OBITUARY : Lord Lever of Manchester
Monday 07 August 1995
A financial wizard, he made a fortune out of nothing, but remained an eclectic socialist and stayed within the Labour Party. He was a prudent investor, but loved a gamble on the horses or a game of bridge or backgammon for high stakes. He sparkled at the dinner-tables of his millionaire neighbours in Belgravia, but dispensed practical help and homely wisdom to the deprived and worried people of Manchester who came to his MP's "surgeries" in the inner-city constituency which he represented for 34 years. In 1979 he was created Baron Lever of Manchester.
Lever was one of those rare people who have too many talents for their own good. Fortunately, his instinctual judgements came under the discipline of a lively mind. Had he stuck to the Northern Circuit where he began his career, he might have been a great lawyer. If bridge had been his first interest, he could have become at least a national champion; and certainly he might have been a giant of the business world.
Whether he could have become a great political leader is less certain. His mind was, perhaps, too restless and ingenious; his ideas and his solutions for problems were not impractical, but they were startlingly unorthodox. They could certainly upset government departments. "Officials don't think ministers should advise them," said Sir Michael Butler of one of Lever's interventions. "They think they are there to advise ministers."
Though he was never driven by ambition, Lever certainly had hopes of higher office than he achieved, but they were checked by a severe stroke which impaired him physically but affected neither his speech nor his mind. When Labour was returned to power in 1974 it would have been physically difficult for him to run a great department and Wilson, in his wisdom, made him his economic adviser and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a ministry virtually without portfolio. His status in a Cabinet numbering 24 was, however, much higher than his nominal 23rd position.
In this office Lever was given the time and resources to solve the kind of problems which baffle governments and frustrate prime ministers. When, for example, the building societies were about to raise their interest rates by 2 per cent, which would have upset house buyers at an inconvenient moment, Lever suggested that the Government should offer the societies a loan of pounds 100m at one half per cent below market level. The trick worked - the cost to the Government was negligible. Denis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, called it a "Leverette" - "one of . . . Lever's ripping wheezes with which to bamboozle the financial markets. This I regarded as a legitimate objective."
Lever had an office at 10 Downing Street and provided Wilson with an independent source of economic information. "At first," writes Healey in his autobiography, "I resented Harold's privileged access to the Prime Minister . . . When I felt more at ease in my job I found his understanding of the financial markets invaluable and normally accepted about one in four of his suggestions - a high average for any external consultant."
A more critical view was held by Edmund Dell. Lever's wealth and right- wing views led some to question whether he should be in the Labour Cabinet at all. But he had deep concern for the disadvantaged, was always found on the liberal side in any argument and was one of the kindest men in politics. "Unfortunately," said Dell, "with all these qualities, went, in my view, a major cost." Lever's opinions were inappropriate, Dell thought, to the circumstances of 1974, with his willingness to spend public money on a politically convenient solution to some lame-duck problem; while, on economic policy, his solutions usually involved borrowing, usually overseas.
In Callaghan's crisis year of 1976, the informal cabinet seminar concerned with interest rates and inflation consisted of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Governor of the Bank of England and Harold Lever. In his autobiography Callaghan talks of Lever, "always cheerful and bubbling with new and fertile ideas, generous with his friendship, ingenious in finding new solutions to old problems. A splendid raconteur, he possesses much worldly common sense."
It was Lever who had called on Callaghan at the Foreign Office on one of the last days of 1975 and said what he was about to tell him "must be treated in deepest confidence". The Prime Minister had made a firm decision to resign in March 1976 and "I must prepare myself to take over". The Foreign Secretary unsuccessfully probed Lever about the reliability of his sources. Then, "As I had previous knowledge of the accuracy of his intelligence I slowly became convinced."
When Callaghan duly became Prime Minister, he kept Lever in his roving commission. At one desperate moment of conflict with the International Monetary Fund, about the size and conditions of the loan which Britain required, he sent Lever to Washington to ask them, once more, to fund the sterling balances. The Americans would do nothing until the loan had been successfully negotiated. And then they agreed.
Lever and Tony Crosland, who carried great economic weight in the Cabinet, were both expansionists who thought that the cuts demanded by the IMF were economically unjustified. Nevertheless, when the IMF had modified its demands they came to see, Lever first, that Britain was facing not just a soluble economic problem, but a more difficult one of regaining the confidence of the sceptical world of international finance.
Lever was 53 before he got office, 22 long years after entering the Commons. He would not have had to wait so long, if he had concentrated his energies on Parliament. But he had not intended to have a political career. He was one of the four sons of a pious and well-to-do Manchester textile merchant, whose father, like his mother's father, had fled from the Tsarist police in Lithuania. Their eldest son, Leslie, was a solicitor who became Labour Councillor and eventually Lord Mayor of Manchester, an MP and a life peer. Two more brothers joined the family law firm and Harold and his sister read for the Bar.
All the sons went to Manchester Grammar School. Harold had a head for languages. At 16 he was doing Latin, Greek and French at school, winning a gold medal for Hebrew and picking up Yiddish from the district. He went to Manchester University but was a wayward law student, bored by the lectures; he spent his time playing bridge, and buying and selling small houses and chief rents. Because of his irregular attendance he was prevented from sitting the honours examination; his disappointment remained even in later life despite the honorary doctorates universities conferred upon him.
Called to the Bar at 21, he found the free life of a barrister to his taste and was earning over pounds 1,000 a year, a fortune for a young man then. Marriage to a medical student ended in a friendly divorce. In the Second World War he became an officer in the RAF Regiment but never got nearer the Front than Bournemouth.
He married again, put his name forward for what seemed a hopeless Manchester constituency. To his surprise he found himself the candidate for Manchester Exchange - and then won it. But how was he going to live? MPs were badly paid and he was glad to earn an extra pounds 8 a week for articles on Westminster in the Manchester Evening News.
Soon however he found that there were rich opportunities in the post- war world for lawyers with business acumen, as new companies were being floated and old ones merged. Then disaster struck. After giving birth to a healthy daughter, his wife died of leukaemia. Her parents took charge of the infant and the distraught young widower took, not to the bottle (he was and remained a near teetotaller) but to the bridge table. He neglected his Westminster duties and played bridge until the small hours. He was only rescued by the Manchester Guardian bridge correspondent and world champion Rixi Markus. She cared for him for many years.
Even when he got over his troubles, Lever was insouciant about his party duties (though never about his constituents). Absent abroad without permission he sent a postcard to his whip: "Weather wonderful. Wish you were here." Attlee summoned the defaulter and when Herbert Morrison kindly pointed out that he had been bereaved, the stoical Prime Minister said: "Yes. But we have to get over these things."
MPs were envious when Lever, making a too rare appearance, would capture the headlines with an original comment. His political stance seemed odd. He was fond of Bevan and Foot and gave money to Tribune. Yet he took the heretical view that Chancellor Dalton ought to disinflate and was much influenced by Professor Arthur Lewis who suggested that Labour might sometimes get better results by using the price mechanism instead of physical rationing.
Lever's first real political advance came in 1952 when he won a place in the ballot for Private Member's Bills. He devised a law reform Bill which won the approval of the press and of lawyers too. The Government had to co-operate; and the Bill passed. The "Lever Act" cleaned up absurdities in the defences of qualified privilege and justification; protected the author if a fictitious character was mistaken for a real person bearing the same name; made unscripted broadcasts no longer subjected to action for slander but now for libel. The authorship of this Act increased Lever's standing in the House and in a grateful Fleet Street.
Lever was now becoming a House of Commons "character". He did not limit his friendship to right-wingers within the party or to Labour MPs. He was a raconteur in a Lancashire accent with a little Yiddish. He was a good mimic. In argument he would quote Latin, or Greek or biblical Hebrew. His fluency enabled him to do two parliamentary filibusters each of over two hours, first on a films Bill, second on a white fish Bill in which he discussed the fishing of the coelacanth and the possibility of converting the Queen Mary into a fishing trawler to attract a subsidy.
In the Fifties, Lever acquired a considerable fortune, became a serious student of economics and learnt much human wisdom from a Freudian analyst. The big change in his life came when in 1962 he married Diane, the daughter of a wealthy Lebanese banker. She was half Lever's age, but the marriage was a happy one for more than 30 years. She gave him three daughters. The Levers took a 22-roomed apartment in Eaton Square and Diane converted it into a palace with a marble hall, a Louis XIV staircase, a salon and a bibliotheque full of leather-bound classics and some notable pictures. Fleet Street used to count the bathrooms. Sometimes they made them seven, eight or even nine. Lever's socialist friends forgave him because it was all so beautiful and he and Diane were so hospitable. They served the best plain food in London. When MPs chaffed him that he had only married her because she had inherited two million pounds, Lever chaffed back: "I'd have loved her just as much if she had only had one million."
Under Diane's influence Lever spent more time in the Commons. He became one of the leaders in the Campaign for Democratic Socialism which was to rescue Gaitskell from the Left and from the unilateralists. His views on the economy remained eclectic. He was an expansionist who never believed in incomes policies and thought in those days of what later could be regarded as most modest external deficits that everyone made too much of a fetish of the balance of payments.
Not until the third year of Wilson's government was he given office, first in the Department of Economic Affairs and then as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. In 1969 he was made a member of the Cabinet. Wilson recalled of him as Tony Benn's deputy in the Ministry of Technology: "Lever's knowledge of industry and finance, his high standing in the City, his inexhaustible imagination and ingenuity, eminently fitted him for the post, as the next nine months were to show."
It was an odd partnership. Benn, who had a narrower view of the socialist faith, said: "Harold really is a good Tory, there is no question about it. A nice, kind, generous, humane, liberal Conservative." When he proposed a modest sandwich luncheon in the office, Lever agreed and got Fortnums to send a picnic basket round.
Like many Jews of his generation, Harold Lever had great love of the small liberal Britain which had given refuge to his grandfathers. It always seemed to him a democratic miracle that he should be a minister only half a century after their arrival.
Yet this did not prevent him from becoming an enthusiast for British membership of the European Community. He was one of the 69 Labour MPs who voted against the party whip to accept the terms Heath's government commended. When Labour's line in Europe hardened, and on Benn's suggestion it was decided that a future Labour government would have a referendum on the terms, Roy Jenkins, the Deputy Leader, and George Thomson resigned from the Shadow Cabinet. So did Lever, but only out of loyalty to them. He saw that, with Tory and Liberal support plus some backing from the divided Labour Party, a majority for staying in was certain.
Then came the stroke and Wilson's offer of the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster. He fitted just as easily into Callaghan's Cabinet. It was divided, yet had a good- humour which owed much to the wit of Lever, Crosland and Healey on one side and Foot and Benn on another.
After the Government's fall, Lever wrote frequently for the serious newspapers in Britain and the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He had great influence on Harry Evans, then editor of the Sunday Times. He particularly enjoyed the company of such thoughtful journalists as Peter Jenkins and Samuel Brittan and was interested in the start-up of the Independent. As a director of the Guardian, however, he was unable to give practical help, but was delighted when another Old Mancunian, Lord Sieff of Brimpton, became chairman of the new daily.
Lever appeared infrequently in the House of Lords, but became a committed expert on the international debt crisis. He chaired a group of experts commissioned by the Commonwealth prime ministers to report on the subject and the following year collaborated with Christopher Huhne in a Pelican special on the subject.
In Debt and Danger - the World Financial Crisis (1985), they pointed out that for long there had been a one-way flow of resources from the advanced countries to the Third World. The reversal of those flows was a "perversion of common sense and sound economics". The book opens with a quotation from Diderot: "We have made a labyrinth and have got lost. We must find our way again."
Like some other distinguished men of swift thought and voluble flow of words, Lever was not an easy writer. He was however persuaded by the BBC to record some autobiographical pieces. He was the subject and author of so many good stories that too little credit may be given to him for the quality of his contribution to the economic thought of the last Labour governments.
At the end of his career in the Commons, Lever could look back on some practical achievements. He played an important part in the Basle agreement on the sterling balances and its extension 10 years later; in making it possible for the British to borrow in the Eurodollar market; in rescuing the Meriden Motor Cycle Co-operative; and in creating a scheme for Wilson to induce Chrysler not to close down its British operation.
His most important work, done in the secrecy of cabinet committee, was unseen by the public. He was a generous man, as not only official charities will recognise, but also many individuals who were quietly rescued from their difficulties. If I know about a few of them it was only because I was a close friend for half a century.
Harold Lever, politician: born Manchester 15 January 1914; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1935; MP (Labour) for Manchester Exchange 1945- 50, Manchester, Cheetham 1950-74, Manchester Central 1974-79; Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary, DEA 1967; Financial Secretary to Treasury 1967-69; PC 1969; Paymaster General 1969-70; Chairman, Public Accounts Committee 1970-73; Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 1974-79; created 1979 Baron Lever of Manchester; married 1939 Ethel Sebrinski (nee Samuel; marriage dissolved), 1945 Betty ("Billie") Featherman (nee Wolfe, died 1948; one daughter), 1962 Diane Bashi (three daughters); died London 6 August 1995.
John Beavan (Lord Ardwick) died 18 August 1994
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