Lord Blaker: Conservative minister who was wary of the Soviet Union and opposed nuclear disarmament
Monday 24 August 2009
Peter Blaker was a highly intelligent lawyer and former diplomat who never quite achieved the eminence in government for which his abilities seemed to fit him. He was perhaps unfortunate in the timing of his entry into politics. The Conservative defeat in 1964 was the start of a decade and a half of Labour government, broken only by Edward Heath's tenure, beginning in 1970, of three years eight months. Blaker achieved junior office under Heath but had to wait until the Conservatives returned to power to continue his ministerial career.
He was a hard-working and successful Minister of State, first at the Foreign Office and then at the Ministry of Defence. By the time of the 1983 election he was 60 and it can have been no great surprise that he was asked by Mrs Thatcher to stand down. He was knighted and made a privy councillor and was immediately elected to chair the Conservative backbench Foreign Affairs Committee, a position that he held until leaving parliament in 1992. His knowledge of defence, foreign policy and the world of intelligence made him admirably suited for his final public appointment as the only Lords member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, from 1996-97.
Unlike Harold Wilson, his predecessor as treasurer of the Oxford Liberal Club, Blaker ended up on the right wing of the Conservative party. His contemporary at New College and good friend, Tony Benn, described him as speaking for "the right wing of the security services". Like many "cold war warriors" he was concerned about human rights, often visiting the individuals concerned, and he maintained that negotiations with the Soviet Union should be closely linked with progress in that field. Both in and out of office he was a strong opponent of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Pro-American, almost to a fault, he would have liked the Wilson government to provide them with more support during the Vietnam War and he was a staunch defender of their invasion of Grenada.
His support for a negotiated settlement with the Ian Smith regime in Rhodesia and his support of hanging, when coupled with his stance on foreign policy, would have led many to think of him as a stereotypical right- winger, but he was more generally to be found among the centrists and loyalists in the party. He held strongly that if the Conservative party ceased to be part of the moderate centre it would lose power.
Peter Allan Renshaw Blaker was the son of a Hong Kong businessman who made his fortune as a China coast trader and eventually chaired the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce. Cedric Blaker had married a New Zealander, Louise Chapple, and Peter was born in Hong Kong. After boarding school in Sussex he went to Shrewsbury. On the point of going up to Oxford, he and his brother were summoned to return to Hong Kong. While they were travelling across Canada to pick up a trans-Pacific liner, Blaker learnt that the families of Europeans in Hong Kong were to be evacuated. He remained in Canada to gain a first-class degree in classics at Toronto University. While he was there, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese and his family was interned.
In 1942 he was commissioned into the Canadian Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He fought with them from Normandy to the borders of Holland but was then badly wounded. He was eventually demobilised in 1946 with the rank of captain. There followed a spell at New College, Oxford, where he became a firm friend of Benn, was elected to the presidency of the Union and became treasurer of the Oxford Liberals.
He was admitted as a solicitor in 1948 and returned to New College to take a first in jurisprudence to add to his pass degree in PPE. He was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1952. He practiced briefly at the Chancery bar, but after 18 months joined the Foreign Office. Postings to Cambodia in 1955 and Canada in 1957 followed. He returned to London in 1960 to specialise in the Middle East and two years later was appointed to be private secretary to successive Ministers of State, Joe Godber and Peter Thomas.
His attendance at the UN debates during the Cuban Missile Crisis and at the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in Moscow prompted him to enter politics. In 1964, after failing to be chosen for Poole, he was selected from 300 applicants to contest Blackpool South for the Conservatives. He held the seat by 6,783 votes in October of that year and made his maiden speech on Anglo-American relations, using the occasion to warn Harold Wilson against any ill-judged initiatives in an attempt to emulate President Kennedy's first 100 days.
He backed Heath for the leadership of the Conservative party and was briefly recruited to the whips office after the 1966 election. However, the party decided that he would be more useful in the role of "attack dog". He was an effective tweaker of Wilson's tail at Prime Minister's Questions and an adroit polemicist. In 1968, disappointed with the lack of progress in the EEC negotiations, he was one of those advocating serious exploration of an Atlantic Free Trade Area, but unlike many of those endorsing the idea he remained keen on British membership of the EC. He strongly supported Heath's successful bid for entry and was asked by Mrs Thatcher to be part of the Conservative team campaigning for a "yes" vote in the 1975 referendum.
Although disappointed not to find a place in Heath's government, he was asked by Anthony Barber, shortly afterwards Chancellor of the Exchequer, to be his PPS. In November 1972 he was brought into the government as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Army, devoting much of his time to its activities in Northern Ireland. In January 1974 he was transferred to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but after seven weeks and a disastrous election for the Conservatives, he found himself back in opposition. In the aftermath of a further election defeat for the Conservatives, he was one of those who attempted to change the composition of the 1922 Executive in Heath's favour, but his efforts to become its treasurer failed.
During the 1970s he consistently urged a firmer line towards the Soviet Union and was sharply and rightly critical of the British government for extending trade credits (in effect a subsidy) to the Soviet Union at a time when it was engaged in a programme of rearmament. The pamphlet that he wrote with Julian Critchley and Matthew Parris, Coping with the Soviet Union, set out his views on how trade with the Soviet bloc should be conducted. It found warm support in a Times editorial of 13 June 1977.
One of his most memorable moments was when he led the questioning on the way in which the Government had rubbished the reputation of the British Ambassador in Washington, Sir Peter Ramsbotham, largely it would seem to justify the appointment of Jim Callaghan's son-in-law, Peter Jay, as his successor. Blaker named the Prime Minister's press secretary as the culprit.
In 1975 he and Cecil Parkinson visited Rhodesia on a fact-finding mission and he became an increasingly sympathetic voice in favour of an internal settlement that would bring that country back to legitimacy. With the Conservatives back in office he was appointed as Minister of State to the FCO, but with the remit of East-West relations, Australia and Asia, he played little part in the Rhodesian settlement.
Amongst his earliest tasks was a series of negotiations with France that led to the granting of independence to the New Hebrides. His principal success, however, was achieved at a highly successful international conference to deal with the problem of the Vietnamese boat people. He gained a reputation for plain speaking at the Unesco Conference on the new information order, strongly opposing a series of measures that were inimical to press freedom, and also took a tough line at the European Security Review conference, where he lambasted the Soviet failure to live up to the Helsinki Agreements.
When Keith Speed resigned as Navy minister in May 1981, John Nott, backed by the Prime Minister, took the chance to replace the service ministers with two functional appointments. Blaker became Minister of State for the Armed Forces, where he found himself defending cuts, mainly to the Navy, which, critics argued, were being made to fund Trident. Blaker was a staunch defender of retaining and updating the nuclear deterrent, but inside government he set himself to resisting the sale of the carrier Invincible to Australia, a campaign that was justified by the part she played in the Falklands. In the year before the general election, he conducted the Government's campaign to make the case for the deterrent and discredit unilateralism and it was reported that he had £1m at his disposal. He was able to show that Labour's defence plans would cut conventional forces also and cost between 350,000 and 500,000 jobs.
Blaker was asked to leave the Government when it was reshaped after the 1983 election, but he continued to be influential on questions of foreign affairs and was an important point of support for the agreement reached with China in 1985 over Hong Kong. He was believed to have played an important part, through an exchange of letters with the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, in easing the resumption of diplomatic relations between Britain and Iran after the Salman Rushdie crisis, and in securing the release of British hostages from Lebanon in 1990.
He stood down from the Commons in 1992 and was made a life peer two years later.
Lord Peter Blaker, lawyer, diplomat and politician: born Hong Kong 4 October 1922; admitted to HM Foreign Service, 1953; Western Orgns, Foreign Office, 1953-55; HM Embassy, Phnom Penh, Cambodia 1955-57; UK High Commission, Ottowa 1957-60; Levant Department, Foreign Office, 1960-62; Private Secretary to Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, 1962-64; Conservative MP for Blackpool South, 1964-92; PPS to Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1970-72; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, MoD, 1972-74; Minister of State, FCO, 1979-81, for the Armed Forces 1981-83; created Life Peer 1994; married 1953 Jennifer Dixon (one son, two daughters); died 5 July 2009.
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