasibility of disarmament, without any preconceptions. His essay in Survival is still, to my mind, the clearest and most brilliant explanation of why this is worth doing.

I always looked forward to going to an event at which I knew Sir Michael would be present. He was not only intellectually brilliant and witty, but also modest, approachable and thoroughly decent. I greatly appreciated his criticism of our work, which, although invariably direct and honest—in fact, precisely because it was so direct and honest—helped shaped it quite profoundly.

I asked Mark Fitzpatrick, Senior Fellow at IISS and a friend of Sir Michael’s, to add a few words:

Sir Michael was a role model beyond peer, a visionary who combined a pragmatic understanding of the need for deterrence with a Jesuitical sense of justice. His clear-thinking analysis, willingness to hear out every point of view and, not least of all, his exquisite use of the Queen’s English was inspirational. Notwithstanding the intellectual gifts and senior rank that give many former officials a sense of self-importance, Sir Michael remained always modest, and easily befriended every colleague, no matter position or age. At an office cultural outing to the English National Opera, one such befriended intern felt moved to want to clasp him around the shoulder. All who knew him will clasp his memory.


  1. Tom

    A great man, indeed.

    Have a look at this 2006 BBC Hardtalk interview:

  2. Wakeymugs (History)

    In the few interactions I had with this intellectual giant one learned more about nuclear strategy formulation than one would have acquired from many books. I held Sir Michael in very high esteem – a Guru by all standards.

  3. kerbihan

    Thank you James for this thoughtful and well-deserved post. Wonk readers not familiar with Michael’s work should know that he was also peerless when it came to articulating the moral dilemmas of nuclear weapons and deterrence. R.I.P., Sir Michael.

  4. Shay Begorrah (History)

    In the Telegraph’s obituary of Mr Quinlan they note that, despite his fondness for nuclear weapons, he was a strong opponent of the Iraq war:

    Writing in a different arena only weeks before the invasion, Quinlan had said: “The issue need not have been pushed to the top of the international agenda. Saddam was… not behind al-Qaeda’s 11 September outrages; not even the CIA believes that he would risk giving ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to terrorists. Comparisons with Hitler are an ignorant joke.”

  5. Rwendland (History)

    Shay, Quinlan’s “fondness for nuclear weapons” was less than many I think. In the HARDtalk interview he accepted that for the UK now a nuclear deterrent is just an “insurance against uncertain possibilities”, and the decision to retain Trident should be subject to cost/benefit analysis. His initial position was “probably” worth retaining at a capital cost of £15 billion, but £50 billion is “probably too much”.

    He tried to stir some better debate on UK Trident replacement issue in ‘International Affairs 82: 4, 2006’. In particular he took the view there that “Scarcely anyone would claim that the highly unspecific arguments sketched above would now amount to an adequate case for shouldering the political and economic costs of creating [a] nuclear capability from scratch if it did not already exist.”

    So he was not keen on UK nuclear weapons at almost any cost, as some were and no doubt still are.

  6. Shay Begorrah (History)

    Thank you Rwendland, I have to admit to serious ignorance about Quinlan’s measured and moral approach to nuclear weapons.

  7. Paul (History)

    Well put, James and Mark. At the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance I shared a paper on nuclear policy with Sir Michael last summer and received the most gracious, thoughtful and complimentary response, even though we were virtual strangers. He shall be missed by our community.

  8. peter Zimmerman (History)

    Michael (he never let me call him Sir Michael) was my friend and colleague at King’s College London from 2004 to 2007 when I retired, and ever since by e-mail. His warmth and generosity were only matched by his logical brilliance.

    The architect of the modern UK style of nuclear deterrence, he was on balance committed to disarmament under safeguards and by the time we met no longer quite so devoted to the hydrogen bomb as one obituary put it.

    Michael and I along with other UK and US nuclear scientists traveled together to a “trilateral” meeting in Beijing in 2007. It was on that trip that I met his wife, Mary. It was simply a delight to see the love between them after many years of marriage. On the personal side as well as the professional, Michael Quinlan stands out as one of the greatest people I knew in London.

    Missed by the community? I miss him. I slipped up on returning an e-mail a couple of months ago, and now I can’t.

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