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Obituary: Lord Montague of Oxford

While still only 26, Montague founded his own electrical firm. `I used to make the goods, deliver them to the back door, and then go round to the front to collect the money'
MICHAEL MONTAGUE, who collapsed and died after speaking in the House of Lords on the very last day of its unreformed existence, was the very model of the New Labour businessman. Openly, if discreetly, gay, a successful businessman, but a bluntly public-spirited one, it was hurtfully unfair that he was attacked as having been one of the "cash for coronets" crowd of the wealthy Johnny-come-lately supporters of New Labour, when his support for the party involved a long-standing commitment.

Yet he was the very prototype of the New Labour businessman, and not only because he was gay, Jewish, successful, and unashamedly wealthy (though he often preferred to walk or take the tube rather than use his Rolls- Royce), and clearly not inclined to put up with old-fashioned Labour habits.

Where Montague was both courageous and unusual over 30 years ago was as the chairman and chief executive of a modestly sized industrial company, Valor, who was also an outspoken and thoughtful Labour supporter, at a time when such support was largely confined to industrial grandees like Cecil Harmsworth King and Sidney Bernstein.

Immediately after the 1964 general election, in language which was a striking precursor of that employed by the many businessmen who converted to the doctrines of New Labour 30 years later, Montague openly "deplored the way the Conservatives had attacked the newly elected Labour government as bad for British business", given that "as a businessman I have suffered from the results of bad economic management of the past few years."

"For the dynamic and really enterprising businessman who is prepared to harness science and technology to his own and the community's advantage" he added, "then a Labour government can only bring increased benefits. To those who fear the Government's policies, let me say `Don't be frightened of the unknown.'" For Montague was one of the many who hoped, in vain, that the Labour government would provide "some consistent policy based on economic and administrative competence".

His pioneering New Labour credentials were reinforced in January 1970 when nearly a third of his company Valor's employees failed to turn up one morning as a result of a New Year hangover. He immediately denounced the laggards as "irresponsible - an indictment of some of Britain's working men."

In his younger days he realised that politics was not a welcoming arena for a gay man - he naturally rejoiced as attitudes became less hypocritical recently, in the political if not the business world. Not surprisingly, invitations to River Willows, his home in the Oxfordshire countryside, were limited to real friends, and included some surprising contrasts like Peter Mandelson and the late John Smith - though not together. For, as a result of his early support for the party, his shrewdness, and his lack of political ambitions, he was naturally trusted and widely consulted within the party.

Montague's long-time partner, Takashi Sizuki, was Japanese, and the relationship provided him with an unusual insight into the Japanese character as well as a lifelong love for Japanese food - what turned out to be his last birthday party was held in a sushi restaurant complete with a karaoke session. In one of his speeches to the Lords, amongst other advice, he explained to their Lordships how the back-slapping approach did not work with the Japanese and how when entertaining Japanese guests, "it is better to make contact with somebody who can provide the Japanese with the food which they like so much".

Although successful enough, Montague's business ambitions were not completely fulfilled after a precociously brilliant start. Educated at High Wycombe Royal Grammar School and Magdalen College School in Oxford, he discovered a gift for salesmanship - and an ambition to be his own boss - at a early age. He started as a travelling salesman peddling electric wire and in 1958, while still only 26, he founded his own electrical firm, Gatehill Beco, making cheap electric boiling rings. With an initial capital of only pounds 100 he had to do everything: "I used to make the goods, sell them, deliver them to the back door, and then go round to the front to collect the money," he explained once.

In 1962, a particularly substantial order meant that he had to seek a bigger, publicly-quoted partner for his firm. This was Valor, which had reported losses as the result of a health scare involving the kerosene heaters which at the time accounted for 80 per cent of its turnover. Within a year, Montague had been appointed managing director and had initiated a policy of expansion, diversification and, above all, and most unusually at the time for a medium-sized manufacturing firm, a vigorous world-wide export programme. He claimed that "I tried to visit our major markets overseas at least once a year" - even though this meant travelling to Africa, North America, Japan and throughout Asia selling Valor's kerosene cookers and oil heaters.

In 1969, the Labour government recognised his success in selling to then- neglected markets by appointing him chairman of the Asia committee of the British National Export Council, where he served until 1972. In 1970 he was appointed CBE for the way he carried out his thankless task.

Although he remained as chairman of Valor until 1991, his dreams of making a major impact on the business scene (especially in the automotive sector) remained stillborn and Valor itself suffered as it failed to keep pace with the demands for increasingly sophisticated heating and cooking equipment, partly, perhaps, because Montague devoted so much of his time to public service jobs.

These were many and various. They included the chairmanship of the National Consumer Council and membership of the Millennium Commission (where he was appointed as the Labour nominee while John Smith was still leader of the party). But he was most obviously in the limelight in the five years from 1979 to 1984 when he was chairman of the English Tourist Board. In that role he was typically outspoken, attacking, amongst other targets, "second-rate" hoteliers, "greedy" seaside impresarios, "grubby" motorway caterers, taxi drivers for taking over-large tips from tourists, museum attendants for being "miserable" and waiters for being "surly."

Perhaps he himself provided the best tribute to his attitude to life. He told a friend that he had enjoyed his two years in the House of Lords but that his experience confirmed his motto: "You always expect things to be better than they actually are."

Nicholas Faith

Michael Jacob Montague, businessman: born 10 March 1932; managing director, Yale and Valor plc 1963-65, chairman 1965-91; Chairman, Asia Committee, British National Export Council 1968-72; CBE 1970; Chairman, English Tourist Board 1979-84; Chairman, National Consumer Council 1984-87; Chairman, Montague Multinational 1991-99; member, Millennium Commission 1994-99; Chairman, Superframe plc 1995-99; created 1997 Baron Montague of Oxford; died London 5 November 1999.