Fred Catherwood : Businessman who served as industrial adviser to Heath and Wilson and was one of the first Conservative MEPs


Julia E.m. Cameron
Tuesday 09 December 2014 19:16 GMT
Catherwood, foreground, far left, at a meeting of the NEDC with Harold Wilson and James Callaghan
Catherwood, foreground, far left, at a meeting of the NEDC with Harold Wilson and James Callaghan

Fred Catherwood served as an industrial adviser to the governments of Harold Wilson and Ted Heath in some of the toughest days of union stand-offs. He grasped the relationship between the government, the City and industry and brokered conversations with the high echelons of union management. Few moved as easily as he among the different players nor saw so far-sightedly. His elite education at no stage distanced him from blue collar workers; he listened to them and gained their respect.

In 1954, aged 29, he was appointed secretary/controller, then chief executive at the construction company Costain. Hard-nosed action was needed to steer away from poor management and unwise risk-taking overseas. He wanted to separate operating divisions; his staff were older than he was, and could resent his seniority, but he fearlessly countered what he called "management by hunch", insisting on clear reasons for decisions and the isolation of the key factors and numbers. He learned to see past enticing invitations to tender overseas and would later be regarded as one of the country's foremost experts on corruption.

He was born on the banks of the Moyola in Co Londonderry in 1925. His family moved to Belfast when he was six months old. With great acumen his father bought a fleet of buses, mimicking the three main Irish rail routes: Belfast to Londonderry, Belfast to Dublin and Dublin to Cork. The buses were eventually nationalised, and his family bought the grand Rosapenna Hotel in Co Donegal.

He was educated at Shrewsbury, entering Clare College, Cambridge in 1943. Too light for the Cambridge boat, he rowed for Clare. He served as vice president of the Cambridge Inter- Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU), where friends included John Stott and the hymn writer Timothy Dudley-Smith, later Bishop of Thetford, who wrote his hymns on the desk he bought from Catherwood for £1.

In London Catherwood was articled to the accountants Price Waterhouse, and joined Westminster Chapel on Buckingham Gate. The preacher there, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a pastor and theologian of sharp intellect, became a lifelong influence. In 1954 Catherwood married Lloyd-Jones' daughter, Elizabeth.

In 1964 he was managing director of British Aluminium when Labour came to power and he was invited by George Brown to become chief industrial advisor to the Department of Economic Affairs. To avoid embarrassment, he suspended his membership of the Conservatives. He became known as a man who consulted, and listened; and he brought a sharp eye for the weak point in an argument.

Catherwood respected Brown and his blue-collar background. He enjoyed travelling with him and watching the respect Brown commanded among workers. He described his well-publicised drink problem as "a low tolerance of alcohol". They both valued their partnership, and it was Brown who fought for Catherwood to become the second Director-General of the National Economic Development Council, the NEDC, known as "Neddy".

The NEDC, set up in 1962, was Harold MacMillan's brainchild, its genius lying in tripartite membership of management, unions and government. But Catherwood made it work. He saw it would need a further level of committee structure, fractals of the central body – what became known as "little Neddies" – which began as scribbled notes at a holiday cottage near Frinton.

The new Prime Minister, Harold Wilson fought hard to avoid devaluation of the pound, and in the autumn of 1964 Catherwood was part of a group at Chequers working on a package of measures which he believed that if taken together could avert a crisis.

Then came a report that Winston Churchill was near death: Wilson would need to address the nation, then, without unseemly haste, the package could be announced. But Churchill lingered until the moment had passed, no announcement was made, and the measures had to be put in place piecemeal. Devaluation became inevitable, and Catherwood's efforts to drive economic growth were undermined.

Still, he was a household name in the 1960s and '70s as the government clashed with the unions, and he was knighted in 1971. In 1975 he was appointed to chair the British Overseas Trade Board, then moved into politics, becoming a Conservative MEP for Cambridgeshire and then North Bedfordshire from 1979-94.

He played a leading role in the European Parliament. From 1979-84 he was chairman of the Committee on External Economic Relations, and became one of the fathers of the single currency. For his final three years as MEP he served as vice-president of the Parliament. In the absence of a majority party, his ability to get on with people of all persuasions put him in a strong position.

Catherwood's Christian faith pervaded all he did. Each Sunday from 1955-1980 he led an afternoon Socratic-style discussion at Westminster Chapel, asking question after question. No one was allowed simply to quote an authority. If they espoused a view, they needed to defend it as their own. Despite his rising seniority in public life he never missed a Sunday, apart from when on holiday. He and Elizabeth shared a concern for a distinct Christian voice to be heard on university campuses and for 40 years he held senior office in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.

In 1947 his father-in-law had been founding chair of this grassroots movement, then with a presence on campuses in 10 countries. Catherwood said he "could barely hold back tears" at the opening of its 2003 World Assembly when the names of movements from country after country rolled down the screen – nearly 150 of them. In 1992 he succeeded his university friend Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith as President of the UK Evangelical Alliance, and for nine years travelled the country, setting up new City Action Networks.

Catherwood's papers are deposited in the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge. These include a section classified as secret, which relate to the role he played behind the scenes in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Henry Frederick Ross Catherwood, politician and industrial adviser: born 30 January 1925; Kt 1971; married 1954 Elizabeth Lloyd Jones (one daughter, two sons); died Cambridge 30 November 2014.

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