Lord Marsh: Trade unionist and politician who later tempered the antagonistic approach that had hindered his career

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The Independent Online

I could name a dozen parliamentary colleagues between 1962 and 2005, Conservative and Labour, to whom the tag of ex-future Prime Minister could be realistically attached.

But in the years from 1962 to 1969 my shortest of all odds would unquestionably have been on Dick Marsh as the next leader but two, to Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson.

His background credentials were impeccable: he was the son of a foundry worker, his ability to command attention in the Commons unquestioned. His capacity to runa department, and drive through unpalatable but necessary legislation, was there for all to see. Only gradually over these years did a fataland extremely unusual flaw in a politician become apparent – Marshpositively enjoyed baiting and antagonising colleagues, not least our senior colleagues.

Etched into my memory is a conversation with Dick Crossman, whose Parliamentary Private Secretary I was, and with whom I stayed while in London at 9 Vincent Square, late on an October evening in 1969. "I'm very surprised Dick Marsh has been sacked," I said. Crossman barked back, "You should not be in the least surprised. His behaviour in cabinet was insufferable. He was gratuitously rude to all of us. And he was cheeky in a silly way to Harold."

To my first-hand knowledge, Callaghan found him intolerable. Jenkins and Crossman, themselves irreverent enough and not uncritical of Wilson, thought the Prime Minister was justified in dropping Marsh.

The pity was that Marsh could be charming when he wanted to be. When he came to speak at the West Lothian Co-op rally in Bathgate in 1967, he charmed the party members, many of whom did not share his policy attitudes, and he could not have been nicer to my wife and my mother when he stayed with us.

After school in Swindon, where his foundry worker father was working in the GWR workshops, Woolwich Polytechnic and Ruskin College, Oxford, Marsh's first venture into politics was in 1951 to contest the Hertford constituency at the age of 23. He lost to Derek Walker-Smith by 30,519 votes to 23,708. For the rest of the decade he rose as an official of the National Union of Public Employees, and was appointed by them as a member of the Whitley Council – a statutory body bringing together employers and trade unions – for the health service. He would often say, "I was educated at Woolwich Ruskin and Whitley," and there is no doubt, in running a civil service department, and later running industries, that he had learnt a massive amount from his experience as an active member of Whitley.

My first memory of Marsh is of him striding to the conference rostrum at Scarborough in 1958 as candidate for Greenwich and making an impassioned and powerful defence of the Health Service. Few Labour politicians of the day would risk wearing a bow-tie; Marsh was uninhibited.

In 1959, on the retirement of Joseph Reeves, Marsh beat the Conservative JRR Holmes by 25,204 votes to 19,679. He had inherited from Reeves a highly political constituency party, which was perhaps one of the reasons why he was to quit Parliament of his own volition 12 years later.

In 1960, as a very new MP, Marsh had a huge stroke of luck. He came high up in the December ballot for Private Members' Bills. And he took his opportunity. With the resources of his union fully mobilised behind him, he piloted through the Offices Act. This was a complex measure which extended to white collar workers legal safeguards many of which had been enjoyed by manual workers since the 1945-51 Labour government. He earned the gratitude of his trade union colleagues.

The formidable complications of the Offices Act taught Marsh something else – that to achieve anything it was no good being a firebrand; one had to work with Tories and others of different views. Sir Derek Walker Smith, former Minister of Health, told me years later how he marvelled at the way in which Marsh, his "cheeky shallow, brash, loud-mouthed" foe of 1951, had been transformed into an extremely sensible MP.

To no one's surprise in October 1964, with the coming of the Labour government, Marsh was asked for by Wilson's powerful Minister of Labour Ray Gunter, President of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and a TUC heavyweight, as his Parliamentary Secretary. Had Marsh and not Barbara Castle succeeded Gunter in 1967, I believe the history of the 1966-70 Labour government would have been different. Marsh would have known better than to have come forward with the White Paper "In place of Strife" (which among other measures required a ballot before strike action), and he would have legislated on the basis of the Donovan Report produced by Lord Justice Donovan which had been accepted by both unions and employers.

But this was not to be. In 1965 Marsh was plucked out of the Ministry of Labour to help Frank Cousins at the new MinTech. Cousins was hugely powerful in the party and in Whitehall, but hated the Commons. Marsh performed brilliantly at the despatch box – so brilliantly that he was catapulted into the Cabinet at 38 as Minister of Power. His main task was the re-nationalisation of the steel industry, the hottest domestic political potato of the day. He drove through the measures with consummate skill; and my Scottish parliamentary colleagues and I thought highly of his handling of the tricky issues associated with North Sea oil.

But he began to make enemies. The then very influential group, the miners' MPs, judged him to be unnecessarily callous and cavalier about pit closures. Above all, they resented his seeming impatience when they put their case: "The child of a bloody foundry worker should know better, and be kinder to us." He managed to infuriate even the most level-headed of Labour MPs, such as my parliamentary neighbour Alex Eadie, MP for Midlothian, later an energy minister: "Dick does not understand that if you put a padlock on a pit, no one can reopen it, given the flooding and other dangers of combustion."

I suspect that the anger of the miners' group was part of the reason why Wilson got rid of him. But another part of the reason was his truculent behaviour. In his 1969 exchange of letters with Wilson, Marsh famously wrote: "As for my return to the back benches, I enjoyed it in the past and, having got over the initial surprise of my first redundancy, I am looking forward to an active period of life back on the shop floor." He told all and sundry of us who were prepared to listen: "I was sacked because I forgot to take in a prayer mat to Cabinet and prostrate myself before the Prime Minister'. Actually, most of us thought that this was unfair to Wilson, who was among the most tolerant of men.

Re-elected for Greenwich in 1970, Marsh jumped at the offer from the incoming Conservative government to become the chairman of British Rail. Chris Green, successively Scottish area manager, director of Network Rail South East and managing director of Intercity, a railwayman through and through, recalled to me, "We thought that Marsh was doing his best, and making an honest effort to help modernise the industry. But we're also aware that he was out of tune with No 10."

Years later Marsh confirmed to me what most of us suspected during the 1970s, that he found Ted Heath far more congenial than Harold Wilson. He had come to provoke Wilson, not least because Harold was annoyed and hurt that the young man he had catapulted into the Cabinet could not conceal his disdain for Wilson's style of government. And Wilson provoked Marsh by his inability to face up to issues which were necessary if his "white heat of technological revolution" was to be implemented.

By 1976 Marsh, as he put it, had had enough of his erstwhile colleagues and resigned from British Rail. He had been chosen to succeed Arnold Goodman as chairman of the Newspaper Publishers' Association. Fred Johnston, Chairman of Johnston Press, who had some 240 local newspapers and was a prominent figure in the Newspaper Society and a member of the Press Council, told me: "within the newspaper industry Marsh was well thought of and held in good regard. He told the union people the position as it was, and the sensible ones among union leaders, such as Alan Watson in Scotland, accepted what Marsh told them and the good sense of compromise. Marsh told the extreme elements in the leadership of the print unions that they were creating an all-or-nothing situation."

He was not in the least surprised when they ended up getting nothing in the wake of Eddie Shah, and later Rupert Murdoch. It was Marsh's opinion that Murdoch would have been willing to compromise at an early stage if the unions had listened. But then he told me, "the union movement is not the same organisation that I worked for throughout the 1950s."

From 1977-1982 he was Chairman of the British Iron and Steel Consumer's Council, whose main function was to protect the steel-using industries. The least romantic of men, I think he was tickled finding himself, the son of a foundry worker, in this position.

I asked Norman, Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden, Chairman of United Distillers between 1987 and 1996, about the view of Marsh among his peers: "The major industrialists of this country came to treat Dick Marsh as one of their own. I never heard a bad word about him and his advice was often sought." The reality was that Marsh metamorphosed from a brash young man to a figure of considerable gravitas. Yet, as Richard Ingrams argued so eloquently in The Independent last week, people would do well to beware of those who shift from left to the right. Marsh did provoke a good deal of hostility, which really never evaporated among those of the élite in which he had grown up. Towards the end of his life I asked him, "Dick, looking back on 60 years, do you have any regrets?" He smiled, and said, "Je ne regrette rien."

Richard William Marsh, trade union official, politician and industrialist: born 14 March 1928; MP for Greenwich 1959-71; Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Labour 1964-65; Joint Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Technology 1965–66, Minister of Power 1966–68, Minister of Transport, 1968–69; Chairman, British Railways Board 1971–76, Newspaper Publishers' Association 1976–90, British Iron and Steel Consumers' Council 1977–82; Kt 1976; cr 1981 Life Peer, of Mannington in the County of Wiltshire; married 1950 Evelyn Andrews (divorced 1973; two sons), 1973 Caroline Dutton (died 1975), 1979 Felicity McFadzean; died London 29 July 2011.