British businessman and Conservative politician
Born 1916 Died 1979
John Davies was a chartered accountant who became an executive in the oil industry and later the first Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry. He later became the Member of Parliament for Knutsford from 1970 to 1978 and served as a cabinet minister under Edward Heath.
Early life and career
John Emerson Harding Davies was born on the 8th January 1916 at Blackheath in London, the younger of the two sons of a chartered accountant named Arnold Thomas Davies and his wife, Edith Minnie Malchus Harding, and of mixed Welsh, Scottish, and Armenian ancestry. Davies was educated at the Windlesham House School in Washington Pulborough and at St Edward's School in Oxford, and left school in 1934 to become an articled clerk and later qualified as the youngest chartered accountant in Britain in 1939. His career was then interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, as he enlisted in the Royal Army Service Corps in 1939. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the following year, and served in the 9th Armoured Division and the Combined Operations Experimental Establishment. After demobilisation in 1946 he received a military MBE and found employment at the marketing division of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (which later became British Petroleum). His ability to speak four languages in addition to English helped him make rapid progress in his career, and after postings to the company's London, Stockholm and Paris offices he was promoted to the post of General Manager, Markets in 1956 and subsequently became a director of BP Trading in 1960. In the following year he was appointed as Vice-Chairman and Managing Director of Shell Mex and BP, and as such ran a national chain of petrol stations.
Director-General of the CBI
In 1962 Davies had joined the grand council of the Federation of British Industry, and apparently impressed as chairman of their technical legislation committee. As a result, when the Federation of British Industry later merged with the British Employers' Confederation and the National Association of British Manufacturers in July 1965, he was appointed as the first ever Director-General of the new Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
The intention was that this new business pressure group would have a higher profile than its predecessors and come to seen as the counterpart of the Trades Union Congress. Davies therefore made frequent television appearances and soon emerged as the public face of the employers side. He also served on the National Economic Development Council, the British National Export Council, and the National Joint Advisory Council of the Department of Employment and Productivity, being what where known at the time as 'tripartite bodies', since they featured representatives from the government as well as the employers and the trades unions, and were seen as part and parcel of the Labour Government's much vaunted 'national plan' to modernise British industry.
However the devaluation of sterling in 1967 wrecked the whole concept of the national plan, and the CBI's relations with the Labour government soon deteriorated, particularly as the government's attempt to reform industrial relations under the banner of In Place of Strife were regarded as inadequate by the CBI, and indeed described by Davies as "like taking a nutcracker to crack a cannon ball". Even these proposals were too much for the Trades Union Congress and were later abandoned in June 1969, at which point Harold Wilson announced that he had established "solemn and binding" accord with the trade unions to reduce the level of strikes. Davies accurately predicted that the document in question would only be useful in the lavatory, and appeared to rather lose faith in the thrust of Labour policy.
On the 14th July 1969 it was reported that he would be relinquishing his post at the CBI, and a few days later announced his intention to seek nomination as a Conservative candidate. However he failed to secure the nomination for Louth in Lincolnshire where there was a by-election imminent, (he lost out to a certain Jeffrey Archer), and also for the vacant seat of the City of London. He nevertheless left the CBI on 15th October 1969, and having found work at the merchant bank Hill Samuel continued with his search, and was eventually selected as the Conservative PPC for the safe seat of Knutsford in succession to Walter Bromley-Davenport who had announced his intention to stand down at the next election.
John Davies was duly returned to the House of Commons at the General Election of the 18th June 1970 and made his maiden speech on the 6th July when he spoke in favour of Europe. Whilst it was understood that Davies was favoured by the new Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, who had pressed Conservative Central Office to find him a seat, it was expected that Heath would allow Davies a year or two to find his feat in Parliament before offering him a post in government. However events soon caused Heath to revise as ideas, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer Iain Macleod suffered a heart attack and died, and forced Heath to reshuffle his government. Despite the fact that the sum total of his parliamentary experience amounted to only some forty days, Davies was appointed to succeed Geoffrey Ripon as the Minister of Technology on the 28th July 1970. 'MinTech' as it was known, was already one of the larger government departments, but was destined to get even bigger as it had already been decided that it would merge with the Board of Trade to form the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Davies therefore became the first ever Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the 15th October 1970.
Not everyone was impressed by this rapid promotion. Enoch Powell for one, always ready with a classical allusion, compared the appointment to that of Caligula making his horse a consul, whilst there were those that drew attention to his corporatist past, and his apparent willingness to co-operate with Labour over their national plan as evidence of a certain lack of Conservative principle. It was in an effort to establish his Conservative credentials that he appeared at the 1970 Conservative Party conference and announced that "I will not bolster up or bale out companies where I can see no end to the process of propping them up". He subsequently emphasised this point in Parliament on the 4th November 1970 when he proclaimed the government's belief that "the essential need of the country is to gear its policies to the great majority of people, who are not 'lame ducks', who do not need a hand, who are quite capable of looking after their own interests and only demand to be allowed to do so."
Thus was born the lame duck policy, as Davies announced the government's commitment to the principles of free enterprise; he scrapped the Industrial Reorganization Corporation and refused to rescue the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, whilst he also decided to abolish regional aid in favour of a scheme of tax allowances for investment. The fact that he was soon forced to take Rolls Royce's aero-engine division into public ownership in 1971, might have been excused on the grounds of the national interest, but the real sticking point came over the question of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders.
Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) had been created by Tony Benn in 1968 by the merger of the Clydebank, Yarrow, Scotstoun and Govan yards. All four yards were losing money at the time of the merger, but naturally it was believed that some magical economies of scale would rapidly emerge and convert them to profitability in the foreseeable future. UCS however continued to lose money and was on the verge of collapse in June 1971 when it called on the government to step in and provide the £28 million necessary to keep it going. Although Heath met with the shop stewards on the 16th June and also a deputation from the Scottish Trade Union Congress soon afterwards, this was only to reiterate the government's refusal to bail out this particular lame duck, and John Davies duly made a statement to the House of Commons on the 29th July 1971 confirming that UCS would go into liquidation.
However the fate of UCS rapidly became a cause célèbre for the left, particularly when a shop steward named Jimmy Reid, led a workers occupation of the shipyards and staged a work in. The upshot being that Davies eventually announced on the 24th February 1972 that £35 million would be provided to save three of the four yards, in order to "maintain employment on the Clyde". The government subsequently issued an industry white paper in March 1972, followed by a new Industry Bill in 1972, which proposed
establishing a new Industrial Development Executive (more or less identical to the Industrial Reorganization Corporation that the government had just abolished), a system of regional development grants (very similar to the regional aid it also only recently scrapped), and announced that the DTI would take on powers to aid firms that were in "non-culpable decline". This change of heart of heart soon became one of the more public manifestations of the infamous 'U-turn', whereby Heath's government adopted polices which the exact opposite of those it had started off with.
In the light of Davies's previous comments this led the Labour opposition to refer to him as "the minister for lame ducks" and the "lame duck minister"; whilst even the CBI complained that the government was simply resorting to "back-door nationalisation". What made matters worse was that neither Davies nor his department had anything to do with either the white paper or the Industry Bill which had been foisted upon them by Downing Street, making it clear that he was the Industry Secretary in name only, whilst his state of mind was no doubt further unsettled by the fact that the Angry Brigade bombed his flat in Fulham on the 31st July. (Fortunately for Davies he wasn't home at the time.) With his credibility thus shot to pieces, Davies was replaced by Peter Walker on the 5th November 1972 and demoted to the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, with special responsibilities for EEC affairs. Since Davies was decidedly pro-European, and the date of British entry now set for the 1st January 1973, this was certainly a more congenial, if not quite as prestigous, office.
Of course Davies lost office with the rest of the government when Heath resigned on the 5th March 1974, following the result of the General Election in the previous month. Although Davies was afterwards excluded from the shadow cabinet, in May 1974 he became chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on European secondary legislation, otherwise known as the Scrutiny Committee, as its main function was to scrutinise various papers submitted by the EEC Commission to the Council of Ministers. He later canvassed for a 'yes' vote in the Common Market referendum of 1975, and was later nominated by the Conservative Party as a European Commissioner in 1977, although his appointment was vetoed by the Labour government.
His second chance at political office came in 1976, when the new Leader of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher decided to dispense with the services of Reginald Maudling on the 19th November 1976, and appointed Davies as his replacement as Shadow Foreign Secretary. As far as foreign policy was concerned Davies and Thatcher were certainly of one mind as far as the Soviet Union as concerned, although to what extent they agreed on other issues seems debatable. In the end however, such questions became academic. Davies made a speech at the Conservative Party conference on the 11th October 1978 in defence of sanctions against Rhodesia. Its content was likely ill-judged in view of the mood of the conference and was delivered in such a stumbling manner that it provoked jeers from the audience. At the time Davies was complaining of severe headaches and it was shortly after the end of the conference that his doctors identified the cause as a malignant brain tumour, and called for immediate surgery. Davies duly announced his retirement from politics on the 6th November 1978.
Davies was later offered a life peerage in the birthday honours list of 1979, and it was apparently his intention to become the Baron Harding-Davies, however before the letters patent could be completed, he suffered a relapse and died at St Thomas's Hospital in London on the 4th July 1979.
John Davies married Vera Georgina Bates, the only child of George William Bates, the Managing Director of Bata Shoes on the 8th of January 1943. The marriage produced two children, a daughter Rosamond Ann, and a son Francis William Harding Davies. He listed his hobbies as travel and music, whilst he had a house near Cannes where he had his own vineyard which produced a "rough red wine". His political career has been cited as "a textbook example of the perils of parachuting a manager into government".
- How the new boss of MinTech took his great leap forward, The Times, Wednesday, Jul 29, 1970
- Obituaries Mr John Davies, The Times, Monday, Nov 19, 1979
- Business diary: Mervyn's in the MPC - married people's club, Daily Telegraph, 05/07/2007
- Jason Tomes, ‘Davies, John Emerson Harding (1916–1979)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
- ‘DAVIES, Rt Hon. John (Emerson Harding)’, Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2007; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2007