Thursday, June 24, 2010

Guest Post: Obituary of Peter Walker by Chris Guyver

Peter Walker, who died yesterday aged 78, was one of the great survivors of British politics over three decades. A self-made millionaire before he was thirty, he took into politics his sound business acumen and acute judgment of people, both of which gifts enabled him to ride out the tumults which assailed the Heath and Thatcher cabinets in which he served, with his reputation for sound political management unblemished. Although he left frontline politics twenty years ago, his legacy continues through many of us who are either members, or else active supporters of David Cameron's Government and who owe nearly everything to his kindness, support and sponsorship during the early years of our political careers.

The bare facts of Peter Walker's life and political career can be found in other obituaries. The salient episodes include his rejuvenation of the Young Conservatives in the 1950's – it's hard to believe now what an astonishingly influential group they were then, not only politically but also socially within the Party; his election in 1961 to the old Worcester Division of Parliament at what was then the extraordinarily young age for an MP of twenty eight; his role as Secretary of State for the Environment (1970-72) in what was the first 'super' department of Government and then as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (1972-74); and his three Cabinet posts under Margaret Thatcher (MAFF, Energy – when he played an under-stated but supremely influential role in destroying Arthur Scargill's brand of anarcho-Socialism during the Miner's Strike - and Wales) over a grueling 11 year stint at the apex of government.

For those of us who knew him, one of the intriguing questions we often thought about but never asked (at least not in my case!) was the paradox inherent in a political career which enabled Peter Walker to serve both Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher. The answer lies in his unswerving loyalty to the Tory Party. I think he was fond of Heath and admired the fact he was also a self-made man who had made it to the top of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, the membership of which was dominated largely by aristocrats of major and minor hues. In Mrs Thatcher, he recognised similar echoes from his own modest social upbringing. He admired her steel and resilience, although he saw it as his role to occasionally remind the Party via much-celebrated (at the time) 'coded' speeches at various Conservative Party conferences, that the rampant individualism which some associated with 'Thatcherism', was far removed from the main tenets of Conservatism.

But he was no great philosopher, of course. He was a pragmatist who sought to get the job done with the minimum of fuss. He understood that good government can be defined as quick and decisive political leadership, aimed at achieving the common good. He was never partisan in the sense that he would rarely put narrow Party interests ahead of sensible decisions. By making himself rich when so young, he endowed his political career with irreproachable independence, both from those who sought to influence the political process from outside, as well as from the wealthy plutocrats within the Party whose practice it was to patronise young Parliamentary upstarts and mould them into conformity.

He was a shrewd judge of politicians and I remember during the 1987 election, when we were sitting in the Darlington Conservative Association bar late one night trying, in our own way to help a young(ish) Michael Fallon win his seat, he told me that John Major would succeed Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. A pretty amazing call. I don't think John Major himself had thought that one through by then.

During that campaign with him, I learned that politics can be fun. He laughed all the time. He was supremely confident in any situation, even the time we arrived in Sheffield to be met by a baying mob who tried to tip our car over. 'It's got a solid roof, Chris. It'll be fine.' A bottle of champagne was nearly always opened at the start and end of every campaigning day.

His family was a source of pride and strength to him. He hated overseas travel as a minister if it meant nights away from Tessa and the children, to whom he was utterly devoted. He was kind and unfailingly helpful to everyone who worked for him.

It is a rare blessing that his illness was held at bay for just long enough for him to see his son Robin become the Member of Parliament for Worcester this year.

Quite simply, a wonderful man.


Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device


Blackacre said...

Wot no mention of Slater Walker and the 70s banking crisis?

Richard said...

... or the destruction of local government as we know it?

Jabba the Cat said...

I seem to recall that he was a wet in a similar mould to Prior and Pym.

bladnoch said...

Blackacre - quite right. Also Slater Walker investment clients got hammered.

bladnoch said...

Blackacre - quite right. Also Slater Walker investment clients got hammered.

Span Ows said...

All those nice comments out I see (first 5 or 6)...this is an obituary FFS!

The anecdotes I have heard about Peter Walker the man are good. A fair and decent man.

Rush-is-Right said...

Bladnoch. Everybody with investments got hammered during the Heath period. The FTSE index was the only area in which Heath's avowed objective of bringing down prices at a stroke was effective.

Nigel T Packer said...

I met Lord Walker on a few occasions and when asked he was delighted to review my book on Internet Marketing.

He understood all the concepts even though he was not of the generation that would normally have taken on board a new way of thinking.

What he did understand was the importance of the internet to the future of business and the ecconomy.

Paddy Briggs said...

Walker, as Ian Aitken's generous obit in The Guardian points out, clearly despised Margaret Thatcher. I think that loyalty to the Conservative Party was indeed one of the reasons for his continuing to serve a woman who he found personally unpleasant, who had humiliated Walker's friend and mentor Ted Heath and who treated him with contempt by giving him jobs way below his ability. But I think that Walker had a nobler goal as well - by being inside the tent arguably he could, and did, restrain the great She-Wolf more than if he had been on the back benches.

And now the Thatcherites 2010 version are in power - at least pulling the key levers such as the economy. Note also “The Spectator’s” orgasmic welcome for George Osborne’s budget in the latest Speccy and James Forsyth’s barely disguised plotting in the same issue for Osborne to ease into Number 10 as soon as Cameron slips up – as the Tory Right no doubt all expect and hope that he will.

And the Peter Walker role is being played not by people comfortable in the modern day tent but by cuckoos from another party entirely. The Tories only need LibDem cover for a while – indeed they arguably only need David Cameron cover for a while! It’s a bit too early for rejoicing in Old Queen Street – but the old Queen of the 1980s must find it all more familiar then one might expect – after all she dealt with the Wets like the late lamented Peter Walker pretty well!