Obituary: Lord Orr-Ewing

John Barnes
Tuesday 24 August 1999 23:02

ALTHOUGH IAN Orr-Ewing had a modestly successful ministerial career culminating in a four-year spell as Civil Lord of the Admiralty, and subsequently chaired the Metrication Board, it is likely that he will be best remembered as one of the foremost campaigners in the Conservative Party for the breaking of the BBC's television monopoly.

He was well-qualified to speak on the issue since he had been Television Outside Broadcasts Manager for the BBC from 1946 to 1948 before putting his expertise as an electronic engineer at the disposal of Cossor Radar and the radio firm A.C. Cossor. Together with two other young MPs, John Profumo and John Rodgers, he was the driving force in the Conservative Party group set up by the Chief Whip in February 1951 to consider policy on the broadcasting services and it was in response to their paper The Future of British Broadcasting, that the Cabinet included in their White Paper of May 1952 the cautious sentence "that, in the expanding field of television, provision should be made to permit some element of competition".

Orr-Ewing would have been the first to concede that this could not have been achieved without the sterling support of Lord Woolton as chairman of the Cabinet's Broadcasting Committee. Together with the Home Secretary, Maxwell Fyfe, and Selwyn Lloyd, who had written a minority report when the Beveridge Committee considered the future of broadcasting after the Second World War, he acted as the voice of the backbenchers in Cabinet. They faced powerful opposition, headed by Lord Salisbury, and the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was hesitant.

Initially competition was to wait upon the BBC's completion of a nationwide network of transmitters, but, by the time the White Paper was debated in June 1952, continual pressure by Orr-Ewing and his backbenchers had already secured some government backtracking on the timing. With the aid of the Advertising Practitioners and a Popular Television Association created by key figures in the industry with the full backing of Conservative Central Office, the backbench group kept the pressure on and the Government was finally persuaded to legislate. The Independent Television Authority came into being in 1954.

In common with some of his fellow MPs, Orr-Ewing was subsequently to come under fire for furthering his own commercial interests, most notably when H.H. Wilson produced a study of their campaign in 1961. However, his denials were totally convincing. Like many of those entering politics post-war, he believed passionately in competition and he regarded monopolies of any sort as enemies of the public good.

Orr-Ewing was the son of a prosperous sugar broker. He was educated at Harrow and at Trinity College, Oxford. He read Physics and served a graduate apprenticeship with EMI from 1934 to 1937. He joined the infant BBC Television Service in 1938, but on the outbreak of war took up a commission in the RAFVR. He served in North Africa, Italy and Western Europe, ending the war as Chief Radar Officer on Eisenhower's Shaef Air Staff. He was twice mentioned in despatches and in 1945 was appointed OBE (military). After demobilisation, he returned to the BBC as their Television Outside Broadcasts Manager in 1946, and was responsible for coverage of Princess Elizabeth's wedding in 1947 and the Olympic Games. Irritated at the lack of investment in modern equipment, he resigned in 1949. Thereafter his interests lay in the radio industry.

In 1950 he won Hendon North from Labour with a majority of 2,255 and held it for five elections. After standing down, he accepted a life peerage from Edward Heath in 1971. As a member of the Association of Scientific Workers and a Governor of Imperial College, London, he was a natural choice to become joint Secretary of the Parliamentary Scientific Committee in 1950, but he was elected also as Secretary of the Conservative backbench Air Sub-Committee.

In 1951 he became PPS to his fellow Harrovian the Minister of Labour Sir Walter Monckton and was an invaluable aide at a time when his minister was under fire for being too soft on the unions. His own standing on the back bench was high and in 1956 he was elected Joint Secretary of the 1922 Committee. From there progress to junior office seemed inevitable. He spent two years as Parliamentary Under- Secretary at the Air Ministry at a time when the RAF's role was being severely questioned by the Minister of Defence and in 1959 was shifted sideways to a similar but more prestigious post at the Admiralty.

After the 1959 election he was promoted to be Civil Lord of the Admiralty, where he had responsibility for certain matters of materiel, most notably the nuclear submarine programme. When the Admiralty was abolished in 1963, Orr-Ewing stood down from the Government and was created a baronet. After the 1964 election, he became a very active and influential backbencher, serving as Vice-Chairman of the Conservative 1922 Committee and Vice-Chairman of the Defence Committee from 1966 to 1970 and as Vice-President of the Parliamentary Scientific Committee from 1965 to 1968. He was a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology.

After his ennoblement, he participated vigorously in the House of Lords and served as deputy Chairman of the Association of Conservative Peers 1980-86. He was a member of the Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life, 1975-76, but his most prominent role in public life was as first deputy Chairman and then, from 1972 until 1977, Chairman of the Metrication Board, which oversaw the conversion of British weights and measures to the metric system. Since he was a keen European, he rode the inevitable controversy surrounding the move with a fair degree of equanimity.

Orr-Ewing was a keen sportsman who played cricket for the Lords and Commons and edited the volume celebrating their exploits, A Celebration of Lords and Commons Cricket 1850-1988 (1989). He was an expert skier, who served as President of the National Ski Federation, 1972-76, and played a lively game of tennis.

His marriage just before the war to Joan McMinnies produced four sons, the eldest of whom, born in 1940, succeeds to the baronetcy.

John Barnes

In the autumn of 1962, there was something of a crisis (as usual!) about the future of the Royal Naval dockyards, writes Tam Dalyell. As the very newly elected MP for Port Edgar, the old naval destroyer base on the south bank of the Firth of Forth, I accompanied Fife parliamentary colleagues representing Rosyth on a delegation to see the Civil Lord of the Admiralty. Any notion that Ian Orr-Ewing was simply a cricketing, tennis-playing, skiing upper-class toff - and he played all of those sports until his mid-80s, his physical stamina being remarkable - was soon dispelled.

Not only was he a minister fully in command of his brief, but he displayed a knowledge of the engineering problems of the dockyard that impressed civil servants and sceptical politicians alike. We sensed not only that he cared greatly about the Navy, but also about the skilled artisans who produced the dockyard support. In those far-off days when individual service ministers really mattered, Orr-Ewing was considered an excellent minister by friend and foe.

For three decades he was a stalwart of the Parliamentary Scientific Committee, and, as one of the few MPs with a degree in Physics, made a significant contribution in the Commons and later in the Lords to the cause of science in Parliament.

Charles Ian Orr-Ewing, politician: born 10 February 1912; OBE 1945; Outside Broadcasts Manager, BBC 1946-48; MP (Conservative) for North Hendon 1950-70; PPS to Sir Walter Monckton, Minister of Labour and National Service 1951-55; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Air 1957-59; Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty 1959; Civil Lord of the Admiralty 1959-63; Bt 1963; created 1971 Baron Orr-Ewing; married 1939 Joan McMinnies (four sons); died London 19 August 1999.

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