Viscount Younger of Leckie

Defence Secretary under Margaret Thatcher who had the right qualities to succeed her as Prime Minister

Monday 27 January 2003 01:00 GMT

Support truly
independent journalism

Our mission is to deliver unbiased, fact-based reporting that holds power to account and exposes the truth.

Whether $5 or $50, every contribution counts.

Support us to deliver journalism without an agenda.

Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


George Kenneth Hotson Younger, businessman, politician and banker: born Gargunnock, Stirlingshire 22 September 1931; MP (Conservative) for Ayr 1964-92; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office 1970-74; Minister of State for Defence 1974; Chairman, Conservative Party in Scotland 1974-75; PC 1979; Secretary of State for Scotland 1979-86; Secretary of State for Defence 1986-89; President, National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations 1987-88; chairman, Siemens Plessey Electronic Systems 1990-97; chairman, Royal Bank of Scotland 1990-2001; chairman, Royal Bank of Scotland Group 1991-2001; created 1992 Baron Younger of Prestwick; KCVO 1993; Chairman, Royal Armouries 1994-2003; KT 1995; succeeded 1997 as fourth Viscount Younger of Leckie; Warden, Winchester College 1997-2003; Lord High Commissioner, General Assembly, Church of Scotland 2001; married 1954 Diana Tuck (three sons, one daughter); died Gargunnock, Stirlingshire 26 January 2003.

"It was on a Korean hillside on a dark, dank, cold night in 1951 that I really came of age," recorded George Younger:

I realised that my platoon of Jocks of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was in a perilous position, and that I as a 19-year-old was responsible for their lives, as well as my own. Somehow we were lucky. The Korean and Chinese force did not locate us, and we survived. After that, I saw life in perspective.

George Younger was to become Secretary of State for Scotland, Defence Secretary, Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, an Honorary Fellow of New College, Oxford, Warden of Winchester College, chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland and, by personal choice of the Queen, a Knight of the Thistle. To no Scot of recent years have accrued so many honours; and no one carried honours with such good-humour and self-deprecating charm.

The first Viscount Younger of Leckie, also George, left college at the age of 17 on his father's death to run the family brewery. He was President of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Association in 1904, a position his great-grandson was to occupy in the latter years of the 20th century. The first Viscount was also, from 1906 to 1922, Member of Parliament for Ayr Burghs, a seat which (as Ayr) his great-grandson was to hold from 1964 to 1992.

George Younger senior was central in the breaking up of the Lloyd George coalition government and replacing it with the Conservative governments of Bonar Law and Baldwin: he was Treasurer of the Conservative Party from 1923 to 1929, being created a viscount in 1923. Wags could not resist comparisons: the first Viscount Younger had been responsible for the departure of Lloyd George – as Margaret Thatcher's campaign manager in 1990 the fourth Viscount was blamed by many for being insufficiently zealous in the events that led to her demise as Prime Minister.

The second Viscount Younger, James, worked in the family brewery at Alloa, fought at Gallipoli, was severely wounded on the Somme and won the DSO. He had two sons, one of whom was George Younger's father, Edward, distinguished in the public life of Scotland, while the second, Kenneth, went off in a completely different direction. Born two years after the family moved into the Leckie estate in Stirlingshire, Kenneth followed the family precedent by going to Winchester and New College, Oxford, but then joined the Labour Party. He was Labour MP for Grimsby, and later the Director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House before his death in 1976.

George Kenneth Hotson Younger was born at Leckie in 1931. After Cargilfield, where he was head boy, he went to Winchester. None of the honours which were later to come his way gave him such pleasure as being Warden of Winchester. After National Service in Germany and Korea with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, he went up to New College, where he read Modern History. Joining the family firm of George Younger and Company, part of Bass, he rose to be a senior sales manager – following the tradition of his great-great-great-uncle William McEwan, who combined a career as a politician with that of successful brewer (best remembered for Mc- Ewan's Export). As the Edinburgh University Public Orator put it at the degree ceremony for Younger's doctorate honoris causa in 1992,

There was not for this son an immediate short cut to the boardroom. Instead he worked through the company in a range of roles from labourer to sales manager for Glasgow. He played a significant part not only in brightening up the design of its canned beers but also in the dramatic reorganisation of Scottish brewing which first brought together several of central Scotland's brewers into United Caledonian Breweries and then merged them with Tennants to form Tennant Caledonian Breweries Ltd, of which George Younger was a director from 1977 to 1979.

At the age of 28, in 1959, he stood for Parliament in the Labour seat of North Lanarkshire. Conservatives in the House of Commons heard from Margaret Herbison, who defeated him by 21,152 votes to 14,883, what an excellent Tory candidate he had been. More than any of his political colleagues he was at ease with the Scottish working class in general and the mineworkers in particular. The praises of Herbison contributed to his being chosen for the blue-chip Tory seat of Perth and Kinross in succession to Gilmour Leburn, a Scottish junior minister who had announced his retirement.

However, Leburn's sudden death in 1963 coincided with the dramatic Conservative leadership crisis in which the 14th Earl of Home emerged as Prime Minister. Younger as adopted candidate, without prompting, offered his safe seat to the Prime Minister, an act of greatest good sense which the Conservative Party was never to forget. "After that," said Gordon Campbell (later Lord Campbell of Croy), "we simply had to find him a seat." Campbell was Scottish Conservative whip at the time, and as Secretary of State from 1970 to 1974 was to choose Younger to be a junior minister in the Scottish Office.

Sure enough, the first available Conservative seat, that of Ayr, was handed to Younger. I spent a week canvassing for the Labour candidate, Alex Eadie. Labour was confident of winning, but on an 83 per cent turnout Younger held the seat by 20,047 to 18,346 – a majority of 1,701. Few if any Conservative candidates other than Younger could have won. And I am absolutely sure that on 85.3 per cent turnout only he in 1966 could have beaten by 19,988 votes to 19,504 Charlie O'Halloran, later to be convenor of Strathclyde Regional Council.

He held on to Ayr against a succession of excellent Labour candidates: in 1970 he beat Jim Craigen, later to be MP for Maryhill, by 4,450 votes; in February 1964 Jean McFadden, later to be Labour leader in Glasgow, by 5,098 votes; and in October 1974 Richard Stewart by 3,219. In 1987 his majority was reduced to 182, with Younger getting 20,942 to Labour's 20,760 (with the Liberals, 7,859, and SNP, 3,548).

These tiny majorities sharpened his political antenna as to what mattered for Scottish opinion and, later, contributed to his influence in Cabinet. Patrick Jenkin, his colleague and member of Conservative cabinets, remembers how Younger handled Margaret Thatcher with considerable skill and was adept at confronting his fellow cabinet ministers with the dire things that would overtake the party in Scotland, at the hands of the SNP in particular, if money was not found for the Scottish Office.

In 1964 an injection of new blood – Alick Buchanan-Smith, Teddy Taylor, Hector Monro, Nicholas Fairbairn and George Younger – made for a lively opposition. Younger stood out because of his ability gently to tease the formidable Willie Ross, Wilson's Scottish Secretary who lived in Younger's Ayr constituency. The grudging respect of Ross marked out Younger for the most important of the Under-Secretaries' jobs in the Scottish Office, that of Economic Development, when the Heath government came to power in 1970.

Taylor remembers working with Younger in the Scottish Office as "a real delight" because,

George always appeared to be relaxed, and practical, and established a record for solving problems. In the dark and dismal days when the Scottish Conservatives were beginning to tear themselves apart over issues like devolution and the European Union, George displayed great integrity and understanding of all sides in the conflict and tried to bring them together. I have always had a feeling that, if he had been given the task of dealing with Northern Ireland, we might have made real progress in resolving the problems there.

One other controversy helped Younger enormously. In a debate on the future for Scottish regiments on 15 July 1968 I argued the case for the Scots Greys, and opined of their performance at Crater in Aden that the Argylls' commanding officer had disobeyed orders. Younger interrupted me in genuine anger saying that I had made a scandalous allegation. The Scottish press had a field day. It culminated in the row about "Mad Mitch", who as Lt-Col Colin Mitchell was later to become the Conservative Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire. The row hugely enhanced Younger's reputation with the public in general and his own party in particular.

As development minister under the Secretary of State, Gordon Campbell, he handled the industrial problems of the early 1970s as well as any Conservative minister could have done and in particular, according to Sir Russell Hillhouse, Principal Finance Officer and later Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Office, persuaded Heath to give money to the upper Clyde.

In the period between January and March 1974 Younger became Minister of State for Defence. After the fall of the Heath government he spoke from the front bench and thought that, having made himself acceptable to Thatcher as Shadow Defence Secretary, that he would have been given the job when she came to office in 1979. However the job went to John Nott, not because Thatcher thought that Younger had been close to Heath and even closer to Willie Whitelaw, but because Teddy Taylor had lost his seat in Glasgow Cathcart and she didn't care for the devolutionary views of George Younger's contemporary and friend Alick Buchanan-Smith, and thought that Younger was more to her taste as Scottish Secretary.

The job of Secretary of State for Scotland was beset by problems: the motor industry at Bathgate and Linwood, the aluminium smelter at Invergordon, the pulp-mill project at Fort William and many others. I confess that at the time, I thought that Younger had not been as active in the preservation of British Leyland at Bathgate as he might have been. Years later, having talked to motor-industry people in retrospect, I'm of the opinion that he did as much as any politician could have done to keep in being the motor industry in Scotland. It is certainly the case that he did as much as any man could have done to preserve the steel industry at Ravenscraig, in which he was temporarily successful, and at Gartcosh, where he was unsuccessful.

Towards the end of his period as the longest-serving ever Scottish Secretary he found the hot potato of rating revaluation on his plate. With some misgivings he accepted that the solution to what was a politically insoluble problem was the poll tax – and made the fatal error of acquiescing in the introduction of the poll tax as a guinea-pig tax a year earlier in Scotland than in England.

In January 1986 Michael Heseltine upped and left the Cabinet over the Westland affair. In Younger's own words:

We carried on for two or three minutes, discussing the poll tax, then the Prime Minister called a break for tea and biscuits. In the next room the offer was put to me to become Defence Secretary.

Younger accepted the Defence portfolio with alacrity, as he knew the department having been a Minister of State for Defence in the last days of the Heath government. His Permanent Secretary, Sir Michael Quinlan, recalls that he was "calm, steady and certainly nobody's pushover".

Younger was certainly aware that his appointment in the midst of the Westland crisis had earned him deep gratitude from the Prime Minister. Having come so publicly to blows with Heseltine she could not afford a repeat performance with her incoming Defence Secretary. He could therefore set his own agenda within the department to a greater extent than his predecessor.

He differed from Heseltine in that he was more interested in policy and less concerned with trying to reorganise the Ministry of Defence. He endorsed the Chief of the General Staff Sir Nigel Bagnall's goal of strengthening British tank forces, authorising an additional batch of 76 Challenger tanks from the Royal Ordinance factory at Leeds. In naval ordering, partly as a result of his shipyard experience in Scotland, he ordered six Type 23 frigates and 19 new mine-hunters from yards in different parts of the country. The spread of naval orders, even though it might have been more costly, was a central part of his policy.

Backbench pressure and his own inclination led Younger to make a great deal of extra Type 23 orders at the 1988 Conservative Party Conference. Having tasted military conflict in Korea, Younger was determined that men asked to fight should have nothing but the best.

It became clear that he would not be promoted to the Foreign Office, albeit he had acted as Margaret Thatcher's campaign manager when she was challenged in 1989 by Sir Anthony Meyer. In 1990 Younger and his team, who included Norman Tebbit and Michael Jopling, were called into service again and won 204 votes for the Prime Minister. This was enough to defeat Heseltine but not to dispel widespread fears in the Conservative Party that Thatcher had had her day. John Wakeham replaced Younger for the proposed second round. Younger told me that he was reluctant to take up the role at all because of business commitments in the form of the chairmanship of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Sir George Mathewson, the present chairman of the Royal Bank, describes Younger's chairmanship of the group, from 1991 to 2001, as "the most successful decade in its history", culminating in "the transformational acquisition of NatWest in March 2001". Profits increased from £58m to £5,800m, and it is "now the second largest bank in Europe by market capitalisation, and the fifth largest in the world".

Michael Jopling, Government Chief Whip, believes that, at various moments in the late 1980s, had the Prime Minister fallen under the proverbial bus, George Younger would have been the choice of the Conservative Party in Parliament to succeed her in 10 Downing Street.

Further, there is the widespread view that, had Younger not committed himself to the Royal Bank of Scotland, and been "available", he, and not John Major, would have been Prime Minister. Some Conservative MPs, who balked at voting for Douglas Hurd, would have been comfortable voting for Younger.

Whether he would have won the 1992 general election is a matter for speculation, but Younger certainly had judgement, shrewdness in the choice of people, and charm – the qualities of a successful prime minister.

Tam Dalyell

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in