Obituary: Edmund Dell

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
EDMUND DELL had one of the very best minds that enhanced the Wilson government of Oxford Firsts and the Callaghan cabinet - or any other British cabinet. He was a minister of outstanding academic ability who possessed in huge quantity a quality that does not always accompany brilliance of intellect - sound judgement.

He was my friend; he, and his wife Susi, a wonderful support even 15 years before they married in 1963, stayed with me and my wife in Scotland. But this in no way deterred him from putting me through the wringer, as I have never been grilled by a minister, when I went to see him for help for the British Motor Corporation in my constituency, in Bathgate. He was a merciless and penetrating inquisitor, as senior civil servants appearing before the Public Accounts Committee during his chairmanship in 1972-74 found to their cost.

Had he not been lured into politics by his great friends, both later distinguished Treasury ministers, Joel Barnett and Robert Sheldon, I believe he might well have become chairman of the company for whom he worked, ICI in its formidable heyday. He was a man of enormous seriousness. Not pompous. Not self-important (Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody, a one-time ministerial colleague, remembers how "very funny, with his dry wit," he could be in committees): but serious. I never heard him make a cheap remark or a yah-boo. How come in a politician? Because, quite simply, he never did.

Edmund Dell was born in London in 1921, one of the three children of Polish immigrants who had come to England fleeing from the pogroms and found work in an umbrella factory. Dell respected his father, Reuben, still alert when he was over 90 years of age, as a scholar manque. His parents, passionate believers in self-improvement, saved to send their talented sons from elementary school to Owen's School, where Edmund rewarded them as a boy of 15 by winning the London Boys' Chess Championship and, like his brother Sidney Dell, later one of the most influential economists at the United Nations on the developing world, by gaining an open scholarship to Queen's College, Oxford.

The Second World War interrupted Dell's undergraduate career. He served as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery operating 6lb and 17lb anti-tank guns in the Third British Division. As Replacement Officer, he landed in Normandy in the first week, carrying on through the whole campaign in France and the Rhine Crossing, until the final surrender at Luneburg Heath. He then returned as one of that most interesting of all undergraduate generations, resuming his studies at the very end of Michaelmas Term 1946 to take a First in History two terms later. Like his friend Tony Crosland, Dell was offered a lectureship in Modern History within weeks of his finals.

Writing in his 1995 book The Schumann Plan and the British Abdication of Leadership in Europe, Dell says:

Lord Franks was Provost of the Queen's College, Oxford, when I was a history don there. During his time as Provost, 1946-48, he was also Chairman of the Committee for European Economic Co-operation. He told me of his regrets that Britain seemed so unwilling to play a leading role in European integration.

On 28 October 1971 Dell was to be one of the 69 Labour Party Members of Parliament who voted against a three-line whip in favour of Britain's joining the European Economic Community on the terms negotiated by Edward Heath. He was a passionate European in the Franks tradition. When in 1982 I was due to go as a witness before Oliver Franks and his colleagues investigating the events that led up to the Falklands war, I consulted Dell about him. Dell told me that his intellectual debt to the severe and rigorous Franks was huge.

During his period as a lecturer, 1947-49, Dell collaborated with Christopher Hill, like him a pre-war Communist, in an important selection of contemporary sources, The Good Old Cause: the English revolution of 1640-1660, its causes, course and consequences (1949).

With the prospect of a distinguished Oxford career in front of him Dell chose to go out into the world and become an executive in Imperial Chemical Industries in Manchester. He spent 14 years there, soon becoming vice- chairman of the plastics division. He played "a key role", recalls Sir John Harvey-Jones, later ICI's chairman,

in dragging ICI corporately into the European market and providing the focus for a massive recognition of the company and the country's dependence on our neighbours.

In 1955, however, he raised company eyebrows by standing as the Labour candidate in Middleton and Prestwich against Sir John Barlow, who had been deputy chairman of the Cotton Board, losing by 10,000 votes.

Dell had been elected to the Manchester City Council in 1953 and had won the golden opinion of the working-class leader of that council, Robert Thomas, who gave him key chairmanships. It was on Dell's initiative that Manchester City Council surrendered in its long-term struggle with Cheshire County Council on the ownership of the exquisitely beautiful Tatton Park, now the third most visited house in England. "Let Cheshire have it, so the people of Greater Manchester can visit it!"

In 1959 he was dissuaded from going forward as a Labour candidate, being told by ICI that his promotion to the highest echelons of the company would be made extremely difficult by his pursuit of politics. In the meantime, he formed a celebrated Manchester coffee shop with his friends Joel Barnett and Robert Sheldon. They persuaded him to take the political road and go forward in succession to Percy Collick as Member of Parliament for Birkenhead. He won by 23,994 over the Conservative candidate R.K. Morland.

Thirty-five years ago today, during the first debate of the new Labour government on economic affairs, Dell made unquestionably the heaviest- weight maiden speech which I have ever heard in 37 years in the House of Commons. Not for him superficial pleasantries:

First, I want to say a word about the import surcharge. I think that it was essential to restrain imports in current circumstances. If imports had to be discouraged, then I think that an import surcharge was the best way of doing it. Certainly, it is a better and more flexible way than a quota licensing system. Nevertheless, there is no disguising that it can have an adverse effect on our exports, and therefore it must, as the Government have promised, be temporary.

I say that it can have an adverse effect on exports for three reasons. First, there is the danger of retaliation. I speak here not of retaliation from government, although that is important, but of retaliation by customers. I know of one Commonwealth country, for example, where firms that import from us will be deprived of their import licences if they cannot export to us. Secondly, one silver lining in the cloud of manufactured imports was that it made sedentary boards of directors taste the nip of export air and perhaps begin to understand the problems of exporting and what it is necessary to do to achieve exports. Thirdly, the surcharge must be temporary because of its probable effect on the delivery of exports.

Dell, who spoke fluent Spanish and semi-fluent Portuguese, having travelled widely in Latin America for ICI, established himself as the Commons expert on export. Unlike most of his generation of Labour MPs, he was in a practical way concerned about expanding the economic cake, and leaving problems of dividing it until after export problems had been addressed. On another level, the poorer community of Birkenhead and those who lost their jobs at Camel Laird knew that they had in their MP a serious champion.

Ending his formidable maiden speech, Dell touched on the theme to which he was to return throughout his relatively short parliamentary life and particularly as Secretary of State for Trade:

In my travels I have often found that a British community, when an ambassador retires from his post, congratulates him on his work and refers to his travels throughout the country to which he has been accredited. I often wonder whether perhaps a better measure of success might be the movement of trade during that period. I realise that this would be quite unfair. Trade depends on many other things than ambassadors, but it would be as fair a measure of ambassadorial success as the sort of measure provided now.

Dell ended that the success of the Government would be judged on many counts but in no activity would their success be more important than in exports, because on success in exporting British goods depended the future of our economy and our ability to solve the many social problems which we face.

Dell was not simply an academic and Harold Wilson found no difficulty in explaining that his contemporaries could not complain when the first promotion to ministerial office of the 1964 intake should involve a man who had been the President of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council, at the same time as being Simon Research Fellow at Manchester University.

His first job was under Richard Marsh at the Ministry of Technology. His first parliamentary question on 3 May 1966 came from me:

Mr Dalyell asked the Minister of Technology if he will state the terms of the research contract he has recently placed with Imperial College of Science and Technology for the development of a general-purpose computer processor.

Dell replied:

The contract is for a general-purpose compiler to provide a tool for translating programming languages into the orders which individual computers obey. The contract, which covers a three-year programme is for pounds 106,500.

Mr Dalyell: Is this to be a prototype form of contract?

Mr Dell: It is certainly the sort of contract which we wish to develop with both industry and the universities to develop the computer industry.

Unusually for a minister, Dell sent for me afterwards to give a fuller explanation.

In 1988 he became Deputy Chairman of the Governors of Imperial College during the rectorship of Sir Eric Ash, who recalls:

When I arrived as Rector in 1985 Dell's down-to-earth approach was of direct practical support in such tasks as the selection of senior administrators. His experience and instinct helped us decide who could do a job and who was likely to be unable to do it.

In 1987, after Dell had left Parliament, one of his important books, The Politics of Economic Inter- dependence, considered the limits of interdependence:

Interdependence should not be allowed to dictate the surrender of national eco-

nomic defences. On the contrary, defences should be kept sufficiently intact. In principle it would be right to try to define the world "interdependence". To attempt too much at this point would be to fall into a trap, the trap of believing that, in international economic diplomacy, words mean what the dictionary says they mean. The word "interdependence" is used to describe the post-war system of economic relations between Western developed countries created under American leadership. Sometimes it is extended to include relationships with developing countries, but their commitment to it is far less even than that of developed countries. It is a word from the diplomatic dictionary full of overtones and nuances.

Dell was one of the first, if not the first, to address these problems - as befitted a former Secretary of State whose first statement as a cabinet minister concerned the fourth UN conference on trade and development which met at Nairobi in 1976.

Dell's final book, The Chancellors: a history of the Chancellors of the Exchequer 1945-90 (1996), is a superb account of Dalton, Cripps, Gaitskell, Butler, Macmillan, Thorneycroft, Heathcoat-Amory, Selwyn Lloyd, Maudling, Callaghan, Jenkins, Macleod, Barber, Healey, Howe, Lawson and Major. His chapter entitled "The Three Healeys" is a vignette of insight into the Chancellor whom he served as Paymaster General and with whom he sat in Cabinet, his trenchant contributions making an impression not least on Prime Ministers Wilson and Callaghan.

My last conversation with Edmund Dell was some months ago, on devolution. He was against it. He was furious with Tony Blair for not replying to his letter on devolution. And his last words to me were, "You Scots will end up sooner rather than later as an independent state."

When, in 1969, Robert Maxwell began an "I'm Backing Britain" campaign, Harold Wilson, the then prime minister, supported this and put Edmund Dell in charge as the "I'm Backing Britain" minister, writes Robert Sheldon. Meanwhile Maxwell had started a ludicrous campaign which received widespread derision because of the antics he employed. When asked privately what he was doing with such a task Edmund used his considerable gift of timely reticence by replying, "As little as possible."

When he was appointed Paymaster General he recalled the actions of a previous holder of the office, Henry Fox. He was reputed to have made over pounds 1m in 18th- century money by using the office to make payments to himself. Edmund, recalling this, did not follow custom by signing away his rights to civil servants. Instead, he went to bed that night indulging himself for one day with the thought of the power he still retained.

Following the illness of Harold Lever in 1972 he became Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. He realised that the benefit Britain was getting from the taxation of North Sea oil was going to be quite inadequate. Unusually for those days, he used his position as chairman of the committee to commence a full inquiry. The powerful report it produced led to the Revenue Petroleum Tax which he introduced when he became Paymaster General in the 1974 Labour government.

He was one of the "three wise men" appointed in 1979 by the European Council to review the procedures of the European Community. This extended his already considerable interest in the development of the Community on which was to write with insight and authority. In particular, his book The Schumann Plan and the British Abdication of Leadership in Europe set out the definitive background to those unhappy events.

Among his many activities were his role as founder chairman of Channel 4 Television. He established the channel where, despite its weakening following his departure, many can, 12 years later, still see part of the influence he brought to the medium.

His book The Chancellors provided a deep understanding of the problems facing Chancellors of the Exchequer in modern times. Many regard it as a lost opportunity that his talents were not used in the office itself.

Edmund Dell, historian, politician and businessman: born London 15 August 1921; Lecturer in Modern History, Queen's College, Oxford 1947-49; staff, ICI 1949-63; President, Manchester and Salford Trades Council 1958-61; Simon Research Fellow, Manchester University 1963-64; MP (Labour) for Birkenhead 1964-79; Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Technology 1966- 67; Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Economic Affairs 1967-68; Minister of State, Board of Trade 1968-69; Minister of State, Department of Employment and Productivity 1969-70; PC 1970; Acting Chairman, Public Accounts Committee 1972-73, Chairman 1973-74; Paymaster General 1974-76; Secretary of State for Trade 1976-78; chairman and chief executive, Guinness Peat Group 1979-82; founder chairman, Channel 4 Television 1980-87; Chairman, Prison Reform Trust 1988-93; Deputy Chairman, London Chamber of Commerce and Industry 1988-90, Chairman 1990-91, President 1991-92; married 1963 Susi Gottschalk; died London 1 November 1999.

Comments