Maurice Foley

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The Independent Online

Maurice Anthony Foley, politician and public servant: born Durham 9 October 1925; MP (Labour) for West Bromwich 1963-73; Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Economic Affairs 1964-66; Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 1966-67, Ministry of Defence (Royal Navy) 1967-68, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1968-70; Deputy Director-General, Directorate General for Development, Commission of the European Communities 1973-86; CMG 1987; married 1952 Katherine O'Riordan (three sons, one daughter); died Colchester 8 February 2002.

British politics abounds in ex- future prime ministers. Some are more convincing might-have-beens than others. But, in the summer of 1966, when Harold Wilson promoted him from George Brown's ill-fated Department of Economic Affairs to be Parliamentary Under-Secretary of the Home Office with responsibility for immigration, one of the most delicate and trickiest portfolios in a Labour government, it did look as though Foley was a very possible future leader of the Labour Party. Fast-talking, quick-witted, down-to-earth, passionate about causes such as Africa, charming, with impeccable trade-union credentials, he was a high-flyer.

That he did not achieve the highest offices in British politics was due to the internecine strife that pervaded the Labour Party in the West Midlands in those years.

Maurice Foley was born in Durham in the year of the General Strike, of Irish immigrants who had found work in the mines. After elementary school, as a staunch Roman Catholic he was given a place in St Mary's College in Middlesbrough. Leaving at 16 he trained to be an electrical fitter and, much to his chagrin many years later when he became Minister for the Navy, found himself in a reserved occupation. During the Second World War he learnt all about political in-fighting as one of the Catholic faction in a union then dominated by Communists. With a tremendous grin, whenever I disagreed with him he would say cheerily: "Remember that I'm an ETU street fighter brought up in the union of Comrade Frank Haxell."

Contemplating a political career towards the end of the Attlee government, he moved to the Transport and General Workers' Union in 1948 from the Electrical Trades Union and became active in the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society.

I was sitting in the House immediately in front while he was making a speech from the third bench on the opposition side when John Dugdale, a respected former minister, fell forward and died instantly. Chosen as the Labour standard-bearer, Foley gained a 12,264 majority compared to Dugdale's 6,893 in the 1959 election. He was to hold the seat comfortably until he resigned, to be succeeded at a by-election on 24 May 1973 by a Miss Betty Boothroyd.

On 9 July 1963 two new Labour Members of Parliament were introduced, both of whom were to play prominent parts in years to come – John Silkin, future Chief Whip and Minister of Agriculture, the new MP for Deptford; and Foley for West Bromwich. I listened to his maiden speech on 24 July 1963 which indicated to all who heard it that here was a politician to be reckoned with.

He argued passionately the case for young people, with whom he had been concerned nationally and internationally and as a councillor for Merton and Morden, and in his work as a representative of Great Britain on the International Executive of the World Assembly of Youth. What, he asked, should be done to highlight the problems of youth? How were they to choose a job?

For most young people in many parts of these difficult areas there is only Hobson's choice. There is no choice and we are projecting the problem for years hence because, if we place a person in a dead-end job with no opportunity of change and no opportunity of choice, in years to come, when that person wants to marry and so forth, all the consequent problems relating to an unhappy industrial experience are with him.

Further, there was the problem of "short time":

There are many parts of the country where short-term work is seasonal, but the consequences for young people with time on their hands and with nothing to do, healthy, able-bodied youngsters wanting work and not being supplied with it, are very grave indeed.

Foley campaigned on the psychological problems of a youngster who leaves school full of idealism and hope and who finds himself on the threshold of adult life to be an outcast. Instead of being assets to society such boys and girls found themselves a liability. They felt that the community and society had let them down.

It was on account of this passion that George Brown, the Deputy Prime Minister, plucked out Foley to be an Under-Secretary in the newly formed Department of Economic Affairs with special responsibility to tackle the social and moral questions consequent on a policy which did not provide jobs for young people and proper educational guidance.

I saw at first hand that Foley was one of the most effective of the new young ministers who came to office after 13 years of Conservative rule. His international experience of and involvement in African affairs led him to specialise at the DEA in the problems facing coloured youth. Foley displayed great imagination and initiative and sailed into the offices of Lord Hill (Charlie Hill), the boss of ITV, and the formidable Sir Hugh Carleton Greene seeking what might be done in television and radio to create greater understanding and a better climate between youngsters of different ethnic origins. I was the late Dick Crossman's Parliamentary Private Secretary and was present when Greene told Crossman that he thought that Foley was one of the live wires of the incoming government and should be supported in his ideas at Cabinet level. Praise indeed.

After the 1966 general election, unsurprisingly, Foley was moved sideways to the sensitive post of Under-Secretary at the Home Office responsible for immigration. Ironically enough it was this portfolio that was to land him in trouble with the left wing of the Labour Party, as he was constrained by Cabinet caution and was therefore accused of betrayal by some of those with whom he had previously worked. Lord Tomlinson, who as John Tomlinson was MP for Meriden and himself a Foreign Office minister, remembers walking out in disgust at a meeting in which Foley was arraigned before a group meeting in the Midlands of his own Transport and General Workers' Union in which unprintable language was hurled at him. This was the beginning of a feeling, which he expressed to me, that however rosy his political future looked he really didn't want to spend his life in such an atmosphere.

In 1967 Wilson decided to move him to pastures new. As Prime Minister he believed that future senior ministers of the Labour Party should have a wide experience and it was for this reason that Foley was sent to work under Denis Healey as Minister for the Royal Navy at Defence. Roy Mason recalls Foley as

an energetic and totally interested Minister for the Navy. As Minister of State for Defence I found him an excellent and effective ministerial colleague who gained the respect of the senior officers of the Board of Admiralty and displayed excellent rapport when meeting service personnel at lower ranks.

During the Naval Estimates which he introduced on 1 March 1967, I asked him, following questions from Enoch Powell, if he would say something about new British warheads and their penetration possibilities. Foley responded: "I am sorry. I cannot but I shall look into the matter and if there's anything new to say I shall deal with it winding up later." He didn't say anything in the wind-up but, unlike most ministers, he did not forget the question. I was asked to go and see him in the Ministry of Defence and, albeit with civil servants present, he explained to me himself the whole background of naval armament. I was deeply impressed by his mastery of his brief. This was a view shared by his Midlands colleague the hard-to-please Colonel George Wigg, whose knowledge of the technicalities of military matters was legendary.

In 1968 Foley was plucked from the Ministry of Defence at the request of Michael Stewart, in his second term as Foreign Secretary. The reason was that he was known to have had for the previous 20 years a wide range of friends in the emerging nations of Africa. His first speech as a Foreign Office minister was on 13 March 1969, in the middle of the Biafra difficulties. He opened the crucial debate on Nigeria:

I had occasion to visit Nigeria many times in the mid-1950s and I witnessed in the north, at Jos and Kano, incidents involving Hausas, Fulanis and Ibos which were not very pleasant . . . Yet at the same time as there was this friction, this abrasiveness, between the tribes, the Ibos were working and forging the constitution of Nigeria. It was the Ibos, with the northerners, who formed the government at the time of Independence.

Foley became immersed in the politics of a country with which we had links for over a hundred years and where 16,000 British people were working in investment and trade.

Another area where Foley rendered great service was when he introduced the Tanzania Bill on 11 June 1969. He really cared about what was going to happen in Africa.

Opposition and the difficulties of the Labour Party persuaded him to leave the Commons for a post near his heart as Deputy Director General of DG8 (the Directorate General for Development, Commission of the European Communities), where he was to remain from 1973 to 1986. George Galloway MP, who was at that time the young General Secretary of War on Want, remembers going to Foley in Brussels and finding that "he had a tremendous grasp on world affairs. He could be a bit crusty but I sensed that underneath beat a stout Labour heart".

On 21 May 1973 the business diary of The Times was to record:

Another Briton who has made a strong impact already is Maurice Foley, the former Labour MP and junior minister who is now no 2 on the Commissions Development Aid side. Junior officials and foreign journalists have been amazed and delighted by his un-stuffiness, warmth and down-to-earth approach.

Maurice Foley did more good in the world than most British politicians.

Tam Dalyell