Dame Denise Holt

Doctor of Laws Dame Denise Holt

Friday 20 July 2012 at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor Susan Harrow

Mr Vice-Chancellor,

Today we honour a Bristol graduate in Modern Languages and Politics, who has made a distinguished contribution to diplomacy and public life. 

Dame Denise Holt graduated from the University of Bristol in 1970 with the degree of Bachelor of Arts in French, Spanish and Politics.  She has gone on to become a career diplomat with an outstanding record of public service in the United Kingdom and overseas.  Dame Denise was appointed British Ambassador to Mexico, 2002-2005; she served as Director for Migration and the Overseas Territories, 2005-2007; she was appointed British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Spain, 2007-2009. In recognition of her exceptional achievement and outstanding service, Denise Holt was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George in 2009.

It was against a backdrop of war and civil strife, in a context of momentous cultural and political upheaval in Europe, in the Middle East, and beyond that Denise Holt grew up. Born Denise Mary Mills in post-war Vienna, she spent some of her early years in Moscow (her sojourn in Soviet Union coinciding with the death of Joseph Stalin!). The daughter of a diplomat, Denise then moved to Japan and subsequently to the Middle East – to the Lebanon from where Denise was evacuated when the 1958 civil war broke out. Some of Denise’s early schooling took place in the Netherlands (where she attended a French school and gained what she assesses, perhaps modestly, as ‘reasonable proficiency’).  Their diplomatic itinerary then took the Mills family to Iran (which was at the time under the rule of the Shah) and thence to Bulgaria (when Bulgaria was still behind the Iron Curtain). Denise’s exposure to diverse peoples, cultures, languages, and highly charged political developments, was exceptional and deeply formative. 

That transnational backdrop suggests excitement and adventure, but home life presented its challenges and constraints. Embarking on a university degree course in modern languages and politics was not straightforward for this aspirational young woman who was the first in her family to enter higher education. But becoming a student here at the University of Bristol was a joy for Denise; it was an important first taste of autonomy.  As well as lectures and libraries, she recalls her cosy flat share with friends in Clifton village. Denise and her fellow students were pursuing their studies against the backdrop of the May ’68 movement: the student politics of that heady era gave contemporary relevance to her studies of the Age of Reason (in the French Department), of Civil War (in Spanish) and of the nature of democracy in her Politics course.  

Upon graduating, Denise was able immediately to put her degree to work. She joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a Research Analyst, specialising in Iberia, a front-row seat from which she observed and chronicled the emergence of Spain and Portugal from frozen post-war Dictatorships; she witnessed their passage to full democracy and membership of the European Union – these were among the most successful transitions to democracy the world has ever seen.  In 1984 Denise Holt was posted to Dublin as First Secretary, embarking at that stage on a generalist diplomatic career. After further postings in London and Brazil, Denise pioneered a job-share in a challenging front-line department responsible for the newly emerging countries of Central Asia and the Transcaucasus: she was, once more, working on states in transition.  By this time, Denise was married to fellow diplomat David Holt, and they had a son, Patrick. Family life was sustained in creative ways. Denise took unpaid leave to accompany her husband on his final diplomatic posting to Trinidad and Tobago. David Holt accompanies his wife today on this important occasion, together with Patrick (himself a languages graduate). After Denise’s return to London in 1999 she was appointed Director of Personnel for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, answerable to the Board and Ministers for all ‘people issues’ in a global organisation of around 12,000 employees providing essential services to Ministers and to the British public in over 200 postings, some in the most challenging environments in the world.

In 2002, continuing the theme of working with countries in transition, she was appointed Ambassador in Mexico.  With new opportunities opening up in the wake of President Fox’s election in 2000, Denise was able to play her part in supporting British business interests in the world’s ninth largest economy; Mexico is also UK’s 2nd largest trading partner in Latin America. Denise Holt helped to develop the relationship in fresh ways, for example working with several Mexican States to reform of the judicial system, and – one of her proudest achievements – persuading the then British Prime Minister to include Mexico in the 2005 G8 Gleneagles Summit. As a direct result of this Mexico is today a key partner in international environmental matters.  We welcome the presence here of His Excellency the Ambassador of Mexico, Sr Eduardo Mora, and Sra Medina Mora.

Following her term as her Ambassador in Mexico, Denise Holt returned to London to shape a newly created role of Director for Migration. She worked withDowning Street, Department for International Development, and the Home Office to ensure that countries observe their international responsibilities with regard to illegal migration, including people trafficking. Concurrently Director for the UK’s 13 remaining Overseas Territories, her main responsibility was to ensure adequate preparation for the wide range of political, economic and environmental risks facing these small, vulnerable, territories. 

In 2007 Denise Holt was appointed Ambassador to Spain, the first woman to hold this office between the UK and Spain since Catherine of Aragon, and the first British woman Ambassador in 500 years of resident diplomatic relations.  I know Denise would count, as her career highlight, presenting her credentials to King Juan Carlos. Being Ambassador means, primarily, defending British interests in the host country. Denise’s ambition has always been bigger: to seek mutual advantage through the bilateral relationship, on the grounds that this may be more durable.  She would be the first to say she was fortunate to be Ambassador to this key EU and NATO partner at a time when the relationship had reached a breadth, a depth and an intensity that were unimaginable in 1970, when she first worked on Iberian affairs.  Spain was the UK’s biggest investor in 2007, and Denise found herself in the role of senior relationship manager with Spanish companies like Ferrovial, Santander, Telefónica, Iberdrola – all now features of the British economic landscape. But these were also presured years for the global economy, and Denise played an important part in ensuring that, at Ministerial level, Spain and the UK were singing in unison following the collapse of Lehman Brothers. As Ambassador, Denise Holt also directed the largest British consular operation in the world:  Spain hosts 16 million British visitors every year and is home to up to 1 million British residents of all ages.  Births, marriages, deaths, and everything in between, cross the Embassy’s desks every day in this fascinating social development.  We are honoured to have with us today the Ambassador of Spain, His Excellency Sr Federico Trillo Figueroa whom we welcome most warmly.

British Ambassador to Spain was Denise Holt’s final appointment in a career that has been pursued globally and accomplished brilliantly. In 2009 Denise Holt was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George by her Majesty the Queen in recognition of her extraordinary service.

Dame Denise’s passion for languages, politics and cultures, shared by so many people gathered at today’s graduation, continues undiminished.  Her continuing love affair with Spain is reflected in her role as Chair of the Anglo-Spanish Society, which encourages academic exchanges through a scholarship scheme supported by major Spanish businesses in the UK (and I welcome here today Luis Juste of Santander Universities).  Denise is a Member of the Management Council of the Canada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies, at the London School of Economics, and she is currently appointed Robin Humphrey Fellow at the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of London. Dame Denise’s commitment to high standards, in education as elsewhere, continues in her work on the Board of Ofqual (the examinations regulator for England). Denise remains strongly committed to the success of the British economy not least as a source of graduate employment, of funding for universities, and of care for the elderly. She applies her professional expertise and her commitment to high ethical standards in the busy role of a Non-Executive Director in the commercial and energy sectors.  Denise Holt has also focused on health care:  building on her public-sector experience she is a member of the National Health Service Pay Review Body, advising on the remuneration of 1.6m NHS staff.  In memory of her late mother – she is Independent Chair of the Nominations Committee for the Alzheimer’s Society, the charity which confronts the explosion of this devastating disease in our population. 

So, through her many prominent appointments, in the public and private sectors, in fields as diverse as health, environment, education, personnel and human resources, and renewable energy sources, Dame Denise Holt, Bristol graduate, has pursued a career of the highest achievement and of continuing significance.  

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Dame Denise Mary Holt as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

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