Commentary (The Times)

Obituary: Cockfield [Arthur] (1916-2007) [Conservative tax expert & European Commissioner 1985-89]

Document type: Press
Source: The Times , 18 January 2007
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1,447 words
Themes: Taxation, European Union (general), European Union Single Market

Lord Cockfield

September 28, 1916 - January 8, 2007

Conservative minister who was dispatched to Brussels where he surprised the Government by embracing the European project

When, after a ministerial career at Westminister, Arthur Cockfield took up his post in Brussels as a vice-president at the European Commission in January 1985, neither those who sent him there nor those who were to be his new colleagues imagined what they were in for over the next four years. There was a tacit assumption — smugly relaxed on the British side of the Channel and resigned, almost offended, on the Continent — that the appointment was something of a coup by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Cockfield had apparently outlived his usefulness as a member of the Cabinet where the advantages of his intellectual firepower, his wide experience and his unquestioned loyalty to the Prime Minister and her economic policies were increasingly outweighed by his less than easy personality and his habit of being obstinately right too often for his colleagues’ taste.

Such talents and perceived faults might, theorists reasoned, be more usefully deployed on foreigners in Brussels than on Cabinet colleagues in London — particularly if the transfer carried the advantage of ensuring that the new Commission would, under the stern gaze of a British commissioner with little experience of, or known affection for, things European, behave in a way that corresponded with the British Government’s view of its proper role.

It was not long before this assessment had to be radically revised — to the discomfort of London and the delight of almost everybody else. With hindsight, however, there was no reason to be surprised. Cockfield simply transferred to his new job the characteristics of thoroughness, intellectual rigour, conviction and loyalty that marked his previous ones.

He began by comprehensively reading himself in, beginning with the Treaty of Rome from cover to cover. This both convinced him of the rightness of his new cause and enabled him to form a clear view of what he wanted to achieve in Brussels. He quickly established that in Jacques Delors he would have a president with whom he could work with mutual trust.

Furthermore, his ponderous delivery, which brooked no interruption, enabled most of his non-English-speaking colleagues to follow his presentations without interpretation and thus derive the full benefits of his fearsome clarity of thought. Even his jokes went well, despite being delivered with no change of intonation and being summoned up from a deeply English literary tradition (his favourite quotations, liberally sprinkled around otherwise arid Commission meetings, being taken primarily from the King James Bible and Alice in Wonderland).

Brussels also offered Cockfield an ideal vehicle for his talents. The Community after the Fontainbleau European Council in June 1984, where Thatcher “got her money back”, needed to do something more positive than argue about budget rebates. Delors, the newly nominated next President of the Commission, was determined to seize the moment. It was a question of identifying a theme.

He chose as his flagship the unfinished business of making a reality of the single market that the Treaty of Rome foresaw. It was an inspired choice. Its demonstrable roots in the Treaty itself gave it unchallengeable legitimacy. Its apparently mercantilist teleology made it attractive even to Britain, who adopted it as its own, and its rebaptism as “Europe without frontiers” caught the imagination of the more visionary member states.

To achieve it was less easy than might have been imagined. Cockfield was very much the right man in the right place at the right time. The intellectual effort needed to demonstrate exactly what still needed to be done was ideally suited to his temperament and his talent. Despite their obvious differences of background, national tradition and positions on the Left-Right political spectrum, Delors had no hesitation about entrusting to Cockfield the leading responsibility for the vast project that came to be known quite simply as “1992”.

Cockfield knuckled down to the detailed task of drawing up his soon-to-be-famous White Paper, with its 300 proposals for legislative action. The document was very much his own in its political message, its shape and in many parts, including the whole fiscal chapter.

It was at his insistence that every proposal had to be accompanied by a target date for adoption within the countdown to December 1992. Having spent his first months working somewhat invisibly on this mammoth act of creativity, he emerged from his purdah and sprang his product on an astonished Commission in June 1985.

Governments had to sit up and take notice that a major project was now on the Community’s agenda where it was to occupy a dominant place for the rest of Cockfield’s time at the Commission and beyond. His next 3½ years were spent monitoring, cajoling, negotiating and proselytising his programme with an energy and enthusiasm remarkable for a man of his age.

His name became synonymous with the internal market, and all over the Community people even began to learn how to pronounce it, if only to introduce him as an increasingly sought-after public speaker. Within the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, he steadily became the man with whom in the end one had to deal, since one way or another most roads led to the internal market.

Cockfield’s growing reputation as one of the Community’s newest — and least expected — heroes led remorselessly to an increasingly unbridgeable gulf between him and the British Government that had appointed him. There was fault on both sides. Cockfield enjoyed too much the pleasure of demolishing what he regarded as indefensible British positions in the Council of Ministers. Many ministers, some of them very senior, had to live the unenjoyable experience of arguing with him across the Council table.

Back home, his totally unforeseen devotion to his new cause soon gave rise to a whispering campaign (“Cockfield’s gone native”) which only made matters worse. However, the reality is that the vast internal market proposals, although conceived for the benefit of the Community as a whole, were also entirely in line with British interests, particularly in the field of financial services.

It was perhaps primarily his inflexibility on fiscal matters that caused the most trouble. This, combined with his uncompromising manner and his perceived relish in his reputation as the scourge of the British, helped to ensure that he would not be reappointed, after his four years were up, to see through the programme he had so painstakingly drawn up and launched. Even at the age of 72 he was not spared the particularly uncharming treatment reserved at that time for those in disfavour — in other words he read about his non-reappointment in the newspapers on the morning of the day he had been summoned to hear it from the Prime Minister direct. It was an accolade of a sort but he did not see it that way.

Francis Arthur Cockfield was born in September 1916, a month after his father had been killed in action on the Somme. He was educated at Dover Grammar School and LSE where he graduated LLB and BSc (Econ). In 1938 he joined the Home Civil Service in the Inland Revenue, to whose board he became an assistant secretary in 1945. He had been called to the Bar by the Inner Temple in 1942.

After the war his formidable qualities as both statistician and authority on taxation ensured a rapid rise in the Civil Service, and he was director of statistics, Board of Inland Revenue, 1945-52, and a commissioner, 1951-52. He then changed direction and joined Boots Pure Drug Co as finance director, 1953-61, after which he was managing director and chairman, 1961-67.

But he was back in the public domain as chairman of the Price Commission, 1973-77, before, in 1978 being made a life peer in time to take his place as a junior minister in the Conservative Government that returned to power under Thatcher in 1979.

He was Minister of State at the Treasury until 1982, and then Secretary of State for Trade and President of the Board of Trade, before Trade was merged with Industry in the following year. A year marking time as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster preceded his dispatch to Brussels in 1985.

After his return from Brussels he became a consultant and special adviser on European affairs to the accountants Peat, Marwick, McLintock. He had been president of the Royal Statistical Society 1968-69, and had a number of honorary doctorates. He was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Leopold II of Belgium in 1990.

His wife Aileen Monica, a choreographer, died in 1992. He is survived by his son and daughter.

Lord Cockfield, a vice-president of the European Communities, 1985-88, was born on September 28, 1916. He died on January 8, 2007, aged 90