Obituary: Lord Thorneycroft
Monday 06 June 1994
'I REMEMBER as a minister newly arrived in a government department telling my staff that they well knew that all ministers had their vices, and mine was to draw in the Life Class at the Chelsea School of Art between 6pm and 9pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.' The anecdote about himself begins to illustrate the range and style of Peter Thorneycroft.
Thorneycroft was born in 1909, and educated at Eton and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. In 1930 he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery. He was called to the Bar in 1935 and elected to Parliament as Conservative MP for Stafford in 1938. Following the outbreak of war he served for a brief spell with the Royal Artillery on the south coast and then on the Joint Planning Committee of the General Staff.
Peter Thorneycroft was among those young Conservative MPs who were dissatisfied with the party's grudging response to the Beveridge Report. He became the leading personality of the Tory Reform Committee, who dined at the Connaught, pamphleteered in support of Beveridge and the Welfare State, and harried their more cautious elders in the House of Commons. Thorneycroft's effectiveness in the House marked him out. In November 1942 Chips Channon witnessed 'Peter Thorneycroft, looking a mere boy, rise and with very little shyness, though just enough, hold the House as he seconded the Gracious Speech. It was an admirable performance.' His first ministerial office was as Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of War Transport in the caretaker government of May-July 1945.
He lost his seat in the July 1945 election, but was returned for Monmouth at a by-election in the following October.
The Tory Reform Committee was a major influence in the revitalisation of the Conservative Party after the 1945 landslide. Thorneycroft also chaired the committee which produced, in 1946, Design for Freedom, a pamphlet jointly signed by 111 Conservative and Liberal candidates and MPs.
The authors of Design for Freedom sought to reconcile the 'bitter conflict between the rival advocates of state and private enterprise'. They called for 'a degree of planning and state activity which would have been wholly unacceptable to the Conservative Party in the years between the wars'. Planning would 'treat this nation as one nation, not as two'. Men were not mere 'units of production'; freedom was not 'a mere absence of controls' but a 'fighting faith'. The purpose of the 'endless adventure' of politics was to create a 'free and responsible society'.
Though the attempt to bring together the Conservative and the Liberal Parties did not prosper, the thinking of the Tory Reform Committee and Design for Freedom prepared the way for RA Butler's work at the Conservative Research Department, The Industrial Charter of 1947, and the publication of One Nation in 1950.
During this period of opposition Thorneycroft also continued to build his reputation as a parliamentary performer. Channon described Thorneycroft's debating style in 1950 as 'splendid, hard- hitting, effective and supremely confident; he has the grand manner'. Inviting him to speak from the Opposition front bench, Churchill teasingly explained: 'I'm putting you up as an insult to Herbert Morrison.' In 1951 Churchill appointed Thorneycroft to the Cabinet, at the age of 42, as President of the Board of Trade.
His time at the Board of Trade, from 1951 to 1957, was possibly Thorneycroft's happiest time in government. A consummate negotiator, he enjoyed his missions abroad and dismantling wartime and socialist controls - notably rationing - at home. He was an early believer in the development of closer links between Britain and Europe, a cause which he consistently pursued throughout his career. In 1955 at the time of the Messina meeting, when the Six were working out the Treaty, Thorneycroft wrote a paper arguing that Britain should be associated with the new Community in a free trade area.
In January 1957 Harold Macmillan appointed Thorneycroft Chancellor of the Exchequer. International currency instability in August led to the Chancellor's introduction of his 'September measures', a deflationary package which included raising the Bank Rate from 5 per cent to 7 per cent. The Treasury had been uncertain about the appropriate response, and Thorneycroft had the worry that neither his department nor his Cabinet colleagues were in support of him. His critics argued that the September measures would deflate an economy that was already cooling; that the Chancellor was abandoning the post-war objectives of full employment and economic expansion; and that the currency crisis was an opportunity to devalue sterling from the rate at which it has been fixed by Cripps in 1949. Thorneycroft was strongly supported, however, by his junior ministers, Enoch Powell and Nigel Birch, and he was backed by the Bank.
The estimates for public expenditure in the autumn of 1957 provided the focus for the struggle that developed between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. Thorneycroft considered that the estimates for the following year's expenditure must be kept to the level of the out-turn for the current year and therefore be reduced by pounds 153m. In intensive discussions over the New Year, agreement could not be reached to reduce the excess to below pounds 50m. Thorneycroft believed that the tendency of the Government's finances would still be inflationary, and on this point he stuck. He resigned on 6 January 1958. His ministerial colleagues at the Treasury resigned with him.
Macmillan famously described these events as 'little local difficulties'. Why did they happen? Thorneycroft told the House on 23 January, in a speech of impressive clarity and power, delivered without rancour or recrimination:
We have been attempting to do more than our resources could manage and in the process we have been gravely weakening ourselves . . . over 12 years we have slithered from one crisis to another . . . a pound sterling which has shrunk from 20 shillings to 12 shillings. That is not a picture of the nation we would wish to see . . . That is not the path to greatness. It is the road to ruin . . . The simple truth is that we have been spending more money than we should . . . It is not the sluice gate which is at fault. It is the plain fact that the water is coming over the top of the dam . . . I believe that living within our resources is neither unfair nor unjust, nor, perhaps, in the long run even unpopular.
Years later Thorneycroft felt that the wisdom of the resignations had been 'questionable', not because he resiled from the principle at stake but because we 'probably made our stand too early'. The history of the British economy over the following 20 years would seem to bear this out.
The resignation was an act of high principle and courage. Nor should it be doubted that it was, in the fullest sense, Thorneycroft's own decision. The view that Enoch Powell played Svengali is absurd to anyone who considers the intellectual independence and force of personality of Thorneycroft or the improbability of a junior minister persuading a Chancellor to resign against his will. Powell's own testimony was that there was a convergence between the three Treasury ministers 'as if we had all thought it through ourselves and came into the same room and found we agreed'.
Conceivably the outcome could have been different had the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Treasury, Sir Roger Makins, played a different role. But Makins was an old wartime colleague of Macmillan's, whom Macmillan had brought back from being Ambassador in Washington to serve in the Treasury when he was Chancellor. His sympathy and his primary loyalty were with the Prime Minister, with whom he agreed that an austere approach to expenditure would exacerbate unemployment which was already rising rapidly towards half a million. It is fair to say that a large majority of the Cabinet was also with Macmillan and against Thorneycroft.
During his 'wilderness years' from 1958 to 1960, Thorneycroft travelled and painted. He had taken up painting on a wet summer holiday in the early 1950s. To the President of the Board of Trade who took evening classes and confessed that on occasion he preferred his paint-box to his ministerial box Churchill said: 'Every minister must have his vice. Painting shall be yours.' Lord Clark was later to observe, 'There are plenty of VIPs who happen to paint; Peter is a painter who happens to be a VIP.' His wilderness paintings, of wintry trees, are melancholy enough. But in later years his paintings - always watercolours - increasingly reflected the full complexity of his personality: exuberant, colourful, but also fine and expressive of the pleasures of solitude.
In 1960 he was recalled by Macmillan to be Minister of Aviation. Between 1962 and 1964 he was Minister of Defence and then the first Secretary of State for Defence. The success of this period for Thorneycroft was the abolition of the separate Service departments and the creation of a single Ministry of Defence. At the time Macmillan urged Thorneycroft to use 'dashing, slashing methods' and 'to take an axe to all this forest of prejudice and interest'. Mountbatten as Chief of the Defence Staff and Thorneycroft together achieved the reorganisation. In his memoirs Macmillan praised Thorneycroft's 'remarkable patience'.
Thorneycroft was not in contest for the succession to Macmillan. His struggle with his colleagues in 1957-58, his resignation and his sojourn in the wilderness drained some of his forces as a politician. Vivid and convivial personality though he was in the House, his very bonhomie caused colleagues to underestimate his seriousness. He was in truth a very private man, shy to display feeling and not one who would seek to build a personal following.
Between 1964 and 1966 Thorneycroft was Opposition spokesman on Defence and then on Home Affairs. At the 1966 election, following boundary redistribution, he lost his Monmouth seat.
Thorneycroft was created a Life Peer in 1967 and in the years following he returned to his earlier interest in trade diplomacy while developing a new range of interests in business. From 1968 to 1975 he was chairman of Sitpro (Simplification of International Trade Procedures) and from 1972 to 1975 chairman of the British Overseas Trade Board. His business interests included the chairmanships of Pye of Cambridge, Pirelli UK and Trusthouse Forte. The abilities which made him valued in business were his shrewd appreciation of the interplay of interests, particularly between business and government, and his skills in negotiation and presentation.
In 1975, when Thorneycroft had been out of active politics for nine years, Margaret Thatcher, newly elected Leader of the Conservative Party, asked him to be Party Chairman. It was an unexpected choice but a brilliantly appropriate one. The issue upon which Thorneycroft had resigned the Chancellorship - the necessity for discipline in the public finances - was central to the challenge which Thatcher made to her party and to the country. Resented as she was by elements of the old party establishment, the appointment of Thorneycroft as Chairman signalled a continuity with the Conservative past.
In other respects the circumstances at the start of Thorneycroft's chairmanship could hardly have been more difficult. The party was bitterly divided following the struggle for the leadership. Discontinuity at Conservative Central Office - there had been eight chairmen in the previous 12 years - and defeat in four out of the five previous general elections had left staff there thoroughly demoralised. And by great misfortune he had to undergo a back operation in the spring of 1975 which meant that he could not properly pick up the reins until the autumn.
Thorneycroft took drastic measures to streamline the organisation at Central Office and to construct a cohesive team at senior level. He incurred fierce criticism at the time for doing so, but the decisions were vindicated. Between 1975 and 1979 Central Office regained a professionalism and high morale that it had not had since the chairannship of Lord Woolton, with whom Thorneycroft was often compared.
Thorneycroft's achievement as Conservative Party Chairman was outstanding. The personal support and the tactical advice he gave were sustaining to a leader who had to negotiate some very rough passages. The diplomacy that he undertook in the upper reaches of the party helped to heal wounds. The fact that he was, as he described himself, 'beyond ambition' was helpful. His warm and committed personal support for Margaret Thatcher were beyond doubt. At the same time there were those who drew some reassurance from the Party Chairman's old- fashioned Tory scepticism about zeal and doctrine, and his long- matured view that compromise is generally necessary.
Notwithstanding bouts of illness Thorneycroft stumped the country with the greatest energy. He was among the supreme public speakers in the Conservative Party of his generation. He had developed his techniques of rhetoric electioneering in south Wales. In the 1970s he remained a magnificent orator. The elements of his oratory were inspired common sense and deep feeling for his country, a powerful voice and an address always to his audience, wit and verbal arabesques that held the attention in delighted suspense. His minor speeches too - votes of thanks, farewells - were gem-like: funny, perceptive and touching.
Thorneycroft's political skills had been formed in the pre-television era. But it was Thorneycroft who employed Saatchi and Saatchi in the conduct of a general election campaign in 1979 which was revolutionary in method and powerfully effective. He had presided over long and thorough preparations. During the campaign itself he remained in Central Office with his 'war board' on the wall, driving, restraining, integrating and steering the campaign.
After the 1979 election Thorneycroft was exhausted. He stayed on as Party Chairman, but it was a mistake to do so. His grip on affairs at Central Office was not the same, and his decision to retain his business interests, which precluded him from being in the Cabinet, placed him at a disadvantage politically. An injudicious press conference led to the end of his chairmanship in 1981.
In the years that followed Thorneycroft maintained his business interests. But his great satisfaction was his painting. This man whom Macmillan had described in his diary as 'rough and uncultured' was a member of the Royal Society of British Artists and an Honorary Member of the Royal Watercolour Society. He exhibited at the Royal Academy and held one-man exhibitions at the Cafe Royal, the Mall Galleries and the Cadogan Gallery. In 1985 he published The Amateur: a companion to watercolour. At the outset of the book he wrote, 'This book is not primarily about how to paint. It is about how to enjoy painting.'
Peter Thorneycroft had a prodigious gift for enjoying life. His first subject of conversation in the office was likely to be how his fish recipe had turned out the previous evening, and his first phone call might be to Monsieur Mosimann at the Dorchester to discuss a refinement of the sauce. When he had had enough of the office in the afternoon he would simply depart with his paints to the grounds of Chiswick House. To ease the discomfort of his back he used to sign his letters standing up at a specially constructed desk. But his zest and his capacity to absorb information through listening, to address himself quickly to the heart of issues and to pace himself enabled him to handle large quantities of work in diverse fields. His capacity to take decisions quickly and not to worry about them afterwards enabled him to carry a weight of responsibility without strain. He always saw the humorous side of things, laughing and making others laugh. There was no malice in his gossip nor was he capable of hatred.
He described himself in an interview with the Guardian in 1985 - the Manchester Guardian as he persisted in calling it - as 'one of the most contented men you could imagine'. If he described himself as an amateur painter, he was a master of living, and a master with a wonderfully light touch.
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