Guinness scion and son of 'Chips' Channon who nevertheless become a popular MP and minister
Wednesday 31 January 2007
Henry Paul Guinness Channon, politician: born 9 October 1935; MP (Conservative) for Southend West 1959-97; PPS to the Minister of Power 1959-60, to the Home Secretary 1960-62, to the First Secretary of State 1962-63, to the Foreign Secretary 1963-64; Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Housing and Local Government 1970; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment 1970-72, Minister of Housing and Construction 1972-74; Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 1972; Minister of State, Civil Service Department 1979-81; PC 1980; Minister for the Arts 1981-83; Minister for Trade 1983-86; Secretary of State for Trade and Industry 1986-87; Secretary of State for Transport 1987-89; Chairman, British Association for Central and Eastern Europe 1992-97; created 1997 Baron Kelvedon; married 1963 Ingrid Guinness (née Wyndham; one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Kelvedon Hatch, Essex 27 January 2006.
When Paul Channon was selected as Conservative candidate for Southend West late in 1958 he was engulfed in derision. This was the Macmillan era: half the Cabinet from Eton, dukes and 14th earls as Ministers of State. Even so, to pluck a young man of 23 from his second year at Christ Church, Oxford (following service in the Royal Horse Guards), to succeed his father, Sir Henry (a.k.a. "Chips", the diarist), not merely to a great tranche of the Guinness fortune, but to the parliamentary seat which had been in the family for half a century, was the sort of thing done in the late Fifties which the satirical Sixties would send up on an industrial scale.
His mother, Lady Honor, daughter of the second Earl of Iveagh, proclaimed to the people of Southend, "I think you have done right backing a colt when you know the stable he was trained in", and parody was pre-empted.
The wonder is that, so burdened, not to mention bearing the weight of Kelvedon Hall, Brentwood, and a villa on Mustique, Paul Channon became a universally liked figure - liked notably by Labour MPs, trusted as not so many politicians are trusted - and a minister who, despite wobbles, stood in general good repute. Channon had the virtues of the old-fashioned grandee, a strong sense of obligation and, for want of a less archaic word, uprightness.
His main weakness as a politician stemmed from the opposite of social grandeur. He was a shy man, something understandable in the 23-year-old, but a condition which never really left him. As a cabinet minister he had a firm grasp of the facts and could make his mind up, but he addressed the House of Commons gauchely and uneasily. But to be untouched by panache is to be untouched by glibness: this was a very old-fashioned politician.
He had come into the House at the height of Macmillanry, paternalist with a streak of pessimism and no overwhelming devotion to market values. Channon was comfortable here. As a backbencher, he voted for the abolition of capital punishment and opposed the opening of betting shops, this being a time when super-casinos were things done in Monte Carlo and Las Vegas. He was a natural Macmillan/Heath man, though his first job of any sort was as Parliamentary Private Secretary - for three years, 1961-64 - to Rab Butler, who liked and rated him.
When Heath came to power, Channon went as a junior to Housing, then the Environment, before going in 1972 for six months to Northern Ireland at the crisis time of Heath's suspension of the devolved Northern Irish parliament at Stormont.
During the shuddering hiatus after Tory defeat in the February 1974 election and before the second election defeat of October and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, he became a shadow minister dealing with Environment matters.
He was never going to be Thatcher's sort of person, ideologically or personally, though his approach to the business world was in no way passive or rentier-like. Application and basic good talents made him very employable, but that was a factor to which Thatcher was obliged, only reluctantly, to come round. There was no shadow job for him in her time, 1974-79, as leader of the Opposition. Following the cliché of that moment, he was "not one of us". The proper destiny for such a person, even before Europhobia gripped the lady, was Europe, for Channon a dismal time of deputy-leading delegations to the Council of Europe and Monsieur Pflimlin's splendid hospitality and not being elected a Euro-MP.
However government makes holes to be filled, even in adversity. The absence of Christopher Soames in Africa at the start of the Thatcher period left Channon looking after the Civil Service and doing so proficiently enough. So that, when the cheeky Norman St John-Stevas was culled at the Arts, that ministry was demoted, but Channon, who actually cared for them - he had Wagnerian tendencies - was put into it to spend, like all arts ministers, more money on mal- administered opera.
Thereafter he made steady ministerial progress, not least as the beneficiary of circumstances - circumstances at party conferences. In mid-celebration at Blackpool of the 1983 election, the mistress of the Trade and Industry Secretary, Cecil Parkinson, a Thatcher favourite in spades, announced her pregnancy and its author to a shocked an delighted public. The Minister of State, one Paul Channon, took over as acting Secretary of State.
When, a year on, the full-time replacement, Norman Tebbit, was severely injured by the IRA Brighton conference bomb, Channon temporarily took over again. When the next successor, Leon Brittan, who voiced a high opinion of his junior, was driven from office in the murk surrounding Downing Street and a leaked counsel's opinion, convenient to put on him, Channon succeeded to the full job. The view seems to have been that he and the department could not go on meeting like this.
He was not there long but was ferociously busy. What the Government had wanted to do with British Leyland - sell it to General Motors - had upset both workers and Tory backbenchers not yet globally minded. The retreat was Thatcher's, but Channon was placed to be blamed. Yet his short period at the DTI was important and active. In a very Macmillanish way, he found public money, £15m, to stave off closure of the Cornish tin mines. He took a harder line than many City Tories would have liked with insider dealing, sharply raising the penalties on conviction.
His attitude to monopoly was far less sympathetic than that of the present government, inclined to wave so much through. The Tate and Lyle/British Sugar merger was stopped as was the then mighty GEC's bid for Plessey. He did, though, favour a laxer view of building development on agricultural land. And over one merger bid, of BTR for Pilkingtons, he fell into bitter contention with unconsulted junior ministers.
There was a noisy spat with the Japanese government over that country's protectionism; he put the Securities and Investment Board in charge of City self-regulation and offended the chairman of British Aerospace by offering less money to subsidise Airbus than that chairman, Sir Austin Pearce, expected. It was a vigorous time full of contention and the minister was much murmured against, but deserved a good deal of credit for independent judgement.
In 1987 he was moved down, rather than across, to Transport. Here his dubiety about mergers showed again over BA's ambitions for British Caledonian, but he discouraged BCal from taking SAS as a white knight. He also fought off a premature attempt at privatisation - of the exquisite Settle-to-Carlisle rail link - mounted by the fearful Nicholas Ridley.
Channon had been active on the safety front, setting his deputy to make full survey of road risk, extending breath-testing, and, after the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, tightening security on such ferries. But the great event of his tenure would be the King's Cross fire, a horror for which long-term weaknesses in safety and security had been quietly contributing, but which, falling on one's watch, guarantees excitably transferred responsibility.
Paul Channon was a man of nicely balanced social and entrepreneurial outlook clogged somewhat by that diffident manner but trusted, especially across the floor, to take decisions in the true public interest. He departed from government in 1989 - a departure perhaps not unconnected with the Lockerbie air disaster of December 1988.
His private life was a matter of no contention - he was married to Ingrid Wyndham, formerly his cousin Jonathan Guinness's wife, with a son, Henry, and two daughters. However, in June 1986, the life of the minister was afflicted in the most grievous way. His elder daughter, Olivia, became involved at Oxford University with what used to be called a "fast set" of well-connected drug users and drink-mixers; after taking her Finals, she went to a party, wrote a suicide note and was found dead.
Volumes of red-top sanctimony wrapped themselves round the rich, grand and resented minister for whom the grief alone might have been tribulation enough.
From 1962 until 1964, I was Paul Channon's parliamentary pair, writes Tam Dalyell.
He was a fastidiously honourable man, chosen by Rab Butler as his PPS. Channon was not a liar. Channon was not a fantasist. I am totally certain that, when he told six veteran lobby correspondents at the Garrick Club, in March 1989, that the perpetrators responsible for the destruction of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie would be apprehended, he believed what he said. (And I am equally certain that there was no way in which those particular journalists could each of them have separately misunderstood what Channon told them.) I believe that American pressure via Margaret Thatcher silenced Channon and led to an able minister's being dropped from the Cabinet.
At intervals, over 15 years, I asked him: "With the trial at Zeist and the imprisonment of Libyans and Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, will you tell me what happened in March 1989?" The answer was always the same. "I may tell you one day, but not now." Only Lady Thatcher, and possibly Lord Parkinson and Lord Powell, and perhaps some senior elderly Americans, know the truth.
I will always believe that Paul Channon was manifestly ill done by, but suffered in honourable, self-sacrificing silence. Others might have embarrassed his party and prime minister by opening their mouths. Not so Channon.
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