Obituary: Lord Harvey of Prestbury
Friday 08 April 1994
VERE HARVEY was the most flamboyant of figures. His loves were flying, sailing and politics - in that order. There was a fourth, high living, which he combined with the other three, keeping a Rolls-Royce in London and a yacht in Malta. He was brave, being twice mentioned in despatches for his role in the Battle of France in 1940: although he was by then already over the stipulated age for a fighter pilot he went into action both brilliantly and recklessly, and survived.
From an early age Harvey showed a passionate interest in all matters aeronautical and joined the RAF in 1925, when he was 19. In 1930 he left the service - temporarily as it turned out - to go to Hong Kong to become Director of the Far East Aviation Company. Within two years he was advising the Chinese Air Force, and Chiang Kai- shek made him a major-general. In 1939 he returned to England, and enlisted in the Auxiliary Air Force. He was promoted to the rank of squadron leader, and founded the famous 615 County of Surrey squadron: he later persuaded Winston Churchill to be its patron.
By 1940 Harvey's fighting flying days were over, and he was posted to RAF Coltishall as station commander. At the beginning, things did not go well. He took steps to retrieve the situation. He telephoned Percy ('Laddie') Lucas, and said 'I want you here at four o'clock 48 hours from now.' When Lucas arrived he was told that the last two wing commanders had been shot down, and he was required to reverse the trend.
A little later Colitshall lost most of a squadron in circumstances which remain somewhat mysterious. Harvey summoned Lucas at seven o'clock in the morning. 'Look old cock,' he said, 'I brought you here to stop the rot. So, stop it.' Coltishall became renowned for its efficiency thereafter.
In December 1943 Harvey was sumoned to Bentley Priory to help plan the invasion of France. His officers gave a farewell dinner for him. In blunt terms in his brief speech of thanks he told them that, after the war, he would be resigning from the service, and going into business and politics. Since many of those present knew that death might not be far away, they were impressed by his sublime confidence. As he left Lucas went to say goodbye. 'Oh no, old cock,' said Harvey, 'You're coming too.'
In the 1945 general election Harvey won the seat of Macclesfield for the Conservatives. He was the most assiduous of backbenchers, but he also found time to cultivate an almost extravagant number of business interests, almost all of them concerned with aviation, and was Deputy Chairman of Handley-Page from 1951 to 1957 and Chairman of Ciba-Geigy from 1957 to 1974. He was gifted as an administrator, and tenacious in the pursuit of success in negotiations.
In 1966 he was elected chairman of the 1922 Committee, the gathering of all Conservative backbenchers. The job of the chairman is to represent backbench views to the Leader of the party. Harvey was forthright and unflinching in his pursuit of duty. Having twice refused offers of ministerial office under Harold Macmillan, he was unlikely to be fazed by Edward Heath. Indeed, it was generally held that he more than once discomfited Heath.
In 1971, however, he decided that he had had enough of politics, and retired to devote himself to business and pleasure and was made a life peer. He was a man who lived life to the full, a man of courage, and great prescience. It is sad that he suffered, in his last years from Parkinson's disease, but he will be remembered as large-hearted and brave.
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