My Biggest Mistake

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The Independent Online
Sir Hal Miller, 64, is the chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. From 1955 to 1968, he served with the Colonial Service in Hong Kong. Among the posts he held were those of assistant economic secretary and deputy director of commerce and industry. He also spent a year with the World Bank in 1964-65. When he returned to England in 1969 he entered politics and was elected Conservative MP for Bromsgrove and Redditch in 1974. A former vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, he was knighted in 1988. He stood down as MP at the recent General Election.

GOING into politics was my biggest mistake, but it fitted in with my ideals of service. After having lived amid the burgeoning economies of Asia, I thought what was needed in our country was concentration on wealth creation, when all the political talk seemed to be about distribution. I believed I could make a serious and significant contribution to changing that agenda.

After all, for four years I had been responsible for Hong Kong's international trade. I ran offices in London, New York, Frankfurt, Tokyo and elsewhere. I had spent a year at the World Bank. I also had an understanding of the need for close liason between government and industry. These links existed in Hong Kong despite its being a free- market haven.

So I returned to the UK and I became an active member of my local Conservative Association. After fighting Barrow-in-Furness in 1970, I was adopted as Conservative candidate for Bromsgrove and Redditch and I later won the seat in the 1974 Election.

In due course, however, I found that I had an inadequate appreciation of the political process in the party and in Parliament. I failed to establish close contacts in the Commons, partly because I made the mistake of accepting appointment as a member of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe and the Western European Union immediately after my election, and my frequent travels to Europe meant I was away from the Commons too much at the beginning of my political career. Nor had I understood the need for alliances. I didn't belong to any faction and I had been absent in Hong Kong for 13 years.

Coming from a Civil Service background, I mistakenly assumed there would be a system for promotion based on merit and experience, but I couldn't bring my experience in world trade and the UN to bear in the House of Commons - to get on the right committees or make my mark with party leaders.

Then when a Conservative Government was elected in 1979, I became PPS to Francis Pym (now Lord Pym) both as Secretary of State for Defence and then as Leader of the House. He was a lovely man to work for and I felt I was making a contribution, but I resigned in 1981 over the nationalised British Steel being given subsidies and putting a string of private steel companies in the West Midlands out of business.

Now you don't resign from any Government post without having to do 'porridge' - so I was out in the political cold for several years before I was given a second chance by John Selwyn Gummer, then chairman of the party. I was later appointed vice-chairman and was responsible for political organisation and for campaigning. I enjoyed the work and and the action. After the 1987 election I hoped my hard work would bear fruit and that ministerial office would come my way. It didn't, which was a great disappointment but I realised it must have been a failure on my part to operate the political system. So I turned my attention to industry once more.

One of my interests was the motor industry, with the Longbridge car factory and thousands of car workers in my constituency. I had established the All-Party Motor Industry Group in Parliament and I was joint chairman for 15 years.

I am not bitter about politics, nor am I disillusioned with the process. Now that I am chief executive of the SMMT, I can apply some of the lessons I have learned.

(Photograph omitted)