Obituary: Arthur Palmer
Friday 26 August 1994
HANGING on for a vote in the smoking room of the House of Commons, in the ungodly small hours, during the 1964-66 Parliament, when the then Labour Government had a wafer-thin majority of three, a group of us got round to the subject of political heroes. Those who knew Arthur Palmer anticipated whom he would choose before he even opened his mouth, and chimed: Isambard Kingdom Brunel. For Palmer was a chartered engineer who became a politician, and brought to the House of Commons qualities and an expertise all too rare in British public life: experience in and detailed knowledge of engineering.
Asked to lunch as a member of the first Science and Technology Select Committee by Sir Christopher Hinton, then the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board, and Len Rotherham, his head of research, I asked them if they had not been unduly deferential to the committee chairman, Arthur Palmer. Hinton replied:
Deferential to politicians I am not. Deferential to Palmer, yes, perhaps, as I know that which you obviously don't know - that as one of the young engineers at Battersea Power Station Palmer was one of the small group that kept London's lights and heating and cooking going during the Blitz and the doodlebugs. I do have considerable respect for him both as a brave man and as an excellent electrical engineer.
At that Rotherham, said that it was a crying shame that Harold Wilson as Prime Minister had not made Palmer a minister of state in the Department of Fuel and Power. 'I thought the Labour Government might make use of the man in the House of Commons who knows more about our industry than any other.' Rotherham added: 'What is the white heat of the technological revolution all about if you cannot find a place for Palmer as a minister?'
Palmer was born the son of a schoolteacher at Northam, in Devon, on the road to Appledore, in 1912. The family moved to Ashford, Middlesex, where Palmer attended the grammar school and went on to Brunel Technical College, now Brunel University, where he studied electrical supply engineering. In 1936, he joined the London Power Company, and also the Brentford and Chiswick Labour Party, who identified his potential and at the age of 25 got him elected to the council. At 23 he had become chairman of the Brentford Labour Party. In 1939, he married Marion Woollaston, to be his adored wife for 55 years and his great support. She joined the Labour Party the day after completing her medical examinations, the beginning of a road to distinguished medical consultancy.
In 1945 Palmer stood for Parliament in Wimbledon and to his surprise, and everyone else's, beat the Conservative candidate G. P. Hardy-Robertson by 30,188 to 28,820. He made a study of social democracy in Scandinavia, which resulted in an excellent book, Modern Norway (1950). Palmer was one of the influences in the Labour Party which turned the party's eyes towards the success of Scandinavian democracy. And it was during this time that he formulated ardent pro-European views which resulted in his being one of the 69 Labour MPs in 1971 who defied a three-line whip to accompany Edward Heath in the lobby which took the UK into the European Community.
Palmer was chosen in 1952 by the Cleveland constituency, impressed by the technical expertise which he had shown when he was MP for Wimbledon and by the vigour with which he had contested Merton and Morden, which had been part of his old constituency, in 1950. Ironically, it was the employees of ICI Billingham who wanted him in 1952 and it was those same employees, horrified by the ill-digested Labour promise to nationalise ICI, who deserted in their thousands in 1955 to reduce Palmer's majority to a slender 181 and to make his position impossible in 1959. However, by getting 28,790 votes to the Tory candidate's 30,445 in inauspicious circumstances, Palmer was in a strong position to apply for the safe seat of Bristol Central in 1964. He also had a lifelong interest in the Co-operative Party, who provided the necessary nominations.
Returning to the House of Commons, Palmer was placed immediately on the Nationalised Industries Committee. His work on the committee made him an obvious choice for the chairmanship of the new Science and Technology Select Committee, which was set up by Richard Crossman when Leader of the House in 1966. The first report, The UK Nuclear Reactor Programme, was published in 1967. It was a massive work and Palmer devoted a vast amount of midnight oil to it. As chairman he was in a position to have a decisive influence on the topics chosen by the Select Committee. In July 1968, there was another massive report on the problems of the UK coastline followed by a crisp and highly relevant assessment of carbon fibres early the following year. A much more lengthy study was made of the complex issue of defence research which did not have great impact in March 1969, when it was published, unlike a later report on the Natural Environment Research Council, published in July 1969. Before the Labour Government fell, Palmer pushed through another report, on the nuclear power industry, which highlighted the need for replicated power stations if the nuclear engineering industry was to have any exporting future.
Palmer always had excellent relations with the leading Conservatives on the Science and Technology Select Committee such as Sir Harry Legge-Bourke, Sir David Price and, above all, Airey Neave, who succeeded him as chairman when the Labour Government fell in 1970. I will never forget the way that Neave sidled up to Palmer and me together when he was in the early stages of running Margaret Thatcher's leadership campaign in 1976 and whispering to us: 'As particular friends of mine I would put your money on the filly]' This moment encapsulated the relationship between Palmer and Neave. And thus, albeit in opposition, Palmer was able to persuade me to concentrate on subjects which coincided with his particular interests: including Population of the UK (Palmer, partly influenced by his wife, was very interested in birth control problems); Research and Development at the DTI; and the UK Space Administration.
Ever returning to nuclear problems, he chaired an investigation into non-reactor R&D activities of the UKAEA published in June 1972 while the full committee looked at the industrial research establishments of the DTI. When Palmer was not satisfied he would return to a subject as he did in June 1973 when the Select Committee published a report on the UK computer industry which had considerable effect on the fortunes of ICL.
But perhaps the most far-reaching reports in which Palmer was involved concerned the choice of reactor systems in December 1973 and the report on offshore engineering just before the Heath government lost office. In terms of actual influence on events, I would argue that no Opposition MP was more effective than Palmer in the years 1970-74 because ministers knew that he was the antithesis of a ya-boo politician and his deepest loyalty was to British industry and science.
So acceptable was Palmer that he was chosen again to be the chairman of the Select Committee when the Labour Government returned to office. He had the happy knack of choosing subjects that were topical before most politicians deemed them to be important. Thus he had identified energy conservation before it was fashionable and published an influential report in July 1975. In July 1976 there was an important report on advanced ground transport followed in December by a serious study of the steam-generating heavy-water reactor and a comprehensive look at relations between the universities and industry. Palmer's own constituency interest in Bristol prompted a report on the exploitation of tidal power in the Severn estuary in July 1977 and a report on transfer flux and induction heating in July 1978. Palmer was greatly influenced by visiting Japan and was instrumental in the report on research and development in Japanese science-based industry published in August 1978.
To Palmer's dismay Mrs Thatcher brought to an end the Science and Technology Select Committee. I remember his despair and almost with tears in his eyes saying: 'How on earth could a girl who boasts that she was a pupil of Dorothy Hodgkin ever do that?' He did not sulk and became a most useful senior Opposition member on and vice-chairman on the Select Committee on Energy.
He was one of the princes of the constructive Select Committee of the kind that has an effect on the outside world not only by the quality of the report but by the quality of the questions which are put to distinguished witnesses. He contributed a powerful chapter to the assessment of Select Committees . After he had retired from the Commons Palmer sent me his pamphlet Energy Policy in the Community, which followed his pamphlet of the previous year Nuclear Power, the Reason Why. He had become not only a technocrat but elegant in prose. He was a real champion of British technology and science.
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