Sir Frederick Corfield

Soldier, lawyer and minister in the Macmillan, Home and Heath governments
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sixty years have passed since Freddy Corfield was liberated in Germany as a prisoner of war, and half a century since he was first elected to Parliament as MP for South Gloucestershire. Over the following two decades he was to be an important minister in the Macmillan, Home and Heath governments. But for being scapegoated over the controversial RB211 Rolls-Royce engine controversy and a subsequent falling-out with Ted Heath, he would have reached Cabinet rank. As it was, Heath, in a bitter correspondence, denied him the membership of the House of Lords to which he was surely entitled and which he craved.

Frederick Vernon Corfield was born in the house of the family estate at Chatwall Hall in one of the least productive farming areas of Shropshire, when his father, Colonel (later Brigadier) Frederick Alleyne Corfield, was fighting in France - where he was to be awarded a distinguished DSO. He was sent to his father's old school, Cheltenham College, and then to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich to train as a gunner. Like his father, who was in the Indian Army, he was posted to the 8th Field Regiment Royal Artillery in India from 1935 to 1939, returning to be an acting captain and adjutant of the 23rd Field Regiment of the British Expeditionary Force Third Division. Subsequently he was transferred to the 51st Highland Division and mentioned in despatches before being captured at St Valéry.

He was sent to Standenburg, then to Thornforts in Poland, then to Warburg, Westphalia, from which he escaped by ladders over the wire after he and two accomplices had fused the watchtower lights. They were just about to get the Ruggen ferry to Sweden when, taking a kip, they woke to be confronted by the 12-bore gun of a farmer. Solitary confinement at Paderborn ensued with a return to Warburg, and then a move to Eichstadt in Bavaria, ending up at the beautiful town of Rothenburg on the Taube, from where they walked to meet American soldiers.

When, as a very new Member of Parliament, I was going to see Corfield as a minister I mentioned to Willie Ross, Harold Wilson's future Secretary of State for Scotland, that I was off to meet a "crusty" Tory minister. Major William Ross, late of the Highland Light Infantry, told me in no uncertain terms that I had better think again - the seemingly crusty Corfield had been one of the very brave and skilful gunners who had put their lives in peril and sacrificed their own freedom at St Valéry to stage the rearguard action which allowed most of the Scottish Highland Division to escape across the Channel from the beaches of Dunkirk.

Corfield made the very best of his time as a prisoner of war. He was fortunate in being incarcerated with several lawyers who were prepared to teach him - he was able to study for the Bar after the conflict was over. On liberation, he joined the Judge Advocate General's Department. He told me that, though he had intended to make a career of professional soldiering, he realised that he was at a disadvantage to his contemporaries who had actually taken part in the fighting and reached high rank.

Returning to farming, he did not think that the life of an obscure Shropshire squire was for him, so he sold the family seat and bought a farm in the more productive and fertile soil of Gloucestershire. Chosen as the Conservative standard-bearer in what was a Labour-held seat, he defeated Ted Bishop, later to be the MP for Newark, by 21,760 votes to 20,084.

Lucky in the ballot for Private Members' Bills, he put his time to good use in gaining all-party support for a much-needed Bill to give compensation for property acquired by the government or local authority by compulsory purchase.

To my surprise, Corfield once told me that he was greatly in my debt. How come? "In the West Lothian by-election of 1962 your defeated Tory candidate lost his deposit which led to Harold Macmillan sacking half his Cabinet in the 'Night of the Long Knives' [the wrong half as Harold Wilson used to say]. One result was that Keith Joseph became Minister of Housing and took me on as his junior minister."

My first encounter with Corfield arose from the following exchange on 13 November 1962. Mr Nicholas Ridley asked the Minister of Housing and Local Government if he would take action to preserve Eldon Square, Newcastle upon Tyne, in view of its architectural and historical importance:

Mr Corfield: These buildings are listed under the Town & Country Planning Act 1947 as being of architectural interest. The City Council has just submitted an amendment to its development plan under which the buildings would be demolished. In considering this, Sir Keith Joseph will take account of the architectural and historic interest of the Square as well as the arguments in favour of redevelopment.

Mr Ridley: Is my honourable friend aware the importance of these buildings is national and that it goes beyond purely local interest? This is one of the few cities with really fine 18th-century town planning. Will he urge Sir Keith Joseph to use his position as guardian of the nation's artistic heritage to make sure these buildings are not demolished?

Mr Corfield: I can assure the House that Sir Keith Joseph's advisory committee on buildings of special architectural and historical interest has been consulted and its views will be taken carefully into consideration. However I cannot anticipate Sir Keith Joseph's final decision.

Ernie Popplewell, then a prominent Newcastle Labour MP, asked:

Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware that there are two very decided schools of thought about this? To many people there is nothing of real outstanding architectural or historical value attached to Eldon Square; at least, nothing to the degree that should hold up the planning development of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne? Does the honourable gentleman realise how necessary it is that this re-planning should take place so that Newcastle may attract industrialists to develop in the area?

Mr Corfield: I am sure Mr Popplewell appreciates that if there were not two schools of thought on almost everything our lives would be much more tedious.

The following day Ridley asked me (I had been his fag at Eton) if I would accompany him and Jeremy Thorpe on an all-party delegation to the minister to urge the national importance of Eldon Square. Recklessly (because the square was in the constituency of the Labour Deputy Chief Whip Ted Short), I agreed. Corfield greatly impressed us with his detailed knowledge of the Eldon Square controversy. With a sly grin he told us that he was between the Scylla and Charybdis of the parliamentary arts branch of the Old Etonian Association and Newcastle City Council in general and T. Dan Smith in particular. T. Dan Smith was to win!

However, when the Labour government was elected in October 1964 and I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Richard Crossman as Minister of Housing, I was told by three heavyweight civil servants, Dame Evelyn Sharp, Sir James Waddell and Sir Jimmy Jones, that they thought that Corfield had been an excellent minister, very quick to master a complex brief (as one would expect of someone who was later to become a QC and possessed a mind of his own). If he came down on the wrong side on Eldon Square he had a real knowledge of the arts and was to be chairman of the London & Provincial Antique Dealers Association between 1975 and 1989.

In 1964 he proved himself as having been an excellent constituency MP and against the tide gained 26,504 votes to the 22,790 for the Labour candidate, and future Government Chief Whip, Michael Cocks. He was among the more assiduous members of the opposition front bench from 1964 to 1970 and was rewarded with the important job as Minister of State in the Board of Trade. Within three months he was promoted to Minister of Aviation Supply which became the Minister for Aerospace in the DTI between 1971 and 1972.

The department was at the very centre of politics, never more so that on 10 May 1971 when he made a statement to the House on the complexities of the arrangements between the British firm of Rolls-Royce, the Lockheed Corporation of America and the United States government over the development of the Rolls-Royce RB211 engine.

As often happens in politics, an individual had to be asked to carry the can for something that had gone terribly wrong. Perhaps Corfield was at fault but hindsight is a wonderful thing. The crucial discussions took place between Downing Street and the White House and Corfield, deeply hurt, after he had been sacked told me that he had been "out of the loop". He decided that there was no future for him as a minister and that he would be better to let the young John Cope contest the Gloucestershire seat, himself returning to the law.

Tam Dalyell