Obituary: Lord Franks

Keith Middlemas
Friday 16 October 1992 23:02

Oliver Shewell Franks, civil servant, diplomat and financier, born 16 February 1905, Professor of Moral Philosophy Glasgow University 1935-42, CBE 1942, Permanent Secretary Ministry of Supply 1945-46, KCB 1946, Provost of Queen's College Oxford 1946-48, British Ambassador at Washington 1948-52, PC 1949, GCMG 1952, Chairman Lloyds Bank Ltd 1954-62, Friends Provident & Century Life Office 1955-62, Committee of London Clearing Bankers 1960-62, FBA 1960, created 1962 Baron Franks, Provost of Worcester College Oxford 1962-76, Chairman Commission of Inquiry into Oxford University 1964-66, Wellcome Trust 1965-82, Committee on Official Secrets Act Section 2 1971-72, Committee on Ministerial Memoirs 1976, Political Honours Scrutiny Committee 1976-92, Falkland Islands Review Committee 1982, Chancellor of East Anglia University 1965-84, OM 1977, KCVO 1985, married 1931 Barbara Tanner (died 1987; two daughters), died Oxford 15 October 1992.

FEW OF those recruited from academic life to public service return by deliberate choice; even fewer after so distinguished a demonstration as Lord Franks's of how the academic mind can bring both dispassionate insight and logical answers to problems ranging from diplomacy to the proper confines of official secrets. A civil servant, a diplomatist and a banker in turn, Oliver Franks was above all an intellectual and a member of what Coleridge called 'the clerisy'.

He was summoned by war, like the recruits to government service from industry and business, though he continued to hold the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow from 1937 until 1945. By the time of Dunkirk he was coping with the administrative problems of shifting machinery and skilled operators from the south-east to the Midlands; soon afterwards, as Director of Labour Supply, he had to fill the never-ending factory vacancies with workers, recruited even from the neutral Irish Republic. In the Ministry of Supply, already concerned with formulating ground rules for co-operation between interests which had been in competition with each other in civilian life, he watched the rivalries between Ernest Bevin (Minister of Labour) and Lord Beaverbrook (Aircraft Production) over scarce manpower: quarrels which Churchill once asked him to compose.

By 1943 Franks had charge of raw-material supply and the supply of finished parts to most of British industry, apart from naval dockyards and aircraft production. Characteristically, in his search for the ideal means to reconcile state authority over what remained in effect self-governing groups, he had started by reading all six volumes of the history of the Ministry of Munitions in 1916-18, to understand how Lloyd George, the engineering employers and the unions had begun. Supply, which he finally headed as Permanent Secretary in 1945-46, had no natural or historic entity: in so far as it centred on anything it was the Industrial Development Advisory Council officials from the 1930s Board of Trade. Again characteristically Franks developed the wartime conception of sponsorship between ministry and specific industries, referring to Machiavelli's insights into the Roman republic which survived so long because its many levels of interchange allowed problems to be resolved without excessive friction. In a department with 65,000 civil servants and nearly a quarter of a million employees, Franks had to blend the competing wills of dozens of separate sectors of employers and their trade unions.

He chose primarily officials who knew particular industries and could work, like him, with their managements as brokers, given the authority of state allocation. He noted the sense of common purpose during the war's nadir in 1940-42 and its slow erosion as victory became likely. He worked very closely with steel and chemical leaders, planning all day, often for post-war reconstruction; yet he rarely dined with them, on occasions when they decided their own future beyond the state's purview.

Post-war planning brought Franks into contact with TUC leaders like Walter Citrine and Arthur Deakin as well as those leading industrialists of the steel industry for whom he wrote a report on rationalisation - only to meet resistances to change which had already characterised the Iron and Steel Federation in the 1930s. Cotton textiles proved even harder to remodel from above, though Franks had more success with his work in woollen textiles and non-ferrous metals. Unfortunately, Supply never became a Ministry of Industry as he would have liked, for all its geographical extent. As a new growth, it had not taken part in the core economic planning discussions of 1942-44 and, despite the efforts of Franks and Edwin Plowden to amalgamate it with the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP), it was weakened by departmental rivalry, long before its abolition by a Labour government which envisaged change through public ownership rather than the intervention of super-ministries. The Supply team was dispersed, to Franks's dismay, and synoptic thinking about how to reform British backwardness reverted - if at all - to the Board of Trade.

Franks found it typical of the Government's ignorance of professional management that Attlee should have offered him, as someone already 'known', the chairmanship of the Coal Board, just as Churchill later proffered BP and then British Railways. Disillusioned, he refused all three. But he set down his conclusions on the experience in Central Planning and Control in War and Peace (1947), a marker for when his sort of planning again became fashionable in 1961-62.

Franks had already established himself as a brilliant administrator and a master of detail, even among that outstanding generation, but not as a theorist nor a great innovator like Keynes or Beveridge. He was the epitome of the intelligent 'practical man'. These skills were then applied to diplomacy as head of the British mission negotiating Marshall Aid, responsible directly to Bevin, now Foreign Secretary. Here he led a team of many talents whose exuberance had to be constrained according to politicians' overriding need to win as large a share as possible - a need which obliged Britain to become the US's 'shining example' of regeneration. Franks's belief that that was possible was eventually disproved, but it informed all his arbitration between the Foreign Office, the Economic Reconstruction Committee headed by Sir Richard Clarke, and the outside contenders, mainly the French and the authorities in Germany's Bizonia. The extent of his success can be seen in that he emerged with credit for the result not only with Bevin and Cripps, but also the Americans and the French including Jean Monnet. At the end of his period he was appointed chairman of the OEEC (the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation), the body which recommended the final divisiong of Marshall Aid and which sought also to establish a European customs union.

This made him a natural choice as ambassador in Washington from 1948 to 1952. He helped to sustain the co-operative mood of 1949 when the Nato treaty came into being, becoming a valued friend of Dean Acheson, the US Secretary of State. Bevin trusted him to achieve British aims, which in the early period were not at variance with American, that is until the second stage of the Korean War. Though never as close to President Truman as he was to the remaining New Dealers, Franks was present at all but the climactic meeting between President and Prime Minister, when Attlee, deeply worried that General MacArthur might seek to use the atomic bomb in Korea, came to Washington; and he helped to draft the formula of agreement not to use it without prior consultation, which gave Attlee the substance of his request, whatever Truman said to the US Senate.

The US administration however became uncertain about Britain's long-term direction, fearing too great a dependence on the special relationship rather than a search for an independent part in a recovering Europe. Franks had to provide reassurances, while attempting to interest Americans in the Raw Materials Conference and the international economy rather than the threat of Communism. No mere ambassador could have prevented divergencies, yet he retired with credit for his sustained exposition of British interests. If the Marshall Aid episode recalled Baldwin's settlement of the US debt in 1923, the years in Washington can be compared with those of James Bryce, ambassador at the time of the Anglo-American Arbitration Treaty of 1911.

Though not a civil servant, Franks could probably have become head of the Treasury; he was asked to be editor of the Times, and his brilliant leadership of conferences led him to chair the Committee on Tribunals and Enquiries in 1957. His move to be chairman of Lloyds Bank from 1954 to 1962 therefore surprised his friends, as did his rejection of the Bank of England, when Cameron Cobbold retired. (His reasons are not known: Treasury mandarins thought he had actually accepted.) As Governor, he would have taken a broader view of the national economy than did Lord Cromer and had a greater influence on a Labour government to whose modernising plans he was in principle sympathetic.

Instead, on the Radcliffe Committee on the monetary system's workings, and in contrast to the chairman's narrow interpretation, his matchless lucidity gave the proceedings something of the significance of the 1929-31 Macmillan Committee on Finance and Industry. Afterwards, as he had done in his 1954 Reith Lectures Britain and the Tide of World Affairs, he summed up in a measured book, Reflections on Monetary Policy (1960). He never ceased to argue that Britain's Great Power status depended on modernising its economic base, on free trade and on partnership with Europe. Yet at Lloyds he made little impact. His sort of analytical approach ran counter to City habits of mind and he was content to follow the lead of smaller banks like Glyn Mills in developing export finance and the medium-term capital market. His forte for guided, consensual modernisation had to wait until he was chosen by Selwyn Lloyd in 1962 as one of the first independent members of NEDC. But in that forum only interest- group interventions counted and he had little chance to argue that there was a higher national interest in interdependence.

Sceptical about political trends in the mid-1960s, about short-term thinking and the loss of a synoptic public policy, and saddened by Britain's failure to enter the EEC, he returned to academe without relinquishing public life to be Provost of Worcester College, Oxford, from 1962 to 1976. Franks was an admirer of Edward Heath's attempts to improve industrial performance, and chaired the committee that Heath appointed to examine the Official Secrets Act (1971-72), and then those on Ministerial Memoirs (1976) and Political Honours Scrutiny (1976); he also chaired the Falklands War inquiry, 1982.

Franks was intellectually a purist, but not averse to the realities of political compromise. At Washington he waived his teetotal principles in the interests of diplomacy and drank Martinis when the occasion required. Observers thought him aloof, but this arose from the tensions of a profession which required him to be a broker, albeit one with a conscience. He made less impression on the US media than his successor Roger Makins did, for lack of public-relations technique: he preferred to mould the decision-makers themselves. He disdained populism and populists such as Lord Beaverbrook and suffered from the latter's Daily Express as a result. After a maiden speech from the Liberal benches in the House of Lords, he rarely intervened, as if that chamber were not the place to effect change.

Some saw him as intellectually exclusive; and he was both alien to petty stratagems and a very private family man. Yet his supremely lucid mind marked an important intersection of rigorous analysis and public policy. Formidably objective, a classicist in every sense, he stood out against the intrusions of professional demarcation lines and demagoguery in political culture, and defended the essentials of liberal democracy.

(Photograph omitted)

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