John Butcher

Hard-working Conservative MP for Coventry South West and a business-like junior minister


John Patrick Butcher, politician and businessman: born Doncaster, Yorkshire 13 February 1946; member, Birmingham City Council 1972-78; MP (Conservative) for Coventry South West 1979-97; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Industry 1982-83, Department for Trade and Industry 1983-88, Department of Education and Science 1988-89; chairman, Texas Instruments 1990-98; partner, J. & A. Butcher Associates 1996-2006; married 1970 Anne Lowe (one son, two daughters); died 25 December 2006.

John Butcher was well-liked as an effective and hard-working junior minister in Margaret Thatcher's governments, although regarded by the press initially as somewhat accident-prone - The Birmingham Post memorably once claimed that his "diplomatic skills make Colonel Gaddafi sound like Solomon".

However, at the Department of Trade and Industry, he graduated to the point of taking the place of a fellow minister, Francis Maude, when a fresh and more tactful approach was required to the problem of inflammable furniture: Butcher announced new standards in June 1988. Appointed as Under- Secretary of Education a month later, he took responsibility for schools, but stood down in July 1989 and in the course of the following decade rebuilt a successful business career in information technology and chaired the Institute of Directors.

The grandson of a coal-miner and the son of a civil servant, Butcher was born in 1946 and educated at Brampton County Primary, Huntingdon Grammar School and Birmingham University, where he became secretary of the University Conservative Association and took second-class honours in Politics and Economics. Subsequently he researched guerrilla warfare at the Institute of Strategic Studies, 1967-68.

Although keen on politics, he had a living to make and he became an expert on computers. After three years as an executive with Singer-Friden, he joined the Rank Organisation in 1971, went freelance in 1973 and in 1974 became Director of Applied Computer Techniques at General Computer Systems (Datatext) until 1982.

He began his political career by winning an inner-city seat on Birmingham City Council in 1972 and he retained it when Birmingham became a Metropolitan District in 1973. He had already been adopted as the Conservative candidate for Birmingham Northfield, a safe Labour seat, and in the general election of February 1974 polled a very respectable 41 per cent of the vote. He did not contest the seat in the October of that year, but remained on the Metropolitan District until 1978, serving as Vice-Chairman of the Education Committee. He was subsequently to attempt the abolition of the West Midlands Council in 1982, prescient in the light of the Government's decision to do so once the 1983 election was behind it.

Butcher captured Coventry South West from Labour's Audrey Wise in 1979 after a campaign that was American in style, and retained the seat in 1983, 1987 and 1992, although with a diminished majority. Boundary changes removed the seat from the electoral map in 1997.

Leon Brittan chose Butcher to be his PPS in 1981 and in 1982 he was appointed Under-Secretary for Industry with responsibility for telecommunications. In that capacity he chaired the Focus Committee on IT Standards for the Department. When Kenneth Baker was appointed the first Minister for Information Technology, he found Butcher's experience and his "practical and down-to-earth advice" invaluable. In 1983 he was given special responsibility for the West Midlands and set up the successful West Midlands Industries Association.

A staunch supporter of manufacturing industry and a critic of what he once called the "national cultural antipathy towards industry and wealth creation", he was said not to have consulted his seniors on a promise to create 750,000 jobs and his prediction that Britain would beat Japan industrially as she had militarily was too bluntly phrased for some critics. Others thought him naïve, and there were apparently well-founded rumours that he would be dropped at the next reshuffle. In fact Thatcher continued him in his DTI post until 1988; and he was responsible for a £3.5m boost for educational software in schools in 1985.

Predictably he insisted that the Handsworth riots in 1986 were not the product of unemployment but when the government responded to them and to a similar riot in Tottenham by creating task forces to tackle specific inner-city areas, Butcher was given charge of one as part of the junior ministerial team spearheading the initiative. Ken Clarke, who launched the programme that February, not only recalls his success, but is slightly puzzled that he was not singled out by the whips to go further:

He was intelligent, very sensible and down-to-earth and got on with a much wider range of people than your avearge minister. He had a fresh approach to politics and was always ready to speak his own mind. He had a business- oriented attitude and was business-like in the way he operated in the department.

Translated to the Education Department in July 1988, Butcher showed a particular concern for the use of IT to benefit special needs children and became a vigorous proponent of schools managing their own finances. Towards the end of his time in government he seems to have felt that his ministerial career was not going anywhere very fast and that he might be more profitably employed in industry. In 1990 he became the Chairman of Texas Instruments.

From the back benches he expressed dissent over British entry into the ERM and increased distaste for the "mercantilism" of the European Community. John Major recalled him as an opponent on several issues, but always thoughtfully so. In the 1990/91 session he successfully piloted a Property Misdescriptions Bill on to the statute book. After he left the Commons in 1997, he built up a number of business interests and was chairman of the Institute of Directors 1997-2001. He was also a visiting lecturer at Warwick University.

In his earlier years Butcher was the proud composer of a rock musical. No one could travel in his car without being forced to listen to the tapes, although he admitted good-humouredly that his style was eclectic - "in that huge tract of no man's land between Springsteen and Gershwin". But a more remarkable achievement was the winning of the Royal Society of Arts Bicentenary medal in 1986 for his contribution to the improvement of industrial design.

Latterly he had survived a brush with cancer. He continued to enjoy an active life, with fell-walking a particular pleasure. He was walking in the Lake District that he loved when a heart attack brought his life to a close.

John Barnes

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