Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech at John Boyd-Carpenter's Memorial Service

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Source: Thatcher MSS
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 2,084 words
Themes: Autobiographical comments, Conservative Party (history), Women


3rd NOVEMBER 1998

Many of us here today have our own special memories of John Boyd-Carpenter. Mine go back almost forty years to when I was a very young, new Member of the House of Commons. The House was different then. It was still without dispute the supreme political forum of the nation. And it was a forum – perhaps an arena is a better word – in which oratorical prowess, intellectual nimbleness and moral courage were at a premium. In these things a few great Tory parliamentarians of the day excelled. John Boyd-Carpenter, along with Peter Thorneycroft, Quintin Hogg and Enoch Powell were our models and our heroes. They could talk at length from just a few scrawled notes and they did so in perfectly parsed sentences – in John’s case in a clear baritone. Such men had been through the War. They had seen life and suffered some of its heart-aches. Their wits were matched by their wisdom. And it is, I think, no coincidence that all of them were in some degree disappointed in their expectations. In politics too much talent can sometimes be a handicap.

But when I first got to know John such considerations were for the future. He had been elected for Kingston in 1945 and in 1951 achieved his first Ministerial Post as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, an office which his father Sir Archibald Boyd-Carpenter had held before him. In 1954 John became Transport Minister and in 1955 he was made Minister for Pensions and National Insurance, a senior position but still not in the Cabinet. It was in the Pensions Department that our paths later crossed.

As a woman in those days it was quite difficult to get into the House of Commons, but once there the very lack of women became a kind of advantage because it was felt that the welfare departments of state benefited from a woman’s touch. So after two years on the back-benches, I accordingly found myself made a Junior Minister at John Boyd-Carpenter’s Pensions and National Insurance Department. He already knew more about this notoriously complex subject than many of his officials. In his memoirs he says that he at first wondered whether my appointment was just one of “Macmillan’s gimmicks”, though he graciously adds that he later decided otherwise. So that makes it all the more remarkable how much courtesy and kindness he showed me on that first day, and indeed on succeeding days. I particularly remember that he came down to the door of the Ministry to greet me as the new Junior Minister. It was one of many little gestures I later copied.

John Boyd-Carpenter was a strong Minister with his own ideas, but he was also open to argument from his juniors and his officials. He was authoritative without being stuffy, serious in his approach to policy, but full of humour when relaxing - a man you could trust completely and respect profoundly, in fact, to use an old-fashioned but apt term for an all-too-endangered species, he was an English gentleman.

But one thing that English gentleman-parliamentarians are not is soft. His fierce sparring with the late Richard Crossman – which I witnessed at Pensions in government and later at Housing in opposition – was certainly not for the faint-hearted. Both men were enormously intelligent and absolutely fearless. The battles were hard-fought but John’s essential sense of sportsmanship precluded his ever taking offence: he expected a good fight with the Opposition. He is, after all, widely credited with being the original in the story of the old hand’s response to the new MP who, on entering the Chamber, remarks how exciting it is to be “face to face with the enemy”. “No”, was John’s alleged reply, “those are the Opposition. The enemy is behind you”. All in all, a perceptive observation.

The issues at Pensions and National Insurance in those days have a strangely contemporary ring about them. We were constantly worried about expenditure, worried about how to deal with hard cases in a compassionate fashion without opening up new precedents, worried about ensuring that people were provided for in their old age in ways that didn't discourage thrift. The secret of finding a way through this minefield of inflexible rules and special cases was to master the technical detail without losing sight of the underlying principles. In fact, that’s a good description of the task of the modern Minister in any Department. But what we now call Social Security is the very best training ground. In this way, John taught and showed me much of what I would have to do in other Departments and eventually as Prime Minister.

John spent, in fact, nearly seven long years at Pensions and National Insurance. And he spent a still longer eleven years altogether in Ministerial posts outside the Cabinet, before entering it in 1962 on the “Night of the Long Knives”, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It was to prove a difficult period, as the government’s economic problems grew, but John Boyd-Carpenter was a “natural” in his new position. He liked the rigorous atmosphere of the Treasury, remembered his time there with affection, and regularly, I understand, wrote to his successors to congratulate them. His letters to spending departments were, as is the wont of Chief Secretaries, a good deal less congratulatory. In this, the regular requirements of his office were supported by a strong personal conviction that government is servant and not master, that the wealth of a country fructifies in the hands of the people not of politicians, and that the best answer to most requests for more expenditure is “no”.

I soon began to like the work at the Department, particularly parliamentary confrontations. In fact, perhaps I relished these too much. On one occasion, John leant across to me and said: “Margaret, I know that you are enjoying yourself, but do remember our object is to get the Bill through!”

Anyway, in spite of regaining a good deal of the ground conceded earlier, the Conservatives lost the 1964 election and so John lost his post as Chief Secretary. He was never in fact to hold high office again – though that was by no means apparent at the time, for he enjoyed an excellent reputation as a Minister and was at the height of his powers. For my part, I had the great pleasure of working with him once more when he shadowed Housing in Opposition. My role was to oppose the setting up of Labour’s Land Commission. And, as I recall, we were even then trying to reform the rates: some things don’t change!

A little later I moved to cover Treasury matters, and at the same time John Boyd-Carpenter was dropped from the Shadow Cabinet. He did not pretend to appreciate this, but neither was he a man who held grudges. He got on with life as a back-bencher and enjoyed it, making an extremely important contribution as Chairman of the powerful Public Accounts Committee. He would undoubtedly have made a superb Speaker of the House, but that was not to be. Instead he put the skills he had acquired in his earlier Ministerial portfolio at Transport to good use as chairman of the newly created Civil Aviation Authority.

He became a successful businessman, and he went on to make many stimulating contributions in the House of Lords, as I learned for myself when I took my place beside him there.

John Boyd-Carpenter’s career was a long and distinguished one. But it was notable for much more than the offices held. In politics, even more than most professions, there are many risks and there is also a large measure of luck involved in facing them. It is how you live with your luck that counts. John was such a superb example in politics because, like the hero of Kipling’s “If”, he had the qualities which allowed him to give his best in every situation – and to keep on giving it. Politics was always his first professional interest. It ran in his blood, as it ran – and has continued to run – in his family’s. But his politics were inextricably linked with the human being he was.

He was a Tory, of course – and none the worse for that! But he was a real Tory, someone who understood that solutions to the problems of humanity are unlikely to be found without a firm grounding in truths quite outside the purview of politics. Every politician worth his salt needs, as it were, an extensive hinterland of beliefs, experiences, and activities on which to draw. John Boyd-Carpenter had this hinterland. For example, there was his great love of the English countryside and of that most English of activities – even more English than cricket perhaps – gardening - vegetable gardening – I understand that the flowers were Peggy’s preserve. The Emperor Diocletian, Gibbon tells us, retired from his high office specifically to grow cabbages. So there is obviously something in it.

Unlike Diocletian, though, John had something with deeper roots entirely – he had his Christian faith. His grandfather had been a bishop, and so perhaps he knew how to deal with the bishops who later contemplated closing the little church where John served as Church Warden for forty years. It is impertinent and arguably impossible to make windows into men’s souls, so I shall not try. Let me just express the personal conviction that John Boyd-Carpenter was a good politician because he was a good man, and that he was a good man because he was a good Christian.

He was also, of course, a family man in all senses. In the opening words of his autobiography John characteristically observed: “It has always seemed to me as vulgar and shallow to affect no interest in one’s heredity, as to regard it as all-important”. Thus he honoured the memory of his grandfather, the bishop of Ripon; he was obviously influenced in his choice of career by that of his father, the Conservative MP; and (I understand) he inherited something of his force of character from his Yorkshire mother. But I can personally vouch for the influence of his wife Peggy. As a young politician I was sometimes invited to enjoyable dinner parties at the Boyd-Carpenters by these two perfect hosts. And it was quite clear to me that theirs was indeed a marriage in a million. They remained devoted to each other and celebrated their diamond wedding just a year before John’s death. As he puts it quite simply in his book – “We lived happily ever after”.

It is something of a cliché to say that politics places a strain on marriages. It’s less often said – though it’s true, and perhaps even truer – that a strong marriage and a loving family make it possible to weather life at the top. John’s family life made his political life possible.

I began by linking John Boyd-Carpenter with a particular generation of Tory MPs. And for all John’s powerful individuality, that is undoubtedly so. It is difficult precisely to know what made these men so outstanding. The War, as I’ve mentioned, was certainly one influence. But there was also a seriousness about politics in those years that drew out the best in people. It was clear that there were great issues at stake both at home and abroad. On both sides of the political spectrum there was whole-hearted engagement in a battle of ideas about the nation’s, and indeed the world’s future. Yet at the same time men like John Boyd-Carpenter had the moral depth and balance to conduct their debates and live their political lives according to the abiding values with which they’d been raised, codes of behaviour which were almost second nature to them. Without wishing to sound too nostalgic, I am inclined to doubt whether we shall see their like again.

John Boyd-Carpenter was a brilliant debater, a shrewd deviser of policy, a kind mentor, a loving husband and father, a Christian gentleman and a Tory through and through. I took him as my model. I would like to think that a new generation of Tory politicians might decide to do the same.