OBITUARIES : Lord Campbell of Eskan
Wednesday 04 January 1995
In a career of crossing frontiers in business and politics he was often stuck with labels: the enlightened businessman, Labour peer, socialist industrialist, idealist, realist - each description only part of his story, which itself was part of the history of his times.
His early boyhood was in Ireland where he grew up, as he said, "with a silver sugar spoon in his mouth". The family firm, Curtis Campbell, had a long and prosperous record of trading in central Africa and the Caribbean, merging with Booker Brothers in 1939. Young Campbell had a stormy temper, and a stammer that can only have fuelled his outbursts. He caught poliomyelitis at school but overcame the damage by developing a fierce talent for winning ball games, tennis, squash, golf - to be tempted into table tennis with him even in his seventies was to walk into a propeller.
He went to Eton and Exeter College, Oxford, but, half Irish, he never lost the rebelly boy look about him. He graduated into a bit of a tearaway, loving fast cars and fancy-free ways. Then he was sent to British Guiana to see how the family fortune was made and he had the shock of his young life. He saw the poverty on which a life of plenty was based. Those were the days, before the Second World War, when a ton of sugar might sell for as little as a cricket ball. All Campbell's abilities were suddenly converted into a faith that change must be possible, that Bookers had to forge a new deal with its working communities in the West Indies and black Africa. Demerara was Jock Campbell's Damascus. The stammer disappeared almost completely.
He fulfilled his vision in two ways: through his contribution to the stabilisation of macro- economics in the sugar industry of the world, and through his remarkable leadership of the Booker group.
"Sugar is politics" was Disraeli's view and Campbell's role in the politics of sugar became a dominant commitment of his life. During the war he played a crucial lead in the creation of the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement, which set a firmer structure for sugar pricing. This transformed the quality of life for those peoples producing sugar in developing countries, including the 60,000 Booker workers in the West Indies.
Campbell continued as chairman of the Commonwealth Sugar Association from 1950 to 1984. He was president of the West India Committee from 1957 to 1977. In 1974 he was a decisive part of the negotiation of the Lome Agreement, which allowed developing countries favourable access into the European sugar markets.
Without some stability in sugar pricing, Campbell's strategy for the transformation of Bookers would have had no chance. He became chairman in 1952 of what was then a vast, ramshackle empire of colonial companies, sugar estates, ship's liquor and industrial holdings. His premiss for his re- engineering of the enterprise was startlingly humble, startling because it is so seldom encountered in top management. He declared that the task as presented to him was beyond him, it required a superman and he was only human. So he went on to re-organise Bookers into the smallest possible groups that made commercial sense with their own bottom line. Organisation was devised to make the most of humans, ordinary people, and Bookers thrived.
Campbell's originality showed in many other ways as well. He was a pioneer of the philosophy of business in the community. In the mid-1950s Bookers had a social policy based on the recognition of a company's fourfold responsibilities: to shareholders, o
f course, but also to customers, employees, and the community. Bookers in the combustible areas of Africa and the Caribbean was open to all talents and actively generous in education, housing, sports and the arts.
When I first visited the countries in which Bookers operated I was surprised by the way political and community leaders would speak about Jock Campbell as if he were in the next room. With them, he had what Adam Smith called "sympathy"; he understood their idealism and argued, often vainly, that idealism and realism had better learn to live together. The goodwill he earned for Bookers gave the company that essential time it needed to diversify and to balance its assets both by type of business and geographically. Therefore the resilience was there to take the inevitable stresses of transition when the colonies gained independence.
Among the diversifications, not incidentally, was the purchase, for £100,000, of 51 per cent of Glidrose Ltd, which owned the copyrights of Campbell's friend Ian Fleming - a negotiation which began naturally during a round of golf at Huntercombe, James Bond's spiritual home.
The Booker Prize grew from the profitability of Bookers' Books. I think of the prize as a celebration of creative management as well as creative writing, a touch of Campbell's gold fingers as well as Ian Fleming's.
In the mid-Sixties Campbell retired from Bookers at 55, but not from national affairs. He diversified himself thereafter. He had declared himself a Labour voter in the 1964 election in a famous article for the Observer. In 1967 he was made a peer, insisting on being a cross-bencher to start with; he took the Labour whip later and later still the rebelly boy was back on the cross benches. He chaired the New Statesman from 1964 to 1981.
Probably it was his chairmanship of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation that was most central among his many post-Booker commitments. As its first chairman he led the team that turned a satellite into a star. He was the first freeman of the new town. His portfolio of interests spread widely, from trusteeship of Chequers to deputy chairmanship of London Weekend Television and the chairmanship of the building and civil engineering "Neddys", and countless other good causes.
Until his death at 82 Jock Campbell remained always a force to be reckoned with in anything he took seriously, including his painting, one of his last passions. As a leader he drove people hard, himself hardest, but always life was exhilarating when he was around. He was amazing with words, delighting in the choice and play of them - Torquemada, the grandest inquisitor among crossword setters, left Campbell his papers to edit for the Cambridge University Press.
He was full of contraries in a Walt-Whitmanly way. His adopted name of Jock was one of those - neither by appearance nor nature was he a likely Jock. He was a man of originality, a master of the management of the unexpected and there was humanity in all he did.
He married twice: in 1939 Barbara Roffey and in 1949 Phyllis Taylor Boyd, who died in 1983 and was missed terribly. His large family was never far from him and his house in the village of Nettlebed in Oxfordshire was always full of life and friends from all over the place. Coming back from a walk and talk with neighbours around the green on Boxing Day, he died only a stride away from his own front door.
John Middleton Campbell, businessman: born 8 August 1912; chairman, Commonwealth Sugar Exporters' Association 1950-84; chairman, Booker McConnell 1952-66 (President 1966-79); Kt 1957; president, West India Committee 1957-77; chairman, Statesman and Nation Publishing Co 1964-77; created 1966 Baron Campbell of Eskan; chairman, Milton Keynes Development Corporation 1967-83; chairman, New Towns Association 1975-77; president, Town & Country Planning Association 1980-89; married 1938 Barbara Roffey (two sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1948), 1949 Phyllis Taylor Boyd (died 1983); died 26 December 1994.
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