Obituary: Ronald Parker

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The Independent Online
In the 1950s and 1960s Ronald Parker was one of the few men in positions of great power in the then recently-nationalised industries who had a personal, passionate support for the success of public ownership. Maybe that was why he presided over a cataclysmic change in the Scottish coalfield without significant disruption, let alone prolonged strife.

In 1954, when Parker became Chairman of the Scottish Coal Board, there were over 104,000 miners in the coal industry in Scotland. In 1968, when he left to become Chairman of the Scottish Gas Board, there were under 50,000. And the trade union leaders with whom he had to negotiate were no push-over.

On the contrary, his first sparring partner as President of the Scottish miners was Abe Moffat. Later, as President of the Scottish pensioners, Moffat was the only man I heard vanquish in argument to the point of silence the late Dick Crossman, when he was Secretary of State for the Social Services.

Abe Moffat's successor and brother, Alec Moffat, was according to Eric Clarke (MP for Midlothian, and himself a former Secretary of the Scottish miners) about the most ferociously able negotiator he had ever seen in action. The last President of the Scottish miners with whom Parker dealt was Michael McGahey, a living legend in his own lifetime, who took up the post on Alec Moffat's untimely death in 1968.

McGahey spoke kindly and generously about Parker. "Ronnie was an accountant. We in the National Union of Mineworkers might have preferred an old coal company reactionary, like Libby Milligan, of the Fife Coal Company. But Parker, we soon felt, did believe in public ownership and was very sociable, coming to all functions such as those for disabled and retired miners."

McGahey recalled his first dealing with Parker, who said: "Michael, what we need is `cross-fertilisation' in the nationalised industries". In the deep bass gutteral tones of McGahey's mimickry, "cross-fertilisation" encapsulates Parker's goodwill to co-operate with those who did the work at the coal-face.

McGahey, himself famous as a raconteur, paid tribute to Parker's own sense of humour. "Ronnie, we assume that we have a first-class advocate to keep Bow Hill [the huge, but geologically-flawed Fife Colliery investment] open?" "Yes, Michael, an advocate at a suitably high price."

Knowing when to banter and when to indulge in straight- talking was one of Parker's strengths. Dealing with the NUM in their heyday was both an art and a discipline in itself. Parker never lost sight of the fact that he had a business to run, and no one thought that he gave in against his better judgement to any of the blandishments or public oratory of the NUM.

Parker's father was an "Accountant of Court" in Edinburgh, a man who plied to and fro between the Court of Session and Register House, one of those post-Dickensian functionaries not far removed from the pages of Dombey & Son, who gave legal Edinburgh its reputation for fastidious probity. After a rigorous education at the Royal High School, whose Greek facades were earmarked for the devolved Scottish Assembly on Carlton Hill, Ronald Parker was apprenticed to Edinburgh chartered accountants and then sent by them to the London office of Thompson McLintock. Here he received a huge stroke of luck.

One of the directors in a bout of irritation exploded, "Parker, there's an impossibly difficult Canadian from Toronto pestering me for this, that and the other. I want him out of my hair. I'm sending you to be his assistant. Go and help me out and stop him yammering." This pestilential Canadian went by the name of Willard Garfield Weston and was to become one of the most thrusting, successful retail entrepreneurs of the 20th century - Chairman of George Weston Holdings, Fortnum & Mason, Associated British Foods, and many other companies.

So in 1935, at the age of 26, Parker became Secretary and soon a director of the Weston Group of Companies. In the next five years, Weston had such confidence in the young Parker that he was made his operator in 30 mergers and aquisitions including such celebrated undertakings as Milanda Bread. He gained a reputation at being adept at handling the cantankerous, impetuous and fiercely-driving Weston; he was also shrewd enough to strike up a superb relationship with Sir Peter MacDonald, Weston's lawyer. Throughout his business life, Parker was good at identifying those who could be useful in any project.

At the beginning of 1942, he was brought in at a high level to the Ministry of Fuel and Power. His contemporaries praised his abilities as a "can- do" civil servant. Twenty years on, in 1962, within a week of my being elected West Lothian MP, I asked for a meeting with Parker, having recently been down the soon-to-close Woodend anthracite pit with the pit delegate, Willy Collins, a Communist, and witnessed its impossibly difficult working conditions.

At the meeting, I could not but be impressed by the fact that Parker knew all about Willy Collins, along with the details which necessitated the closure of a high-quality producer. He was the master of any technical brief from mining engineers. His parting remark to me was "Oh yes, when Parliament resumes after the Whit recess and you take your seat, give my regards to Hugh Gaitskell. I used to work with him when he was in the Ministry of Economic Warfare and I was in Fuel and Power."

Any by-election winner was taken to Gaitskell's room for a five-minute welcome. So I had the opportunity to mention Ronny Parker, and Hugh Gaitskell was effusively warm about him. "Ronny is exactly the type of person who should be running the Scottish coal industry. If we form the government, and Alf (Robens) wants to step down, he is a possible Chairman of the Coal Board." It was not to be.

There was a certain frisson with some of his colleagues, such as Norman Siddall, in the infinitely larger Yorkshire coalfield, stemming from the fact that Parker used to ask the main Coal Board for all sorts of concessions for the Scottish coal industry. He was enormously keen - at great investment expense, and rightly as it turned out - to develop the Hurst seam and the Longannet pit and power station near the existing Kincarden power stations. Indeed, perhaps Ronald Parker's monument is the Longannet station, commissioned in 1963, which looks like contin-uing production until the year 2020.

Tam Dalyell

Ronald William Parker, civil servant and nationalised industries manager: born Edinburgh 21 August 1909; Chairman, Scottish Coal Board 1955-68; CBE 1959; Chairman, Scottish Gas Board 1968-72, Scottish Gas Region 1972- 74; married 1937 Phyllis Mary Sherren (two sons); died Edinburgh 9 October 1996.