Obituary: Ernest Fernyhough
Friday 20 August 1993
SAYING 'NO' to Lyndon Johnson at the zenith of his presidential power in Washington was a formidable challenge - especially, when his request was 'Give me just a battalion of your bagpipers - I ask no more - to be alongside us in Vietnam.' The fact that Harold Wilson summoned up the resolve to deny Johnson owes something - not everything - to the fact that he had taken with him to Washington, in the prime-ministerial entourage, his Parliamentary Private Secretary, Ernie Fernyhough.
Tenaciously, Fernyhough put the moral and political case for Britain's not being drawn into a land war on Asian soil. He would tell his friends that what he did over those two days in Washington in steadying Harold Wilson's nerve was the most important action of his life. 'Ifs' in history can lead to fantasies, but if Fernyhough had not been taken along with the prime-ministerial party, Wilson would probably have caved in . . . and if the bagpipers had betokened a British presence in Vietnam . . . then for one thing the history of the Labour Party and the Labour government would have been even more turbulent.
Fernyhough's relaxed, pipe-smoking, quizzical manner tended to camouflage passionate convictions, and a deeply embedded socialist ethic. He was a pacifist, who during the Second World War had displayed conspicuous courage in the fire service and in civil defence. Marcia Williams, in her book Inside Number 10, confirms that as early as the spring of 1965 Fernyhough had identified that there was a major Vietnam issue and was already warning Wilson of the consequences, before many people had discovered where Vietnam was on the map.
It was not only on Vietnam that Fernyhough was influential. Wilson's own inclinations were doubtless not to 'sell out' over Rhodesia, but in his resistance to Ian Smith Fernyhough fortified him both with his own opinions and those that he had gleaned from the left of the Labour Party, whose relations with Wilson he kept in good repair as long as he was PPS.
Telling the unpalatable truth to prime ministers is an area in which there is much hypocrisy. A number of great personages of the Labour Party would regale their friends with how 'I told Harold bluntly - the little man had to take it on board - etc, etc', and actually they had done nothing of the kind and had been 'sweet as pie' to the Prime Minister's face. Margaret Thatcher, if Alan Clark's diaries are to be believed, had similar experience. I know from first-hand knowledge that Fernyhough was an exception and was not only the Prime Minister's tea- room ears among trade-union MPs and the left, but candidly offered his own opinions.
The spring of 1967 was a watershed period for Wilson's premiership. Success turned to failure. It may have been a factor that Fernyhough left the centre and was 'demoted' to Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Employment.
Ernest Fernyhough was born on Christmas Eve 1908 in the Staffordshire village of Wood Lane. He came from a family of Welsh miners, who had left the valleys to work in West Midlands pits. He was educated at the local council school and in the ILP Guild of Youth. At the age of 26 he was appointed a junior full-time trade union officer with Usdaw, where he remained for a decade and whose interests representing shop workers he championed in Parliament for over 30 years.
In the spring of 1947 Ellen Wilkinson, leading lady of the Labour Party and Minister of Education, died of overwork. The Jarrow party chose Fernyhough to succeed her. This they were never to regret, as I discovered when I accompanied Dick Crossman on a ministerial visit to Jarrow, where Fernyhough had become loved. During that visit, there was a delightful 10 minutes when Fernyhough held Crossman, Dame Evelyn Sharpe, George Moseley, later to be Permanent Secretary, and distinguished officials spellbound as he recounted facts about the Venerable Bede in Jarrow which none of 'you intellectuals', as Fernyhough dubbed us, knew.
Actually the fact that one of Crossman's first ministerial visits was to Jarrow had a lot to do with his regard for Fernyhough as a genuine Bevanite, who on the litmus test of German rearmament in 1954 had the whip withdrawn from him.
It was a shrewd choice of Harold Wilson's to choose an impeccable and popular trade-union left-winger to work in harness with the intellectually powerful Peter Shore as PPS. As a minister at the old Ministry of Labour, it has been said that Fernyhough was not a success, and a poor performer at the Commons despatch box. From my witness, I do not recall this as true at all. The House of Commons, and indeed the Conservative opposition of the day, respected a sincere working-class trade-union minister dealing with matters that he knew about. The real truth about Fernyhough's lacklustre performance as a minister was that he had come to be in deep, deep disagreement with the policy of the Government in an area where the Department of Employment was central. He just thought instinctively that the prices and incomes policy was wrong and could not possibly work, souring relations between party and government.
In later years he told me how angry he was with Barbara Castle for not having taken the chance to legislate down the line on the Donovan Committee report, and for getting involved in the White Paper 'In Place of Strife'. Donovan had been agreed with the general council of the TUC and would have been acceptable to the serious management of British industry. Fernyhough thought that Mrs Castle knew little of industry and understood even less, and had been completely mesmerised by the 12 workers at the Girling brake factory, who were supposedly holding the motor industry to ransom. Fernyhough said to me: 'I hope that when Barbara eventually joins her fathers she meets Nye (Aneurin Bevan), because he will have something to say to her.'
Relations with Harold Wilson remained personally close and, most unusually, an ex-Parliamentary Secretary was made a Privy Councillor in the resignation honours list. Wilson also made sure that Fernyhough was looked after by being appointed to the Council of Europe.
My last memory of Ernie Fernyhough is when he sidled up to me after a meeting that I had addressed in Chester, where he had gone to retire, on the subject of the Falklands in 1984. At 75 years of age, he was as ever concerned about the future of the Labour Party and the future of the country. It was typical of him and Ethel, his wife of 43 years, that they should have been active at a personal level in the cause of socialism in retirement. Ernie Fernyhough, unashamed socialist, leaves many friends among younger people in the party.
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