profile; Lord Chalfont; Old soldier above the battle

Journalist, instant peer, media regulator, shipbuilder. As VSEL awaits its fate, David Bowen finds its 75-year-old chairman pondering his next move
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The Independent Online
OF ALL the people contemplating Harold Wilson's memory this week, few have as much reason to thank him as Lord Chalfont. On the morning of 23 October, 1964, he was Alun Gwynne Jones, defence correspondent of the Times. By bedtime - after a visit to Downing Street - he was Minister for Disarmament, and had been told to think up his title as a life peer. It was, he acknowledges, one of the most rapid elevations ever visited on one man in a single day.

Now the former minister for disarmament is chairman of VSEL, builder of nuclear submarines and warships. He is preparing himself for a frantic few weeks while GEC and British Aerospace squabble over who is to buy his company.

That a former minister of disarmament can now be chairman of a defence contractor might seem to show a certain flexibility. In February 1965 he said this: "Those who live by the production and sale of weapons of destruction will continue to claim, against all the evidence, that to convert our economy from a military to a non-military basis will involve recession, unemployment and economic chaos. That will conveniently ignore the fact that the resources of men and money ... can in a very short time be redirected into providing schools, universities and roads ..."

I read this quote to him last week. "I now think it is very much more difficult to convert totally to a non-defence economy," he said. "At that time there was a string of studies showing you could convert from a partly military economy in five years. We now realise that is totally unrealistic."

When the Cold War ended he looked at moving VSEL towards non-defence work, such as building oil rigs. He decided it would not work. "I would say it would be impossible to transfer the Barrow workforce to something totally non-military. You cannot change the culture of a defence contractor."

It is easy to see why Lord Chalfont has been characterised as yet another idealist socialist who has slipped steadily to the right. Labour government minister in the Sixties; journalist on the New Statesman and Guardian in the early Seventies. Then the slippage began - board of IBM, a venture in the City, writing for the Times, then the job at VSEL and associations with free-market organisations. No wonder his old employer the Guardian slammed into him with a potted biography in 1993 that ended: "Most likely to say - 'Bloody BBC pinkos'. Least likely to say - 'Ban the Bomb'."

Telling his story last week, a more complex man emerged. Despite his immaculate suit and Celtic fluency, Lord Chalfont is no politician. When I read the earlier quote to him, his first reaction was to say how "shrewd" he had been 30 years ago; then he contradicted everything he had said. Nor is he much of a City slicker. He gave away what he thought would be a reasonable price at which to sell VSEL. Both are slips that can be explained by his background: until he was 41 Lord Chalfont was a soldier.

Alun Gwynne Jones was born 75 years ago in Monmouth and joined the South Wales Borderers when the Second World War broke out. From 1941 to 1944 he fought in Burma, and stayed in the Army to take part in a series of anti-terrorist campaigns. In 1957 he won the Military Cross. He is diffident about this, but finally admits he was involved in ambushes against communists in the Malayan jungle. "I was lucky enough to carry out some successful ones."

By 1961 he was a colonel and had been writing a series of articles on Soviet strategy in the Royal United Services Institute journal. One reader was Sir William Haley, editor of the Times. He asked Gwynne Jones if he would resign to become defence correspondent. With all the exciting bits of an army life behind him, he said yes. Had he said no, he would presumably now be a retired general.

His articles continued to impress, and in the run-up to the 1964 general election he was asked for advice by all three parties. "I had no political affiliation at all, so I was quite happy to tell the parties the same thing."

When he was asked to drop by Downing Street that October day, he was expecting to be asked about something he had written. Instead Wilson asked him to become a minister. "If the word had been invented, I would have said I was gobsmacked," he says. He and Wilson both made much of his being the only "minister of disarmament" in the world, though he now says the title was misleading. He was made a lord because Labour had a slim majority and Wilson could not afford to risk a by-election. Gwynne Jones's chances of winning a by-election might not have been improved by his lack of politics, either. "I told Wilson that I would take the job if I was not expected to support every aspect of Labour policy. Wilson puffed on his pipe and said, 'Not many of us do.' "

Lord Chalfont says he would have been just as happy to be in a Tory or Liberal government (he is now a cross-bencher). He is baffled by those who label him a turncoat. "I've never expressed any political views that could characterise me as left or right," he says.

His job in the 1960s was more diplomatic than political. He was chief British negotiator in a series of arms control talks in Geneva, and as such was one of the last Britons to play a role as one of the Big Three. He is proudest of his part in creating the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. In 1968 Wilson sent Lord Chalfont to Brussels to negotiate the UK's entry into the Common Market. General de Gaulle said "non", and in less than a year he was back in London.

The 1970 election saw the end of his brief political career. He became foreign editor of the New Statesman and a columnist for the Guardian, and made a series of profiles of world leaders for the BBC. He also moved into business, joining the board of IBM and a company called Spey Finance, which invested mainly in property. It collapsed in the 1974 property crash,"which gave me an insight not only into what could happen but into the dubious methods of a lot of people".

He has never considered himself a businessman. "I find the diplomatic and international aspects much more interesting than balance sheets and the stock market."

During the 1980s, he became ever Gooder and Greater, though never regaining the real importance he had in the 1960s: he was a director of Lazard Bros and a handful of other companies, president of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, deputy chairman of the IBA (and since 1991, has been chairman of the Radio Authority). More suspicious for those seeking evidence of right-wing connections, he was president of the UK Committee for the Free World, an organisation dedicated to countering communist propaganda.

He was a natural to join the board of the newly privatised VSEL in 1986. Here, more than anywhere else, he has played an active business role. He edged out the chief executive and did the job himself for eight months before Noel Davies was appointed. He was also behind an upgrading of the company's computer system, which, he discovered, was hopelessly out of date.

He says the sale of VSEL is "really an evolution of our strategic plan". When the Government issued its Options for Change in 1990, VSEL drew up a plan for survival. "It was obvious the British defence industry would have to be rationalised," he says. "It made sense to find a strong partner."

Lord Chalfont is assuming he will stand down once the takeover goes through. But he is not ready to retire: he is now a director of Computer Sciences Corporation, the IT services group, and also of a small software company. "The other thing I must do when I have 10 minutes to myself is to complete my memoirs," he says. As journalism has given him his two big breaks in his life, they should be a good read.

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