Robert Woodthorpe Browne MBE (1943-2022)

The unexpected death of Robert this week, in the run-up to an ALDE Party Council meeting, the scene of so many of his contributions to the Party’s international work, has cast a shade over the work of our delegation this weekend.

Robert Woodthorpe Browne, the former veteran Chair of the Party’s International Relations Committee, latterly Federal International Relations Committee, died on Tuesday morning, following a stroke the previous week. An internationalist to his fingertips, his reputation as one of the leading players in global liberal politics was a tribute to hard work, an almost uncanny ability to make deals and a sense of pragmatism that stood him, and the Liberal Democrats, in good stead over many years.

I was lucky enough to work with him, as a member of many delegations to ALDE Party and Liberal International events, as he worked a room, brought together coalitions of parties and quietly influenced key debates. As delegation leader, he managed the seemingly impossible task of persuading large groups of Liberal Democrats to vote broadly along the same lines, a task likened to herding cats by some. It was done with humour and, occasionally, an iron fist elegantly clad in a velvet glove, but always with sufficient charm to convince you that you probably should do it anyway.

In later years, he became a Vice President of the Liberal International, something he was rightly proud of, and travelled the world in support of liberals everywhere they could be found, almost entirely at his own expense. Once his period in office came to an end, he was honoured with the role of Patron, something only given to the greats of international liberalism.

At home, he was a great encourager of emerging political talent, and it is remarkable how many of our former MEPs have noted how supportive he was of them as they sought nominations. He was also relentless in seeking to protect the Party’s subscriptions to ALDE and Liberal International in the face of attempts by a series of Party Chief Executives to cut costs.

Tributes have come from across the liberal world, with Hakima El Haité, current President of Liberal International, speaking for so many of us:

It is worth a look at the quote tweets of the Liberal International tribute too, which is a roll call of prominent global liberals.

Outside of the Liberal Democrats, Robert was a active member of the Worshipful Company of World Traders, serving as its Master in 2016-17. His commitment to liberalism in the global South was a reminder of his professional career, working in reinsurance, both as broker and underwriter. He founded the African Insurance Conference when working in Mauritius and, after twenty years concentrating on Africa and the Middle East, he moved on to Central and Eastern Europe following the end of the Iron Curtain era.

My abiding memory of Robert will be of walking into a bar or hotel lobby at an Liberal International or ALDE event, and seeing Robert in a corner, a glass of wine in hand, almost certainly with his old friend and fellow insider, Manfred Eisenbach from the German Free Democrats. It was a reassurance that, in a ever changing world, there were still some certainties.

Robert leaves his wife, Barbara, and a son, Robert. Our condolences go out to them both.

* Mark Valladares is a member of the Party’s Federal International Relations Committee and currently in Bratislava, where tomorrow’s ALDE Party Council meeting will open with a tribute to Robert.

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10 Comments

  • Mick Taylor 2nd Dec '22 - 2:45pm

    What dreadful news. Robert was always unfailingly supportive to my late wife Ruth and to me whenever we attended ALDE events A gentleman and a Liberal to his fingertips, his contributions to the party internationally were legend and he will be sadly missed by all who knew him. He wrote a very kind and supportive letter to me when Ruth died in July. Who will we all plot with at ALDE now?
    Heartfelt condolences to his family.

  • Mark Smulian 2nd Dec '22 - 4:12pm

    “Ask Robert” was usually the correct answer to any enquiry about anything connected to Liberal International, international politics, foreign governments or the London diplomatic corps.
    Robert knew everybody. It could sound like name dropping if one wasn’t used to it, but he really was known and welcome in innumerable embassies and international organisations and knew anyone who was anyone in even the most obscure LI member parties.
    Robert’s contribution to Liberal International was huge and he was very kind and encouraging when I was new to it. In recent years he also took on the setting up and development of the Paddy Ashdown Forum. He will be much missed.

  • Massimo Ricciuti 2nd Dec '22 - 5:41pm

    Such a sad day.

  • Merlene Emerson 2nd Dec '22 - 9:44pm

    Thanks Mark for this tribute. Shocked and saddened by Robert’s sudden passing as he was still so alive and full of ideas for new projects. I joined the World Traders events’ committee when he was Master and worked with the Paddy Ashdown Forum through Chinese Libdems on various webinars (eg on the situation HK) as well as on PAF’s publication on the Rise of China. He will certainly be missed. To misquote Shakespeare: may flights of angels guide him to his rest. RIP.

  • Sandra Lawman 3rd Dec '22 - 10:05am

    He was always genuinely pleasant and capable. I think he was also on the boards of Gresham College and of Chatham House.

  • Phillip Bennion 3rd Dec '22 - 3:29pm

    We were able to pay tribute to Robert at the beginning of ALDE Council this morning. Representing the Liberal Democrats I was able to outline Robert’s contribution to international liberalism, through our party, ALDE and most of all Liberal International. Robert was always willing to fly half way across the world at short notice and his own expense to sort out a problem. I have become a personal friend of Robert and Barbara over the years, as has our German FDP friend Manfred Eisenbach, who I invited to say a few words too, prior to a minute’s silence.

    Can any of Robert’s political friends planning to attend the funeral on 13th December please let me know. I can then let Barbara know how many it is likely to be.

  • John Barrett 5th Dec '22 - 1:25pm

    Really sad to read this news. He was a lovely man. Having travelled abroad with him many years ago to a variety of meetings, he was always kind, thoughtful and always had the time for those seeking his advice.

  • Paul Reynolds 6th Dec '22 - 12:50pm

    Robert’s passing is indeed a great loss; to his family, friends and to the UK Liberal Democrats, ALDE and Liberal International. He will be very sorely missed. I found Robert to be an extraordinary one-of-a-kind character, who had an amazing ability to bring people together, not for it’s own sake but in pursuit of long-sighted beneficial outcomes. Much of the advantage from Robert’s tirelessness was unseen, in the background, often leaving internationlist Lib Dems in international fora wondering why things had strangely gone so smoothly ! There will never be another Robert. Such a sad, sad loss… My thoughts are with Barbara and all the family.

  • Patrick Salaun 17th Dec '22 - 1:49pm

    I first got to know Robert when he led the British delegation at the Liberal International Congress in Marrakech in 2006.There, I was able to witness at first hand his persuasive negotiation skills, bringing different liberal groups together, facilitating the drafting and passing of resolutions.

    In addition to his shrewd political and diplomatic skills both my wife, Ann, and I much appreciated his warmth, sense of humor and generous hospitality.

    Our sincere condolences to Barbara and family.

    Patrick Salaun.

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