British Conservative Politican
Born 1935 Died 2006
Paul Channon was the the Member of Parliament for Southend West from 1959 to 1997 who was a junior minister under Edward Heath and later served under Margaret Thatcher as both Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and for Transport.
1. Early Life and Education
Born Henry Paul Guinness Channon in London on the 9th October 1935, his father was Henry Channon otherwise known as 'Chips Channon', the American born author, diarist and Member of Parliament, whilst his mother Honor was a daughter of the 2nd Earl of Iveagh and thus a member of the wealthy Guinness clan. Channon therefore inherited substantial wealth including a stake in the family business of Arthur Guinness, Son & Co, and was a director of that company in the years 1961–1970 and 1974–1979. Indeed one estimate of his share of the Guinness fortune was estimated at £184 million in 1990, and thus he was rich enough to have decorated his ministerial office with his own Canalettos (although he did claim that they were rather poor Canalettos).
His childhood was therefore one of wealth and privilege; Edward VIII once gave him a toy panda, and his childhood friend was the Duke of Kent (with whom he shared a birthday). Like many children from the British upper classes, he was evacuated to the United States during World War II, where lived with the Astors at their home in upstate New York. It was there at the age of five, that he displayed his first interest in politics when he met Franklin D. Roosevelt and expressed the wish that he would "beat Mr Willkie", and was later sufficiently precocious to be allowed to take out a subscription to Hansard at the age of eight.
He returned to Britain after the war to continue his education (and to find that his mother had run off with a Czech airman). He attended Lockers Park School in Hemel Hempstead and then Eton College, following which he spent the years from 1955 to 1956 performing his National Service in the Royal Horse Guards. As a 2nd Lieutenant he saw service in Cyprus during the 'Emergency' but seems to have spent much of his time escorting sundry minor royals and becoming a member of the 'Princess Margaret Set' 1. After completing his National Service in 1956 he went up to Christ Church, Oxford where he became president of the University Conservative Association in 1958. However his father then died during his final year at University leaving his Commons seat for Southend West vacant, at which point Channon decided to abandon his studies and follow his father into politics. Selected as the Conservative candidate for Southend West 2 despite a campaign launched against his nomination by the Daily Express, he was duly elected at the by-election held on 29th January 1959, becoming at the age of twenty-three the Baby of the House, and successfuly defended his seat at the General Election of the 8th October later that same year.
2. Political career 1959-1979
Channon made his maiden speech on the subject of Cyprus and within a matter of months he became Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Richard Wood the Minister of Power. In the following year he changed horses and became PPS to Rab Butler during the time that the latter was Home Secretary in 1960–1962, Deputy Prime Minister in 1962–1963 and then Foreign Secretary in 1963–1964. The Conservative Party went into opposition in 1964 and after the election of Edward Heath as party leader in 1965, Channon became the Opposition spokesman on public building and works, and two years later in 1967, was promoted to take charge of the Arts and Amenities brief. With the Conservative Party's return to power in 1970, he became junior housing minister in the new Department of the Environment where he was responsible for steering the Housing Finance Bill through the Commons.
In March 1972 Heath appointed him Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, largely because he was a Guinness, and it was at his Chelsea home that he and William Whitelaw held their secret talks with the IRA in July 1972 (during which Sean MacStiofain turned up armed just in case there was any funny business from the Brits). He remained at Northern Ireland only until November 1972 when he returned to Environment as the Minister for Housing and Construction. There he cut a certain dash by furnishing his office with a tiger-skin sofa and decorating the walls with black wallpaper dotted with abstract blobs of colour 3.
After the Conservative defeat at the General Election of February 1974, he joined the shadow cabinet as the Opposition spokesman on Prices and Consumer Protection, and following further defeat at the October election a few months later became shadow Environment Secretary. Although Channon won credit for his scathing attack on Anthony Crosland for cancelling the plans for the Channel Tunnel, he remained in post for only a few brief months as he lost his position in the shadow cabinet in February 1975 when Margaret Thatcher replaced Edward Heath as party leader.
As Thatcher would have put it, Channon was not "one of us". He was indeed a fairly typical 'wet' who favoured the sort of consensus politics advocated by Macmillan and Heath - an approach that was firmly rejected by Thatcher who allegedly told Reginald Maudling; "There will be no room in my government for that millionaire." Thus cast out from the front bench he served a period of exile in Europe, where he became deputy leader of the Conservative delegation to the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. There was talk that he might assume the role of leader of the Conservative group at the European Parliament, but he failed to win a nomination for a European seat.
3. In Government 1979-1989
After her victory at the General Election of 1979 Thatcher tried to persuade him to accept a seat in the House of Lords, but when he refused she reluctantly appointed him Minister of State at the Civil Service Department as second-in-command to Christopher Soames. However since Soames was to spend most of his time as the governor of Southern Rhodesia during the transition to majority rule in that country, this left Channon in effective charge of the department. However in 1981 the Civil Service Department was abolished and Channon might well have been returned to the backbenches were it not for the fact that Norman St John-Stevas became miffed at his demotion from the post of Leader of the House of Commons and refused the offer of becoming Minister of the Arts. Channon however accepted the post with enthusiasm, (he was an opera buff and a keen art collector) and appears to have been a happy and successful Arts minister; he established the Museums and Galleries Council, and even managed to secure budget increases for museums and galleries from a notoriously parsimonious government.
After the 1983 General Election he was sent to the Department of Trade and Industry as the Minister for Trade where Cecil Parkinson was the Secretary of State. Of course Cecil's time at the DTI only lasted a few months thanks to the the Sara Keays affair, and in October 1983 Channon was briefly the departmental 'caretaker' until Norman Tebbit was able to take over. Once again in 1984 he found himself as acting Secretary of State when Tebbit was temporarily incapacitated as a result of injuries suffered in the Brighton bombing. But when Tebbit was promoted to Chairman of the Party in September 1985, he found Leon Brittan parachuted into the department above his head. Brittan however resigned in January 1986 as a result of the Westland affair and Channon finally found himself promoted to the top job.
There he faced a challenging time, being required to sort out an agreed line on the Westland issue and dealing with the political fallout arising from the news that negotiations were ongoing with a view to selling off British Leyland to the Americans. (General Motors wanted the commercial vehicle side, whilst Austin-Rover was offered to Ford.) This incurred the wrath of a number of Conservative MPs from the West Midlands who still believed that car manufacturing had a future in Britain. Although he referred a number of contentious bids to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, including the proposed Tate and Lyle-British Sugar merger, (naturally he excused himself from taking any decision regarding the Guinness takeover of Distillers, and left that to his junior Michael Howard), his decision not to refer BTR's bid for Pilkington Glass aroused particular criticism, whilst his crackdown on insider dealing also proved unpopular in certain quarters. Perhaps most significantly, he made the decision to appoint inspectors to inquire into the acquisition of the House of Fraser by Mohammed Al Fayed (and therefore unwittingly lit the fuse of the bomb that eventually blew up John Major).
4. At the Department of Transport 1987-1989
Given that his performance at Trade and Industry was regarded as not being quite up to the required standard, after the 1987 General Election he was effectively demoted in the post election reshuffle of the 11th June to the Department of Transport. Replacing John Moore he became, according to his own boast, "the biggest road and bridge builder since Julius Caesar". He was responsible for the decisions to complete the M40 and to add some extra lanes to the M25, relaunched the Channel Tunnel, even managed to increase investment in British Rail, and was the man responsible for deciding that the DVLA should be allowed to sell personalised car number plates direct to the public. However his two years at the department where to be remembered more for a series of notable transport disasters.
First off there was the Kings Cross fire of the 18th November 1987 which left thirty-one people dead and many others badly burnt and disfigured. Just over a year later on the 12th December 1988 there was the Clapham Junction rail disaster where a set of wrongly-wired railway signals led to a collision between two trains where thirty-five people died and one hundred and thirteen were injured. This was followed nine days later by the Lockerbie disaster where the loss of Pan Am Flight 103 resulted in two hundred and seventy deaths. Then a fortnight later on the 8th January 1989 there was the Kegworth air disaster, when a British Midland jet crash landed into an embankment on the M1 resulting in another forty-four deaths. None of which was of course Channon's fault in any meaningful sense, although he was naturally pressed to explain what his department intended to do about each and every tragedy as it unfolded.
What really weakened his position was the decision, only two days after the Lockerbie disaster, to fly off on a Christmas holiday to one of his villas in Mustique, leaving behind a youthful Michael Portillo to field the inevitable barrage of questions from John Prescott, then shadow transport minister. Although Channon had acted only with Thatcher's approval, he was thus accused of "insensitivity" at a time of national mourning. (Of course had he chosen to spend his holiday in Skegness for example, the criticism would have been considerably muted.) More seriously in March of the following year it emerged that a Department of Transport warning of an imminent bomb threat had sat on a civil servant's desk for a fortnight before being sent out to the airlines, whilst Channon was accused of deliberately leaking a false story to the press in order to distract attention from this story 4. Prescott called for his dismissal, and although Thatcher defended him at the time it was clear that his card was marked.
Since, if nothing else, Channon had proved to be an unlucky minister, in July 1989 he was replaced by a now rehabilitated Cecil Parkinson; whilst Thatcher praised his "integrity, decency and kindness", it was clear that at the age of only fifty-four that his ministerial career had come to an end.
5. On the Backbenches
After three years on the backbenches Channon made it known that he was interested in becoming the Speaker of the House of Commons
following the retirement of Bernard Weatherill
in 1992. However in accordance with the somewhat arcane rules that govern the election of the Speaker it became clear that he stood little chance of being elected and so chose to withdraw from the contest. He accepted the consolation prize of the post of chairman of the Finance and Services Committee
of the House of Commons in 1992 and in the following year also became chairman of the Transport Select Committee
, where he spent his time critically scrutinising the Major government's Railway Bill which proposed the privatisation of British Rail.
In 1995 he announced his decision to stand down at the next General Election and was created a life peer as the Baron Kelvedon by John Major in the dissolution honours list of 1997, choosing the name of Kelvedon after his country mansion, Kelvedon Hall
. However he never became an active member of the House of Lords, largely for health reasons as he suffered from Alzheimer's disease
during his latter years and died on the 27th January 2007.
In 1963 he married Ingrid Olivia Georgia, the daughter of a Major Guy Richard Charles Wyndham
from the family of the Barons Egremont
. His wife already had three children of her won by her previous marriage to his cousin Jonathan Guinness, 3rd Baron Moyne
. Ingrid was to bear him a son and two daughters, although their elder daughter Olivia tragically died in 1986 from a mixture of drugs and drink taken during a college party to celebrate her final Oxford exams 5
1 Channon was friendly with the Princess Christina of Hesse and Princess Beatrix of Hohenloe Langenburg both of whom were nieces of Prince Philip.
2 For much of the twentieth century Southend was virtually a pocket borough in the gift of the Guinness family and often referred to as 'Guinness on Sea'. Rupert Guinness first won the seat of Southend in 1912 and held it until 1927 when he became the 2nd Earl of Iveagh. He handed it over to his wife the Lady Iveagh, who continued until 1935 at which point she passed it on to her son-in-law Henry Channon. The elder Channon held the seat for the next twenty-four years, during which time the constituency was divided into two, with Chips plumping for Southend West as the safer of the two.
3 The Labour politician Gerald Kaufman described Channon's office as being akin to "the product of a demented interior designer suffering from particularly disturbing hallucinations. It evoked the same terrified awe customarily aroused by the wilder extravagances of Mad King Ludwig. Meetings were something of an ordeal since the furniture included chairs which resembled purple kidneys on which it was physically impossible to sit."
4 This refers to an incident when Channon had a conversation with six lobby correspondents at the Garrick Club in March 1989, and told them that there would soon be an arrest of those responsible for Lockerbie. Despite what John Prescott might have alleged at the time, it seems probable that Channon genuinely believed that this was the case, but was prevented from justifying his claim. The Labour MP Tam Dalyell has expressed the opinion "that American pressure via Margaret Thatcher silenced Channon and led to an able minister's being dropped from the Cabinet."
5 Olivia's cousin Sebastian Guinness was later jailed for four months for the possession of both cocaine and heroin at the party, and an old family friend named Rosie Johnston was sentenced to nine months for supplying Olivia with the heroin that played a large part in her death.
- Obituary: The Daily Telegraph 30/01/2007
- Obituary: The Times January 30, 2007
- Obituary: The Guardian January 31, 2007
- Obituary: The Independent 31 January 2007