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Edwin Noel Auguste Plowden (1907-2001)

Obituary, Daily Telegraph

Lord Plowden

The Lord Plowden, who has died aged 94, was one of the great servants of British public life.

He was only 40 when he became Chief Planning Officer at the Treasury in 1947, and 46 when appointed the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority. His experience, allied to his qualities of intellect, judgment and conscientiousness made him a natural, almost an inevitable choice to head commissions of inquiry on ticklish or controversial matters. Thus in 1959 he led a committee of inquiry into the Treasury's control of public expenditure. Its report laid emphasis on the importance of long-term planning rather than short-term expedience, and resulted in a wholesale reorganisation of the Treasury. Shortly afterwards it was the turn of the Foreign Office to come under Plowden's scrutiny. His committee's report, published in 1964, recommended the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth offices. It also advocated that diplomats should be more closely concerned with commerce. In 1965 another Plowden committee investigated the future of the British aircraft industry. The committee advised that the government should acquire a majority shareholding in the British Aircraft Corporation and in the airframe elements of Hawker Siddeley. In 1975 Plowden headed an inquiry which proposed that the 13 electricity boards should be placed under direct control of the Electricity Council. And in 1982 a salaries review under his chairmanship embarrassed the Thatcher administration, which was trying to hold down costs in the public sector, by proposing large pay rises for civil servants, senior officers in the armed forces, and judges.

Roy Jenkins, who in 1976 had appointed Plowden as chairman of the newly established Police Complaints Board, likened him to a great French administrator, capable of turning his hand with versatility but without amateurism to whatsoever subject came under his remit, whether in the public or the private sector.

As the title of Plowden's autobiographical fragment An Industrialist in the Treasury: the postwar years (1989) emphasises, the greater part of his working life was spent outside Whitehall. Undoubtedly, though, his influence was at its apogee during his period as Chief Planning Officer at the Treasury, between 1947 and 1953. He took up this appointment during a crisis, with Britain's dollar deficit running at $500 million a month. One of his first jobs was to estimate what would happen if the dollars ran out. "A concentration camp existence for everyone," he opined. Control of the economy was then divided between the Treasury and the Lord President of the Council, Herbert Morrison, who held an ill-defined brief as overall "economic co-ordinator". Plowden at first came under Morrison's command, and so found himself excluded from the management - or mismanagement - of the convertibility crisis. He was soon contemplating resignation.

The advent of Sir Stafford Cripps as Chancellor in November 1947, in sole command of the economy, changed the outlook for Plowden. He had served under Cripps in the Second World War and hugely admired the man, both as a character and as an intellect. "I can't fault your argument, Chancellor," he was frequently obliged to admit. "I can't see where you are wrong, but I know you are." The austere years of Cripps's chancellorship saw a considerable improvement in Britain's economic prospects. And when Cripps, broken in health, left office in 1950 Plowden was able to ensure continuity of policy not only under the next Chancellor, Hugh Gaitskell, but also under the Tory, Rab Butler, who became Chancellor after the general election of 1951.

If Butler showed himself more prepared than his socialist predecessors to apply monetarist policies, that was in accord with Plowden's thinking. Even when serving socialist masters, the chief planner had retained a businessman's respect for the free market. "It was our job," Plowden reflected, "to plan so that we might return the economy to a more normal state of affairs where consumer sovereignty would be re-established." In practice, much of his work in those hard times was concerned with cutting down government programmes.

It was Marshall Aid, rather than socialist dogma, which obliged him to construct a model of the economy's future. Each country which benefited from the Americans' help was required to provide an economic programme for the next five years. Plowden was involved in the production of this document, which he described as "the first and only long-term economic plan to be issued by a British government before Labour's plan of 1965". Despite notable improvements in the economy in 1948, severe problems with the balance of payments remained. Plowden was one of the first to be convinced of the inevitability of devaluation, which Cripps long resisted as morally repugnant. The argument raged for weeks until Cripps devalued by 30 per cent in September 1949. Plowden insisted that devaluation should be accompanied by cuts in government expenditure and by a tight incomes policy. With the TUC co-operating, retail prices rose by only two per cent in the year after devaluation.

Meanwhile Plowden had been closely involved in negotiations with Jean Monnet, then head of the French Planning Commissariat. Monnet became a close friend of Plowden's, and at a meeting at his country house in April 1949 proposed a system of mutual exchange of food and coal. Plowden believed that his French counterpart was seeking to establish an Anglo-French nucleus around which to build a European community. Plowden pointed out that he did not have power either to assent or dissent; and in the event the idea was rejected by Bevin as an infringement of British sovereignty. Monnet turned to the Germans in order to set up the European Coal and Steel Community. When Robert Schuman publicly proposed the ECSC in May 1950, Bevin angrily dismissed it as an Franco-German plot. Plowden envisaged a cartel, and felt that Britain ought to join, though he was worried by the "extremely nebulous" character of the proposal. Cripps, too, believed that Britain should negotiate. But Monnet, fearful that the British would ruin his dream by qualifying their membership, hurried to tie up an agreement with Konrad Adenauer, the West German Chancellor. On June 1 1950 France issued an ultimatum which gave Britain until the next evening to accept the ECSC's supra-national status. Bevin was ill; Attlee and Cripps were on holiday in France; and Plowden was obliged to improvise a meeting with Herbert Morrison in a passage at the back of the Ivy restaurant in London. "We can't do it," Morrison told Plowden. "The Durham miners wouldn't like it." Dean Acheson, the American Secretary of State, described this decision as "the greatest mistake of the post-war period." But Plowden was unrepentant - not because he considered that Britain was right to stay out of the ECSC, but because he held that such a decision was unavoidable in the prevailing climate. As Lord Home later commented, the British in the immediate post-war period were "still too near to the glory of Empire to accept the role of just another country in Europe". Or, as Bevin remarked at the time, Britain "was not simply a Luxembourg".

The steady growth of the British economy, with low inflation, consistently full employment and sustained growth, was rudely interrupted in June 1950 by the outbreak of the Korean War, which caused a steep rise in the price of raw materials, a sharp increase in defence expenditure and a huge balance of payments deficit. Plowden, a keen supporter of the American alliance, was wholly in sympathy with the policy of re-armament. At that time the Russians had 175 divisions in Europe, and 27 in East Germany alone, while Nato had only 12. But soon he was involved in wrangles with the Americans over the British share of the cost. A committee of "three wise men" - Averell Harriman, Hugh Gaitskell and Jean Monnet - was set up to relate military requirements to the resources of Nato members. Plowden generally deputised for Gaitskell, and regarded his contribution to building a strong and coherent Nato as one of his most important achievements.

By the time that Butler became Chancellor in 1951, Plowden's prestige was such that he was able to play an important part in foiling Operation Robot, a plan to escape from Britain's balance of payments constraints by floating the exchange rate. By enlisting the support of Anthony Eden, Plowden succeeded in scuppering the idea. Though Butler had supported Robot, he remained deeply appreciative. "I depended on Edwin Plowden, as head of the economic planning staff," he recorded, "to interpret and give practical edge to the advice generated by the less voluble and extrovert Hall [Director of Economic Section, Cabinet Office], to act as vulgarisateur, or publicist for his ideas. "Plowden was to become my faithful watchdog-in-chief, and his departure for industry in 1953 undoubtedly weakened my position and that of the British economy." Butler also appreciated Plowden's independence of mind - which sprang from the chief planner's eagerness to return to his job in the private sector. He never acquired the mandarin ways of the public official, appearing, as a colleague put it, to be "in the Treasury, not of it". His lack of "side" and ready grin put observers in mind of a clever schoolboy who was enjoying himself, rather than a senior civil servant bowed down with responsibility. "The difference between you and all the others, Edwin," Butler told him later in life, "was that you used to burst into my room and say: 'Rab, you must do this', or 'Rab, you cannot do that.' The others used to knock on the door and say: 'Chancellor, if I may respectfully suggest . . .' "

One of six children, Edwin Noel Plowden was born at Strachur, Argyll, on January 6 1907. His father described himself as a "landowner and country gentleman"; his mother, an American, was the daughter of W S Haseltine, a sea and landscape painter. Like so many meritocrats, Edwin Plowden could lay claim to an ancient inheritance. The family originally hailed from Plowden in Shropshire, and first attained note in the Elizabethan period through Edmund Plowden, an eminent lawyer. His descendants in the senior line, among whom Edwin Plowden would be numbered, were Catholic recusants who for centuries kept out of public affairs. But a junior Protestant branch of the family acquired land in America, and became one of the great dynasties of British India.

After schooling in England and Switzerland, and a short spell at Hamburg University, young Edwin worked for a year on a farm, visited relatives in America and helped at the Grenfell medical mission in Labrador, before reading Economics at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He found the subject dull: "I was just an average, idle undergraduate."

On coming down from Cambridge he turned up at the international company which had offered him a job, only to be told that, due to the Depression, they were taking on no new staff. It was nearly a year before he found employment, with the International Standard Electric Corporation, a subsidiary of IT & T, at 3 a week. Soon he was moved to Standard Telephones & Cables, their main manufacturing subsidiary in England, and sent out to sell internal telephone equipment. It was not work that he enjoyed, and when an acquaintance suggested the possibility of a job with C Tennant, the chemicals firm, Plowden leapt at the chance. After a while Tennants put him in charge of selling potash fertiliser from the Dead Sea in Europe. The aim was to undercut the European cartel in potash so that his company would be invited to join. The policy succeeded, and in 1938, at 31, Plowden became the youngest-ever director of Tennants from outside the family.

But after Munich he was certain that there would be a war. Through the good offices of Desmond Morton, later personal assistant to Winston Churchill, he began to train for the Ministry of Economic Warfare, where he went at the outbreak of hostilities. The Ministry dreamed of defeating Germany by blockade, but after Dunkirk it was obvious that such a policy would not work. Plowden went to the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and immediately made his mark by obtaining a grant of 100,000 from the Treasury for buying up aluminium pots and pans to be melted down into aircraft. By the spring of 1941 Plowden was responsible for the supply of materials for the aircraft industry. In 1943 he was appointed Director General of Materials Production. Nevertheless it was a surprise when the Minister, Sir Stafford Cripps, decided in 1945 that Plowden should succeed Air Chief Marshal Sir Wilfrid Freeman as chief executive at the ministry. Plowden's intellect was similar to Cripps's in incisiveness and grasp. In addition he had the knack of persuading colleagues to work with him rather than against him.

After the war he went back to C Tennant; in addition he became chairman of Adprint as well as taking on directorships of Commercial Union Assurance and British South American Airways. A successful career in the private sector was clearly in the offing when Cripps secured his appointment as chief planner, as was reflected by a government salary of 6,500, remarkably high for the period.

Plowden intended, when he left the Treasury in 1953, to return to industry; instead he was appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, a post he held from 1954 to 1959. He travelled with Sir Winston Churchill to Washington in June 1954; oversaw the opening of Britain's first nuclear power station at Calder Hall, Cumberland, in 1956; and the next year secured an Anglo-American agreement on the exchange of nuclear information. He was also party to hushing up the full report on the radiation leak disaster at Windscale power station in 1957. Thirty-one years later he defended this decision as necessary in the climate of the time.

In 1959, Plowden finally achieved his ideal of returning to private industry when he became vice-chairman of Tube Investments, which had just gained control of British Aluminium. He succeeded as chairman of the company in 1961, and was president of the TI Group from 1976 to 1990. In 1974, Plowden felt it necessary to issue a warning against the Heath government's interventions in industry. "It would be a disaster for the country," he declared, "if the free enterprise part of the system were to bleed to death, but I believe it could happen because the people of this country do not seem to realise what is going on and because they are in ignorance of the fact that this government - like the last - has only the vaguest idea of what might replace it." Plowden remained a director of Commercial Union Assurance until 1978, and was also a director of the National Westminster Bank from 1960 to 1977. Other appointments included the chairmanship of Equity Capital for Industry from 1976 to 1982 and of the CBI Companies Committee from 1976 to 1980. He was a member of the Civil Service College Advisory Council from 1970 to 1976, of the Engineering Industries Council in 1976, and of the Ford European Advisory Council from 1976 to 1983. He served on the International Advisory Board, Southeast Bank NA, from 1982 to 1986.

Plowden was appointed KBE in 1946 and advanced to GBE in 1987. He was appointed KCB in 1951, and in 1959 created a life peer.

He married, in 1933, Bridget Horatia, daughter of Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond. Lady Plowden, who died last year, was herself a noted public servant, and chaired the committee which published the influential report Children and their Primary Schools in 1967. They had two sons and a daughter; another daughter predeceased them.

[Obituary, The Daily Telegraph, 17 Feb 2001, with acknowledgements]

Owner of originalDaily Telegraph, with acknowledgements
Date17 Feb 2001
Linked toEdwin Noel Auguste Plowden

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