Obituary: Lord Robens of Woldingham

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ALFRED ROBENS rates one of the longer entries in Who's Who. It is a dazzling catalogue of achievements, including ministerial appointments, company chairmanships, public and academic honours and many prestigious posts as well as four weighty books. At this distance from his heyday - when he was almost a household name - it is not easy to find the real Alf Robens behind the impressive record.

It is perhaps now forgotten that from 1945 to 1960 this great captain of industry, Chairman of the National Coal Board for a decade, and pillar of the Establishment, was the Labour MP for the mining constituency of Blyth in Northumberland. In those days I knew him well, and often (but with growing reluctance) stood in for him at Sunday evening meetings (the most hated chore of an MP's life) which he had undertaken in moments of generosity but was unable - or unwilling - to carry out for one reason or another. I was with him at a function in Blyth the night before he was named as the new chairman of the Coal Board - but neither I nor his constituency officers were given any inkling that this was to be his final appearance.

Those of us who knew him then remember a big, jolly man, a supreme extrovert whose boundless self-confidence, vigour and strength of feeling often gave him an aura of superficiality which he did not merit. Nothing could knock him down. He was like one of the old Kelly lamps which, however many times they are knocked sideways, always end the right way up. And that really was the story of his life. He always landed on his feet.

Clearly Robens impressed Clem Attlee, who brought him into the Cabinet in the dying months of his government after four years as a junior minister at the Ministry of Power.

After the 1951 general election he took his place on the opposition back benches where he made no secret of his boredom. He was like a stranded whale with enormous energy and vitality which could find no adequate medium in which to swim. Harold Macmillan came to his rescue when, in 1960, he appointed him to the chairmanship of the National Coal Board, an event which marked the demise of the Labour politician and the emergence of the great industrialist Baron Robens of Woldingham, in which role he would, no doubt, wish to be remembered.

It has often been speculated - speculation which Robens always encouraged - that, had he soldiered on in Parliament in opposition, he would have become Leader of the Labour Party instead of Harold Wilson and, therefore, Prime Minister in 1964. Who knows?

He was still at the Coal Board when Labour returned to office. We soon discovered that our erstwhile colleague had shed whatever socialism he claimed as a minister and had become an apolitical businessman - the halfway house in his eventual move from left to right of the political spectrum.

He had taken over the Coal Board at an extremely difficult time. Oil had become plentiful and cheap. A severe contraction of the mining industry was unavoidable - indeed this was almost certainly the reason why Macmillan had appointed a Labour man to do the job. He carried out the programme of closures with skill and humanity, minimising as far as he could the inevitable damage to the mining communities. Of course he was fortunate that the closures took place at a time of full employment.

But it was a policy which brought him into conflict with the Labour government. From the beginning of the Wilson administration there was bad blood between Whitehall and Hobart House - so much so that Fred Lee, Minister of Power, and his junior minister, John Morris, came to Downing Street in 1965 to see me as Chief Whip to discuss their deteriorating relations with Robens, who persisted in virulent criticism, both public and private, of the Government's fuel and power policy.

He vigorously expounded the doctrine of the "arm's length" relationship between the publicly owned industries and the Government and, like the trade unions organiser he had originally been, lined up his fellow chairmen behind him in the Committee of Chairmen which he originated and dominated.

His anti-government posture was probably fuelled by his close association with Cecil King, who was at this time a member of the NCB. It was King who organised the plot against Harold Wilson - a project which failed abysmally and humiliatingly for King. No evidence that Robens was involved has ever emerged.

The later years of his decade at the Coal Board were overshadowed by the Aberfan disaster in October 1966 - perhaps unfairly, but, then, the public's perception of the action (or lack of action) of great men is frequently unfair. By one of those cruel coincidences of fate he was being installed as Chancellor of Surrey University at the very time when the rescue teams were clawing through the mud to retrieve the bodies of the tragic young victims. The installation was an event of pomp and ceremony which, not unnaturally, the press contrasted with the heartbreaking scenes at Aberfan caused by the collapse of an NCB-owned pit heap.

Lord Snowdon was one of the first VIPs on the scene and earned the admiration of everyone by the extraordinary compassion he showed to the bereaved families. He was followed by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prime Minister. When Robens eventually visited the scene on the following Sunday almost everything he did and said caused offence - including his outsized cigar, which he sported as he toured the village. Subsequently there were long and unseemly wrangles between the Government and the NCB about who should pay for removing the remaining pit heaps.

When Lord Justice Edmund Davies's report on the tragedy was published in August 1967 the Coal Board was scathingly criticised. Robens offered to resign but would not allow the rest of the board to resign with him as they wished - an indication of the loyalty he evoked in those who served him. Richard Marsh, by now the Minister, refused to accept his resignation. After the Coal Board Robens spent eight successful years as chairman of Vickers.

For three decades, until in 1993 he suffered the first of two disabling strokes, Alf Robens filled a succession of offices, including 15 years as a director of the Bank of England, and was universally portrayed and, indeed, portrayed himself, as the quintessential leader of industry. His was a life of considerable achievement and ceaseless activity - not without its moments of greatness.

Glenamara

Alf Robens's appointment to run the National Coal Board turned out to be a bed of nails for a man who did not shirk controversy or a challenge, writes Terry Pattinson.

Indeed, during his period as NCB chairman, Robens revealed that he "would almost certainly" have become Prime Minister if he had stayed on the Labour front bench. He explained in a television interview:

This is a statement of fact and not a comment. If I had still been an MP then my name would have been included as a candidate when the leadership was being discussed. It would have been the highest probability that I would have succeeded in winning that election.

He said that, if he had become Prime Minister, he would have run the country "as a huge corporation". At his peak Robens was described as one of the most unusual, colourful and controversial men in Britain. Certainly, he was a complex, extremely clever individual who reached the top of every tree he attempted to climb and did not endear himself to everybody along the way.

He had three things going for him: an immense belief in himself; an instinctive capacity for leadership; and a shrewd and nimble brain. He will not be remembered with excessive affection by the trade unions who felt, not unnaturally, that he could have been a saviour of many jobs in the coal industry instead of a man they viewed as a government-appointed destroyer. He was, after all, a former official of the shopworkers' union Usdaw, a Manchester city councillor and a Labour MP. Many Labour supporters thought this appointment by the Tory government was a plot to wreck the Labour Party by seducing one of its most prominent members.

Robens was Chairman of the NCB for a decade from 1 February 1961 and approved pit closures and job losses which make later coal industry cuts appear almost minimal. During his stewardship 400 pits were closed and one job in every three - 300,000 in all - vanished, yet the industry's wage structure was revolutionised and productivity rose by 50 per cent. His book Ten Year Stint (1972) pulled no punches and was the story of a remarkable social and industrial revolution.

He wrote bluntly of his running battle with the Communists and militants in the coalfieids; of his fight for the industry against his former political colleagues in the Labour government; of the ferocious confrontation on fuel policy in which he says he was dramatically proved right, and of the horrors of the Aberfan tragedy. Naturally, he blamed Whitehall pressures for most of the ills of the industry. In 1961, more than 600,000 were employed at 698 collieries. By 1971, those figures were down to 300,000 and 292 respectively and the National Union of Mineworkers' leadership was fast preparing to shed its role of meek compliance.

Forty-three pits were closed in 1964, the year Labour took office. The following year, coinciding ominously with the discovery of substantial reserves of North Sea oil and gas, Labour published its National Plan for Coal which endorsed not only a continuation but an intensification of the contraction programme.

Robens, with his Labour credentials, used his charm and guile to win over right-wing NUM leaders, many of whom actively encouraged certain collieries to close. The sometime NUM President Lord Gormley recalled in his 1982 autobiography Battered Cherub how Robens became very unpopular towards the end of his reign when he visited Yorkshire and branded local miners "layabouts". "In his first years, though," Gormley wrote,

he could charm the sparrows off the bloody trees, as indeed he must have been able to do so, since he was winning standing ovations at NUM conferences at the same time as he was cutting the industry in half.

In Ten Year Stint, Robens remembered his recurring message to union conferences:

You will live by pulling yourselves up by your own bootstraps. You cannot look to governments to save you any more. I repeatedly tried to show you that in the end it was the customer who decided the size of the industry. Once it was cheaper or more convenient to use another fuel, sentiment would count for nothing.

After leaving the NCB in 1971 he became chairman of Vickers and deliberately kept a low profile on coal and energy matters for many years afterwards, finally breaking his silence in 1977 to attack the Energy Secretary, Tony Benn. Robens warned that the proposed Energy Commission would do nothing more than perpetuate mistakes of the past. He also criticised the previous year's National Energy Conference, chaired by Benn in 1976, "as a bit of political window-dressing and of no advantage whatsoever to planning an energy policy for the country". In the December 1974 winter issue of Coal and Energy Quarterly he was highly critical of the actions of successive Tory and Labour administrations in the 1960s. He wrote: "It is tragic that the present thinking is really just as unclear as it was in the 1960s."

He wrote that during his tenure of office he met no one in the Civil Service or political circles who thought the Coal Board's prognostications were anything but "the grinding of a selfish axe". As a result, he said that 300 pits were shut, the industry's labour force was halved, and production targets cut from 240 million tons a year to 200 million tons. Of the energy scene in the Sixties he said: "If the advice of the Coal Board had been partially heeded, the country's economy would not have been so disastrously affected by oil prices from 1973."

Robens had two theories as to why the board's warnings were ignored. First, there was the profound belief in Whitehall that cheap and plentiful oil supplies from the Middle East would always be on tap. Secondly, there was a need for manpower in other industries and it was believed a shakeout in mining could best meet that demand.

Robens and controversy went together like gin and tonic. In May 1979 he called for the return of a Tory government, saying that if Labour won the general election it might be the last ever held. He described the then Labour leadership as "pygmies" compared with the "giants" of the Clem Attlee government, and forecast that by 1984 the party would be in the hands of "power- hungry fanatics".

He was equally critical of trade-union leaders by comparison with their predecessors, claiming that the 1979 "winter of discontent" was the result of a Communist strategy of infiltrating the unions "which had largely succeeded". Naturally, his statement was hailed by the Tories as another sign of their inroads into Labour's support.

Alfred Robens, politician and industrialist: born Manchester 18 December 1910; MP (Labour) for Wansbeck 1945-50, for Blyth 1950-60; Parliamentary Private Secretary to Minister of Transport 1945-47; Minister of Labour and National Service 1951; PC 1951; created 1961 Baron Robens of Woldingham; Chairman, National Coal Board 1961-71; Chairman, Foundation on Automation and Employment 1962; President, Advertising Association 1963-68; Chairman, Board of Governors, Guy's Hospital 1965-75, Guy's Hospital Medical and Dental School 1974-82; Chancellor, Surrey University 1966-77; director, Bank of England 1966-81; chairman, Vickers Ltd 1971-79; chairman, Johnson Matthey plc 1971-83; President, Incorporated Society of British Advertisers 1973-76; Chairman, Engineering Industries Council 1976-80; chairman, Snamprogetti 1980-88, president 1988-99; married 1937 Eva Powell (one adopted son); died Chertsey, Surrey 27 June 1999.

Comments