Obituary: Lord Oram
Tuesday 07 September 1999
When asked to identify the achievements of the Wilson governments from 1964 to the 1970s, most Labour MPs still alive in Parliament during those years would probably say, "At least we can be proud of the Open University, and what we did for overseas aid, protecting it from appalling economic pressures, and doing much innovative work in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world."
The fact that ODA (Overseas Development Administration) was a success is due in significant part to the work of Bert Oram, who served successively Barbara Castle, Anthony Greenwood, Arthur Bottomley and Reg Prentice as senior minister for the department. In 1969, when Oram left government, it was he who with typical generosity briefed the incoming minister, the young Mrs Judith Hart, on the importance of intermediate technology and small-scale non-high-tech projects, and the disadvantages of putting resources into prestige projects.
Oram was one of the first ministers in any European government to preach scepticism about the huge prestige project, such as the steel mill in India, where the British, Russian and German huge-scale steel operations turned out to be a disaster.
Albert Edward Oram - he was known by everyone as Bert - was born in Brighton, the son of a blacksmith journeyman, who was responsible for fashioning the beautiful railings round the cathedral at Chichester.
After elementary school and a bursary to Brighton Grammar School, Oram went to read Geography at the London School of Economics. The Geography course involved lectures in Economics and therefore Oram came into contact with the charismatic Harold Laski, later to be chairman of the Labour Party. Years later Oram was delighted when Laski came to speak for him at his first attempt at Parliament, in Lewes in 1945, when he got 18,511 votes to the 26,170 votes of Tufton Beamish, later to be chairman of the 1922 Committee.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Oram had to leave his schoolteaching post in Reading because he declared himself a conscientious objector. He became a market gardener, and then a hospital porter. However, when Russia came into the war and he saw the horrors of Nazi Germany, he changed his mind and enlisted in the Royal Artillery as a private soldier. He landed in Normandy on D-Day plus 3 and remained through the campaigns of the Falaise Gap and through Belgium into Germany until VE Day.
In March 1960 Oram made a speech to the Parliamentary Labour Party which greatly irritated some of his colleagues. "One or two virtuous people, like Bert Oram and the new Judith Hart, told us about their pacifist consciences, which did us all good" - I asked Oram many years later if he had been annoyed to see this remark in print in the backbench diaries of Richard Crossman, whose PPS I had been. Oram replied quite simply: "Yes, I did read it and I was very hurt. You see, if you had been through the military campaign in France and Belgium and to the Rhine, you would easily understand why I am passionately against allowing re-armament.
"Those who have seen war at the front are much more cautious than those who, with whatever distinction, were warriors in psychological warfare based at the headquarters of Eisenhower's command in Algiers or at the supreme headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force."
In 1950, Oram was selected to fight the new seat of Billericay, which had emerged from boundary changes. Disappointingly, he won 19,437 votes to the 23,803 of Bernard Braine, later to be Father of the House of Commons. However, his position as research officer of the Co-op Movement helped him to become nominated as candidate in succession to A.J. Barnes in the safe seat of East Ham South in 1955.
In his maiden speech, in June 1955, Oram concentrated on the successes of the Co-operative Movement:
It is not always realised and certainly not in the House that we have in the Co-op Movement a very fine example of a real property-owning democracy. If we look at its property-owning aspect, we find it has assets worth pounds 600m, which is a fantastic and magnificent achievement when one realises that these assets have
been built quite literally out of pennies and shillings and the toil of millions of ordinary working people over the years.
Oram was before his time on a whole range of issues in making constructive suggestions and one of them was a pamphlet urging a ministry of Consumer Welfare. It took nearly 40 years to bring this about, but if Oram's original concept had been followed up it would have been greatly to the advantage of British industry and the retail trade.
Oram, on Labour's victory in 1964, was chosen as Barbara Castle's deputy in the Department of Overseas Development. Castle remembers him as "a gentle man showing loyalty both to me as a person and to the great reforms in overseas aid policy on which we had embarked. He worked well with Thomas Balogh, our adviser, and they shared scepticism about financing large- scale projects."
(The place where Oram was transformed from a gentle person to a highly excitable person was the Upton Park of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Malcolm Peters. Over a game in the chess ladder in the House of Commons Chess Room under the pictures of Balfour and Bonar Law, he confided to me that both chess and football were a passion second only to the Co-operative Movement and the Labour Party - in that order.)
Oram was so highly thought of on account of his expertise in African affairs that he was asked to accompany Harold Wilson on more than one visit to Rhodesia. When Barbara Castle went to Transport, Oram served Anthony Greenwood and then Arthur Bottomley. It was during the period when Bottomley, who had been Attlee's ministerial representative during the negotiations for the independence of Burma, was his boss that Oram was able to make an impact on aid policy towards South-East Asia which became the focus of British attention at that time.
One of the areas where he persuaded his colleagues to concentrate their efforts was in the provision both of teachers for developing countries and more particularly in a rapid expansion of ODA-sponsored teaching places for overseas students at British training colleges and universities.
The last cabinet minister whom Oram was to serve was his East Ham neighbour Reg Prentice. Prentice recalls: "Bert Oram was a very good parliamentary colleague indeed. We shared East Ham, and we always held our advice bureaux in the same building at the same time. Although we saw our own constituents, if there was any delegation from the borough we would of course see them together. If either of us was abroad the other would step in and do the constituency work.
"Oram was to the left of me but always in a friendly way. When I came to the Overseas Development Department in 1967, there was not the slightest awkwardness from a friend who had been doing the job since 1964."
In 1974, with the creation of Newham seats, and a reduction of the old East Ham North and East Ham South, West Ham North and West Ham South seats from four to three, Oram volunteered to leave the positions to his colleagues, Reg Prentice, Arthur Lewis and Elwyn Jones, who was to become Attorney General.
Oram had got into some difficulty with the Co-op Party over his very brave decision to be the only Labour and Co-op member who had voted with 68 of his colleagues on 28 October 1971 in the same lobby as the Heath government to go into the European Community. He remained a passionate pro-European when it was very uncomfortable to be such in the London Labour Party. And one of his considerable achievements was to be the driving force in bringing East Europe and particularly Poland back into the Co- operative Alliance.
After leaving the Commons he devoted himself to being a government whip in the Lords and then to the work of being chairman of the Co-operative Development Agency from 1978 to 1981. As the opposition spokesman in the Lords he sustained the cause of intermediate technology, and expanded the ideas of Schumacher and the concept that "Small is beautiful".
In conjunction with his devoted wife of 43 years, Joan, who, as a schoolgirl 10 years before they married, had distributed leaflets for him in Lewes, he took an active and worthwhile part in the Sussex and Brighton Co-operative Movement until he had a stroke at the beginning of this year.
Albert Edward Oram, teacher and politician: born Brighton, East Sussex 13 August 1913; Research Officer, Co-operative Party 1946-55; MP (Labour and Co-operative) for East Ham South 1955-74; Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Overseas Development 1964-69; created 1975 Baron Oram; opposition spokesman on Overseas Development, House of Lords 1983-87; Labour peers' representative in the Shadow Cabinet 1984-87; married 1956 Joan Barber (two sons); died Brighton 4 September 1999.
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