Obituary: Viscount Eccles

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DAVID ECCLES deserves to be remembered as the architect of the post-war expansion in further education and the first minister to regard educational expenditure as an economic investment. His appointment of an economist, Geoffrey Crowther, as Chairman of the Central Advisory Council opened up education to a wider constituency, and the report which Eccles commissioned on education between the ages of 15 and 18 repaid the compliment by making an economic case for raising the school leaving age.

He was ever an enthusiast for an expansion of higher education. He could be sharply political as well. Under pressure earlier to reduce the school leaving age, he wrote: "If we, who mainly send our children to boarding schools, encouraged early leaving from the country's secondary schools we should present the Opposition with a first class election issue." His officials paid tribute to his genuine commitment to opportunity and parental choice, and Edward Boyle, who worked with him in Education, spoke warmly of his "creative imagination". He saw the increasing importance of education to the modern world and while he was there, Education looked set to become a major department.

Eccles is best remembered for his act of self-immolation in July 1962. Unlike others in Macmillan's "Night of the Long Knives", he was offered another post. "It's the Exchequer or nothing," he told the Prime Minister and was promptly added to the list of those to go. Although later to claim that he had intended to stand down before the next election, he complained bitterly that he had been "sacked with less notice than a housemaid" and his animus against Macmillan was fuelled when he was elevated to the Lords as a mere baron. Alec Douglas-Home typically put matters straight in 1964 by conferring the viscountcy more appropriate to Cabinet ministers of Eccles's standing.

In many ways Eccles was his own worst enemy. Macmillan thought him "very vain . . . frightfully bumptious" and he certainly had a high opinion of his own intelligence and his ability to manage a department. That this view was largely justified did not make it any more acceptable to his colleagues. He was nicknamed "smarty boots" and the unkind reference was to more than his sartorial elegance. The distinguished civil servant Antony Part was right nevertheless to think that "his chances of rising further would have been enhanced if he had gone to a less good tailor". He could be contemptuous of colleagues, whom he thought less intelligent, and was more than a little abrasive when dealing with political opponents.

There was a nicer side. He refused to be interviewed by the biographer of one colleague because he knew that he would run him down and did not wish to upset his wife. Although capable of making racy and sometimes idiosyncratic speeches, his style was more often pedestrian, the content much less so. As a former colleague noted, his "brilliant and unorthodox mind compels one to forgive his flat and lethargic voice - I should never omit him from any Cabinet of mine".

David McAdam Eccles came from an upper-middle class Harley Street background, the son of a distinguished surgeon and strong Presbyterian. Educated at Winchester, a great generator of intellectual arrogance, and New College, Oxford, he imbibed his knowledge of liberal economics from Lionel Robbins. While at Oxford he demonstrated a "barrow boy's instinct" for trading, combining a love of antiquarian books with an ability to secure a good price for them. From there he went into the City, rather to his father's dismay, and made a good deal of money. Much of it he invested in books, paintings and sculpture. He gave generously to charity. In 1928, he married Sybil, lovely daughter of the King's physician, Lord Dawson of Penn.

One of his business activities, chairmanship of a Spanish railway, led to his wartime employment as Economic Adviser to the British Ambassadors in the Iberian peninsula (1940-42). There he laid out bribes to good effect to keep both the Franco and Salazar regimes out of the war. His correspondence with Sybil (published after her death as Home Thoughts - By Safe Hand in 1983) reveals how well he played his hand. However searing letters from Sybil suggesting disenchantment with their marriage hastened his return to England in 1942, where they fell in love all over again and lived thereafter in total domestic felicity.

A brief spell at the Ministry of Production ended because he happened to be with Churchill in 1943 when the latter learnt of the death of the MP for Chippenham in a plane crash. "Why don't you stand?" Churchill asked. Eccles did and he held the seat until he went to the Lords in 1962.

In Opposition he became one of Rab Butler's circle (although their relationship was strained when, in 1950, he claimed "the intellectual leadership" of his party). He was one of the group who drafted the Industrial Charter in 1947 and was active also on the European scene as a key member of the European League for Economic Cooperation. He served as a Conservative delegate to the initial meeting of the Council for Europe.

Just before the 1951 election, characteristically indiscreet, he called for cuts in the social services and waited in vain for the expected call to an economic department. Instead he went to the Ministry of Works, a key player in the Conservative's housing drive. He stage- managed the Coronation in 1953 with all the skills of a great impresario. Although haunted ever after by the use Randolph Churchill made of his remark (taken out of context) that the Queen had been "a perfect leading lady", he was knighted by her and was an obvious candidate for promotion when Churchill reshuffled his government in October 1954.

At Education he put his faith in grammar schools and the development of science. Defending selection, however, meant that he would have to strengthen the modern schools. They were to become "magnets" by developing their own specialisms. There were to be extended courses, more vocational courses and links with the grammar and technical schools and with further education. The latter was a new avenue of opportunity and with Eden's backing, he not only secured major funding for the sector for the first time since the war, but produced a rationalised structure offering an alternative pathway into higher education.

Rescuing the Percy Report from 11 years' obscurity, he created a hierarchy of colleges peaking in the new colleges of advanced technology. He was tough and largely successful with the Treasury, winning a major clash with Butler when the latter sought to slow his programme for replacing the all age schools. However, his final battle against the block grant system of local government finance was lost, although not until he had left the ministry for the economic department he had long craved.

At the Board of Trade, curiously, he seemed less at home, although he showed himself a vigorous promoter of British exports. The detailed negotiations to embed the EEC into a wider free trade area were in Reginald Maudling's hands, although when they broke down, it fell to Eccles to denounce the French veto and press unsuccessfully for mutual tariff reductions. He was less than enthusiastic about Efta - describing it as "marrying the engineer's daughter when the managing director's is no longer available". He was responsible for the Distribution of Industry Act 1958, which marked a partial shift back to regional policy.

Returning to Education in 1959, he ensured that all those with two A levels would receive a local authority award to go to university, created the CSE examination and, despite divisions amongst his own advisers, took the first faltering steps "to make the ministry's voice heard rather more often and no doubt more controversially" in what he memorably called "the secret garden of the curriculum". In February 1962, in the teeth of bitter resistance from the local authorities and the NUT, he established the Curriculum Study Group. His successors replaced it with the Schools Council.

However, he clashed with his colleagues when he refused to make cuts in the education budget and was one of those who rebelled against the detail, if not the thrust of Selwyn Lloyd's budget in 1962. Macmillan suspected that he was engaged in some deep-laid plot and was trying to engineer a good issue on which to resign. That was pure paranoia.

After his sacking, Eccles returned to business, becoming a director of Courtaulds and chairman of West Cumberland Silk Mills Ltd. He became a trustee of the British Museum in 1963 and chaired the trustees from 1968 until unexpectedly recalled to government by Edward Heath in 1970 as Paymaster General with responsibility for the Arts. His relationships in that field were soured by the government's determination to impose museum charges. That should not obscure some very real achievements, particularly in relation to craftsmanship. He was later to become President of the World Crafts Council (1974-78).

He had completed a thoughtful book, Life and Politics, which was published in 1967. Identifying a growing moral vacuum to which none of the parties appeared to have an answer, he argued that Britain faced a choice between a move towards technocracy, which he thought not only wrong but unworkable, and the religious solution which he favoured but for which the times were not propitious. An earlier book, Halfway to Faith (1966), records the uncertainties of his own search for God. Throughout his life a hankering for monastic seclusion was always subordinated to his appetite for public life, but his ambition always was for the public good.

John Barnes

Collectors are born not made, and David Eccles was unquestionably a born collector, writes Nicolas Barker. He began to collect books at Winchester, and early acquired the taste for private press books that lasted all his life. Like all good collectors, his wants outran his means, and as an undergraduate he supplemented them by subscribing at Blackwell's for all Nonesuch Press books and selling those he did not wish to keep at the premium they then commanded in London. The years in Spain enlarged both tasks and opportunities, notably for acquiring medieval works of art. No one who heard it will ever forget the story of how he helped an abbess smuggle a Visigothic crucifix out of her convent in a Galician peasant's coffin.

Other triumphs were candidly recorded in On Collecting (1968), which dwelt more on the joys of the chase than the keen eye and catholic taste that lay behind them. Eccles found time to indulge both during his early years in politics. Books, however, remained his first and last love, and the dispersal of the huge Phillipps collection of manuscripts in the 1960s and 1970s gave him a great opportunity. His knowledge of Spanish history alerted him to the importance of the papers of Sir Robert Ker Porter, the British consul in Caracas from 1826 to 1841, most of which he was able to acquire.

This formed the basis of his own remarkable collection of books, manuscripts, documents, prints and drawings relating to the liberation of South America and, in particular, the life of Simon Bolivar. He was delighted when this passed to the liberator's own fatherland, Venezuela.

In 1963, out of office, Eccles became a Trustee of the British Museum, succeeding Lord Radcliffe as chairman in 1968. Neither he nor his predecessor were able to avert the consequences of the then Labour goverment's shameful abandonment of the long-planned and much needed library annex for the British Museum. Eccles, however, made the best of a bad job, and as Paymaster- General, armed with the Dainton Report on the national provision for libraries, he was largely responsible for the creation of the British Library.

This brought togerther the British Museum Library, the National Central Library that coordinated public library loans, the Patent Office Library and other government-funded scientific libraries. The organising committee created by the British Library Act (1971) included Harry Hookway and Don Richnell, whose abilities impressed Eccles. In 1973 they became chief executive and director-general of the Reference Division of the library, while Eccles, when the Conservative government fell in 1973, became the first chairman of the newly established British Library Board.

The British Library was a pragmatic triumph for Eccles. It was not perfect, but, as he said when reproached for the sad divorce of the British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings from the Library, "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs". He never lost faith in it through the long years of government procrastination that followed, and happily lived to see it fulfilled when the Queen opened the great new building next to St Pancras last summer. Nor was the British Library his only creation. The Crafts Council (set up in 1971) owed as much to him, and, just as his collection of books informed his interest in libraries, so now he became a patron of the crafts, notably the work of potters, Bernard Leach, Lucie Rie and others not so well known.

In 1984 Eccles turned 80, and his birthday party was held at the Herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. There he electrified the guests by announcing his engagement to Mary Hyde, a great collector of books like himself. Eccles had been a member of the Roxburghe Club since 1965, and presented to it a facsimile of the atlas made for Henry VIII by John Rotz; now he saw to it that his wife became the first woman member of that august bibliophile body. He then entered on a long late Indian summer, happily spent between his English homes and his wife's farm in New Jersey. Together, they took the lead in establishing the Centre for American Studies at the British Library. Eccles himself bestowed his collection of private press books on Winchester, thereby notably augmenting the library resources for the boys, as opposed to the fellows of the college.

Eccles was a creature of paradox. There were those who could not stand the combination of aggressive self-confidence and unashamed pursuit of self-interest. But if he wore his vices on his sleeve, he made light of his good deeds, often pursued with stealth. Only a week or two ago, on what was to be his last flight to America and already seemingly at death's door, he could still summon the attendant and whisper "Tell the captain to go faster". It was impossible not to admire the confidence and courage with which he met good and ill throughout his long life.

David McAdam Eccles, politician: born London 18 September 1904; Economic Adviser to HM Ambassadors at Madrid and Lisbon 1940-42; Ministry of Production 1942-43; MP (Conservative) for the Chippenham Division of Wiltshire 1943- 62; PC 1951; Minister of Works 1951-54; KCVO 1953; Minister of Education 1954-57, 1959-62; President of the Board of Trade 1957-59; created 1962 Baron Eccles, 1964 Viscount Eccles; Paymaster-General, with responsibility for the arts 1970-73; Chairman, British Library Board 1973-78; CH 1984; married 1928 Sybil Dawson (died 1977; two sons, one daughter), 1984 Mary Hyde; died 24 February 1999.