Obituary: Lord Jay

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It is one of the misfortunes of life that a public figure can forever be associated with one inaccurate remark, taken out of context, and never intended to carry an immortal interpretation. For half a century Douglas Jay suffered as the originator of the sinister aphorism "the man in Whitehall knows best".

This is not what he said. In his masterly account of the life of Hugh Dalton, Ben Pimlott writes that "Socialism would come, not through an apocalyptic upheaval but by applying in an old-fashioned British and Fabian way lessons drawn from administrative experience. Implicit in this view was the discovery of the enormous powers of the state." It was this discovery - epitomised in Douglas Jay's famous remark after the war that "the Gentleman in Whitehall is usually right" - that found expression in Labour's election programme.

Jay, as President of the Board of Trade 1964-67, proved by his actions that no minister was more effective in promoting a dispersal of industry location away from the overheated south-east of England. He was "Mr Regional Development"; he was a practical crusader against unemployment anywhere in Britain. And Jay spent the last quarter of the century trying to tell the rest of us that "the man in Brussels does not know best".

His personal relations with Harold Wilson were simply awful. He told me and several other young MPs separately (when he was still a member of Wilson's cabinet and I was a humble Parliamentary Private Sec-retary) that the Prime Minister was a "little crook". The circumstances of his dismissal encapsulated the relationship. In late August 1967 Jay was on holiday in Cornwall - he never went anywhere else, being a creature of unalterable habits. Wilson was in the Isles of Scilly. Could the Prime Minister see him in London the following week? Jay absolutely refused to break his holiday. So the Prime Minister arranged to meet him at a convenient railway station in south-west England, where he asked for his resignation.

There could hardly have been a more cryogenic response to a subsequent friendly letter from the Prime Minister praising the great drive Jay had brought to the regional policy and the diversification of industry in the development areas, "a task with which you are associated - which indeed you initiated - more than 20 years ago". Jay's terse reply was: "My dear Prime Minister, thank you for your letter in which you record your request to me to help in the reconstruction of the Government by placing my resignation in your hands, which I hereby do; though with the conviction that a great deal remains to be done by this Government in the promotion of social justice, the expansion of exports and the reconstruction of the development areas to which, as you say, I have already devoted much effort in the last three years. I am grateful for the opportunity to have done so. Yours sincerely, Douglas Jay." The Prime Minister could be forgiven for disliking him.

Jay was born in 1907. His academic career was glittering. "Douglas was even cleverer academically than I was," opined Dick Crossman, his junior contemporary at Winchester and New College, Oxford and fellow cabinet minister in the first Wilson Government. "And much cleverer than Hugh Gaitskell," he added for good measure. At New College, Jay came under the spell of H.A.L. Fisher, David Lloyd George's Education Minister who encouraged his young men to go into public life.

Herbert Fisher consoled himself for having lost his parliamentary seat by writing the greatest history of Europe. An MP from 1916 to 1922, he put through a major education act in 1918 and went down with Lloyd George. Late on Sunday evenings, Fisher would invite undergraduates to his study in the warden's lodging, to enjoy the company of Gilbert Murray or Hilaire Belloc, Graham Wallas (an original Fabian) or General Jan Smuts. There Fisher would recapture the ecstasy of public life and imagine himself back at the Cabinet table in Downing Street or the Council of the League of Nations in Geneva or in the smoking room of the House of Commons.

A few - a very few - undergraduates were invited by Fisher to his country cottage in Surrey. At the close of the weekend, Fisher and his guests would walk up to the village of Churt for dinner with Lloyd George. There at either end of the table, Jay recalled, "sat thesis and antithesis, the well-born academic and self-made Welshman, united by their passion for the game of politics from which both had been forcibly retired." Jay told me it was then that he got his first taste for public life.

Scholar of New College, his First in Greats led inexorably to a Fellowship of All Souls (1930-37). Whether this was entirely beneficial for Jay's progress in the House of Commons is a matter of conjecture: Fellows of All Souls don't always prosper there as their talents suggest they should (Sir John Foster and Sir Keith Joseph are recent examples), as they have an air of unworldliness about them. In Jay's case this was compounded by a seeming certainty that he was right in any ministerial or political decision.

Sir Isaiah Berlin, his friend for nearly 70 years, states that: "Douglas was often foolish and certainly fanatical on any subject. Once he had made up his mind nothing would dislodge his opinion. He had fixed habits never to be altered." In politics extremely clever men may be wise to conceal their cleverness; Jay in the view of his contemporaries found this difficult.

He was chosen by Geoffrey Dawson as one of his bright young men to work on the Times (1929-33). In 1937, after four years on the Economist, he became the city editor of the Daily Herald, which was the springboard for his career as a Labour Member of Parliament.

During the war Jay worked in the Board of Trade. In his diaries Dalton wrote: "After some tumult, Morrison suggested I should be chairman of a ministerial sub-committee to hustle all this along (dispersal of industry policy). I said I would but insisted that we must have Douglas Jay as Secretary. He had been my dynamo on this engine in the war; thereafter we succee- ded in greatly speeding up new factory building in these areas".

After a short period as personal assistant on economic matters to the Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the leadership found Jay a seat at Battersea (the by-election was on 25 July 1946) after persuading the sitting Labour MP, F.C.R. Douglas, to accept the Governorship of Malta. In those days the leadership could organise people they particularly wanted in the House of Commons.

Jay's style can be gauged from his maiden speech (on the coal situation) on 16 October 1946, in which he recalled that he first joined the Labour party out of resentment at the way the British coal miners were treated during the General Strike (1926) by the coal owners and by the Conservative government of the day:

I would like to suggest first that we should not take refuge in the counsel of despair of abandoning all hope of reviving our export trade altogether and of converting British industry and the British Railways onto an oil- burning basis or even on the basis of imported coal. The present Minister of Fuel and Power [Manny Shinwell] is a person of originality and not bound by convention. But I am sure he would not wish to be remembered by posterity as the man who not merely had to have coal carried to Newcastle, but had it hauled there in an oil-burning locomotive. What we want is not less consumption of coal but more production. And it seems to me that the first essential short-term route to more production is an increase in the labour strength in the industry.

It was not simply out of politeness that the member who followed him, Major Gwilym Lloyd George, son of the ex-Prime Minister who had inspired Jay at Churt, should congratulate him on a remarkable maiden speech: "He departed from what is nearly always the practice in this House in debates on coal of confining one's remarks to the home industry." In fact Jay was superbly informed and in close contact with young economists such as Professor James Meade, whom he thanked in the introduction to his book Socialism in the New Society (1963).

After a fleeting period as Parliamentary Private Secretary, Jay leapfrogged to the position of Economic Secretary to the Treasury. Sir Edward Playfair, the distinguished Treasury civil servant, points out that in those days junior ministers were not nearly as important as they are now. However Jay was special in that he was the economic advisor not only to Hugh Dalton but to Stafford Cripps both as President of the Board of Trade and later as Dalton's successor as Chancellor.

When he became Financial Secretary to the Treasury (1950-51) it was the start of a close relationship with Hugh Gaitskell, whom Isaiah Berlin says Jay "adored", and who would almost certainly have made Jay Chancellor of a Gaitskell Government Exchequer. Jay has the reputation of being a Little Englander, but it is not widely known that when Financial Secretary to the Treasury, off his own bat he ordered a ship from New Zealand carrying much-needed food to Britain to divert to India where there was a devastating famine. "Highly eccentric, idiosyncratic and unyielding" as Isaiah Berlin describes him, this was an act of international socialist belief.

Many of his friends were very distressed at the split up in 1972 between Douglas and his first wife Peggy, herself a formidable power for good in the Greater London Council and in particular in the Inner London Education Authority. After leaving Government, Jay was a valued director of Courtaulds for three years. He devoted himself ever more to opposition to British entry to the EEC, and his most recent writing characteristically was a diatribe against the European monetary system for the Common Market Safeguards Committee.

I however prefer to remember him as the effective minister who both in the first Labour government and subsequently as President of the Board of Trade brought much needed jobs to my constituents and those outside London and the Midlands who would otherwise have been unemployed. For the Member of Parliament for Battersea to have devoted his energies to this cause reflects well on the writer of one of the most interesting political autobiographies that have been produced since the war: Change and Fortune - A Political Record (1980).

Douglas Patrick Thomas Jay, politician and economist: born Woolwich 23 March 1907; Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Supply 1940-43; Principal Assistant Secretary, Board of Trade 1943-45; MP (Labour) for Battersea North 1946-74, for Wandsworth, Battersea North 1974-83; Economic Secretary to the Treasury 1947-50, Financial Secretary to the Treasury 1950-51; President of the Board of Trade 1964-67; Director, Courtaulds 1967-70; created 1987 Baron Jay; married 1933 Peggy Garnett (two sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1972), 1972 Mary Lavinia Thomas; died Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire 6 March 1996.

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