Richard Hornby

Tory MP and chairman of Halifax
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The Independent Online

Richard Phipps Hornby, politician and businessman: born St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire 20 June 1922; History master, Eton College 1948-50; staff, Unilever 1951-52, staff, J. Walter Thompson 1952-63, 1964-81, director 1974-81; MP (Conservative) for Tonbridge 1956-74; PPS to Duncan Sandys MP 1959-63; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Commonwealth Relations Office 1963-64; director, Halifax Building Society 1976-1990, vice-chairman 1981-83, chairman 1983-90; married 1951 Stella Hichens (two sons, one daughter); died Bowerchalke, Wiltshire 22 September 2007.

Richard Hornby was a man of diverse incarnations – war-time soldier with the King's Royal Rifle Corps, "beak" at Eton, MP, parliamentary private secretary to Duncan Sandys (Churchill's son-in-law) as well as government minister with special responsibility for Africa and Commonwealth education. He also had a formidable career in business with Unilever, J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency, and finally at the Halifax Building Society, where he served as chairman from 1983 to 1990.

Dick Hornby told me that his chairmanship of the Halifax had been the most enjoyable time of his working life. He was a leader with a low profile but created the atmosphere for profound change. He had joined the London board in 1974 and became a director of the main board in 1976. "During his watch as chairman two really big things happened," said Shane O'Riordain, Communications Director of Halifax Bank of Scotland.

There was the end to the smoke-filled rooms when building society chiefs would get together in a huddle and decide the mortgage interest rate. This was a momentous change in which Hornby played an important part and was the precursor to an extremely competitive mortgage market which we have today.

The second big issue in which Hornby was involved was the 1988 Financial Services Act, which allowed the building societies to compete with the clearing banks on matters such as personal loan and availability of current account.

Richard Hornby was born in 1922 at St Michael's, Lancashire, the son of the Right Rev Hugh Hornby, a chaplain to the Armed Forces who had won the Military Cross for bravery in France in 1916. At the time of Richard's birth his father was Vicar of St Michael's on Wyre. Subsequently his father became Archdeacon of Lancaster, Rector of Bury and Suffragan Bishop of Hulme.

From Winchester – where he was a scholar – Hornby went to Trinity College ,Oxford, gaining an honours degree in History and, as befitted a lifelong supporter of Bury Football Club, a soccer Blue. His university degree was interrupted by service for five years with the King's Royal Rifle Corps.

As an assistant master at Eton from 1948 to 1950 he taught me for a couple of terms; he was rather fierce in class, but even fiercer on the soccer field, where the kind of things that he said to us would do justice to Sam Allardyce at his angriest. Giles St Aubyn, who was Head of History at Eton until 1975 and shared a masters' flat with Hornby, remembers him as "a notable schoolmaster, capable of infecting his pupils with his own passion for history. He combined a lively and mischevious sense of humour, with considerable concern for those he taught."

Hornby left Eton partly because he wanted to be a politician and partly because his fiancée, Stella Hichens – later his wife of 56 years in a most successful partnership – was a singer at Glyndebourne, and did not fancy the life of the wife of an Eton housemaster.

In the 1955 general election Hornby was chosen as the Conservative standard bearer in the West Walthamstow constituency in north London. His opponent was the Leader of the Opposition, the former Prime Minister Clement Attlee. In my one long conversation with Attlee, in the dining room of the House of Commons, he said: "Dalyell, you are an old Etonian. My opponent in 1955 was an Eton master. Damned good fellow". Hornby for his part told me that no politician could have been kinder at the hustings than Attlee.

Hornby was next chosen for the safe Conservative seat of Tonbridge, Kent, for the June 1956 by-election. He won 20,515 votes, beating the Labour candidate's 18, 913. The safety of the seat did not prove to be an unmitigated blessing. As part of the left wing of the Conservative Party, Hornby had difficulty with the right-wingers among Kent Conservatives and this was one of the reasons why he was to leave politics and return to business in 1974.

In the meantime, he was very successful in the House of Commons, being appointed in 1959 parliamentary private secretary to Duncan Sandys, one of the most powerful members of the Macmillan government. After four years as a bag carrier, Hornby was given ministerial office under Sandys with crucial responsibilities in Africa. On the front bench he displayed considerable competence.

I remember the scene on 28 April 1964. The formidable Tory battleaxe Dame Irene Ward asked him what arrangements had been made for suitable employment for ex-civil servants of the Central African Federation returning to Britian; and whether the liquidating agency had fulfilled the financial responsibilities placed upon it in respect of these men and women. Hornby replied that the liquidating agency had already made terminal-benefit payments to over 4,000 ex-Federation employees amounting to approximately £2m. Dame Irene Ward responded:

Yes, but is my honourable friend aware that though that is a very important answer from the departmental point of view, what I want to know is whether, when these people have come over here, they have been told how to seek jobs. I have had people coming to see me who have not been given any idea, any guidance of any kind whatsoever. So far as the liquidating agency is concerned, there have been some quite abnormal delays. Therefore, even if my honourable friend [Hornby] thinks he is satisfied, is he aware that I am not satisfied?

With this trumpet blast, Dame Irene, hat and all, subsided in her seat on the back bench. This was a challenge to any young Tory minister. Hornby was tactful:

I think my honourable friend is always very adept at making her own feelings known both to Duncan Sandys and myself and to the House. On the question of delays, we are anxious to make certain that the absolute minimum of delay occurs. One case has been brought to my attention by Dame Irene and the reasons for the delay there were beyond the control of the Government.

Hornby would not allow himself to be bullied.

One of his interests was the future of the medical school and teaching hospital attached to the University College at Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia. Hornby made efforts to try to associate the government of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland with the school and hospital and to increase the number of African students. He had the respect as a minister of those of us who went to see him on Commonwealth education matters. Pressed by Fenner Brockway and Barbara Castle, on 5 March 1964 he expressed concern, unusual in a Tory minister, for the future development after independence of the government of Southern Rhodesia's policy on non-discrimination.

Hornby believed that if Britain was to play its part in the development of the economies of under-developed countries that it should give places in its technical colleges so that it could help to produce technicians of the grade necessary for the development of these territories. He had a good relationship with his opposite number on the Labour benches, George Thomson, later to be a cabinet minister and European Commissioner. Hornby was instrumental in ensuring a multi-racial character requirement was written into the constitution of the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

Truth to tell, Hornby did not care for the leadership of Ted Heath, elected after the Conservative Party defeat in the 1964 general election. Had Reginald Maudling become leader instead, Hornby told me that he might have remained in Parliament. As it was, he did not see much future for himself other than on the back benches; still less would he have flourished under Margaret Thatcher.

After leaving office but before leaving the House of Commons, he did valuable work on the General Advisory Council of the BBC, 1969-74, and as a member of the Committee of Enquiry into Intrusions into Privacy, 1970-72.

Tam Dalyell