From the artist's studio
Thorneycroft, (George Edward) Peter, Baron Thorneycroft (1909–1994), politician, was born on 26 July 1909 at Dunston Hall, Staffordshire, the only son and one of two children of Major George Edward Mervyn Thorneycroft (1883–1943), soldier and landowner, and Dorothy Hope Franklyn (1883–1929), only daughter of Lieutenant-General Sir William Edmund Franklyn. The Thorneycrofts had originally been Staffordshire ironmasters. He was educated at Eton College (1922–7), where he showed little academic ability. He had to attend a crammer before gaining admission to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, which he entered in 1928. He was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1930, though he quickly formed the ambition to become a barrister. This was perhaps because of the influence of his twin sister, Elizabeth (1909–1984), who was then reading jurisprudence at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and who communicated her enthusiasm for the law to him. Developing late intellectually he started to study law while still a serving officer. He found a pupil master in Theobald Matthew at 4 Paper Buildings, a fellow pupil being Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham and a cabinet colleague. In 1933 Thorneycroft resigned his commission to study law full time. He was called to the bar of the Inner Temple in 1935, and thereafter practised in Birmingham on the Oxford circuit.
Thorneycroft was elected Conservative MP for Stafford—his reputation in the county, especially in field sports, having helped him to the candidacy—at a by-election on 9 June 1938. He took a practical view of his calling—‘the most that a man can ever really do in politics is to edge the world just a tiny bit more in the direction he wants’ (Guardian, 28 Oct 1985)—but his was a career that would, paradoxically, be marked by stands on principle. He had a robust personality, self-confident without being arrogant. He was blessed with a fine oratorical style and a loud, sonorous voice, though he spoke in the mock upper-class cockney accent favoured by fashionable people in the 1920s and 1930s.
At the outbreak of war in 1939 Thorneycroft rejoined the Royal Artillery, serving on the south coast, and then as a captain on the joint planning committee of the general staff, doing preliminary work on the Normandy landings. Frustrated by not having been offered either a combatant or overseas posting he realized by late 1942 that he could contribute better to the war by returning to the House of Commons, and resigned his commission. Seconding the Gracious Speech in November 1942 he was deemed by Chips Channon to have held the house in an ‘admirable performance’ (Chips, ed. James, 341). He was an active, and not always loyal, back-bencher. With other radical minded Conservative MPs, like Hogg and Lord Hinchingbrooke, he formed the Tory Reform Committee. It met regularly at a restaurant in the Charing Cross Road and co-ordinated the members' activities in parliament. At a time when the party leadership seemed uninterested in Conservative policy, this group, of which Thorneycroft was elected joint secretary and soon became the leading personality, tried to formulate one that broke with the pre-war past. They supported, in particular, an enthusiastic approach to the Beveridge report on welfare, published in 1942. Despite having made some trouble—not least in defying R. A. Butler over equal pay for women teachers—Thorneycroft was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of War Transport in the caretaker government on 26 May 1945. In the Labour landslide that summer he lost Stafford.
However, an early by-election at Monmouth took Thorneycroft back to the Commons in October 1945. He was invited to sit on the front bench by Churchill. However, within a few weeks he realized he was too junior to have the opportunity to speak as often as he would have liked, so decided to return to the back benches and have the freedom to speak more widely. He quickly made his mark: a speech on the Coal Bill in February 1946 was commended to Churchill by the chief whip, James Stuart, who said that Thorneycroft ‘seems to be a man who cannot be ignored’ (Gilbert, 190).
Thorneycroft further developed his creed in the 1946 pamphlet Design for Freedom, produced by a committee of like-minded radicals and signed by 111 Conservative and Liberal candidates and MPs. The pamphlet advocated ‘a degree of planning and state activity which would have been wholly unacceptable to the Conservative Party in the years between the wars’ (Independent, 6 June 1994). He further honed his debating style, so that by the end of the 1945 parliament he had become one of his party's most effective performers.
On 3 May 1938 Thorneycroft had married Sheila Wells Page (1914–1999), daughter of Edgar Page of Tettenhall, Wolverhampton; they had one son. She obtained a divorce in 1949, and Thorneycroft married Contessa Carla Roberti [see below] on 2 April 1949; they had one daughter.
When the Conservatives regained power Thorneycroft was, to general surprise, made president of the Board of Trade, on 30 October 1951. He was the youngest member of Churchill's cabinet, popular with colleagues and opponents, with a reputation for kindness, courtesy, and geniality. He was temperamentally well suited to his post, and happy in it. He was a free trader and supporter of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Also, he was an early advocate of closer ties with Europe, having been a member of the United Europe Movement since its inception in 1947. During 1956 he and Harold Macmillan, the chancellor of the exchequer, laid the foundations of the European Free Trade Association. Thorneycroft was a persuasive negotiator, and enjoyed the overseas missions on which he strove to remove the barriers to international trade. He was equally happy at home, dismantling socialist controls on industry. It was during his time at trade that the Conservatives dropped any residual commitment to imperial preference and became a party of free trade.
On Macmillan's becoming prime minister Thorneycroft's work at trade was rewarded with a promotion. He became chancellor of the exchequer on 13 January 1957, when sterling was under pressure after Suez, and the public finances less than sound. As Thorneycroft himself later noted in his resignation speech in January 1958, Britain was trying to be a nuclear power and a welfare state when it lacked the funds to do either properly. The new chancellor would be ably assisted in seeking to restore confidence by the financial secretary, J. Enoch Powell, and the economic secretary, Nigel Birch, both of whom were ‘sound money’ men. His relationship with Macmillan, however, would not be happy. Macmillan had, in 1956, recorded of Thorneycroft's manner that ‘he shouts at one (with a cockney accent) as if we were a public meeting’ (Horne, 72). In later life Macmillan would, in conversation, affect to forget Thorneycroft's name, and refer to him as ‘that man who looked like an English butler, with the nice Italian wife’ (ibid.).
The flight from sterling continued throughout early 1957. By the summer it was clear that strong corrective measures would be needed if the economy were to be put on a sure footing. On becoming chancellor Thorneycroft insisted on carrying through cuts of £200 million in defence spending and between £80 and £100 million on social security that had been ordered by Macmillan. However, when it became clear that even stricter economies were needed Thorneycroft found that his officials at the Treasury—notably the chief economic adviser, Sir Robert Hall, and the joint permanent secretary, Sir Roger Makins, both of whom were Keynesians—could barely conceal their distaste. Initially Thorneycroft had been happy to consider other methods of controlling inflation, agreeing to establish the Council on Prices, Productivity and Incomes. Within a few months, however, he came to believe that only control of the money supply could work. His earlier belief in Keynesianism had worn thin.
Thorneycroft delivered his only budget on 9 April 1957. Despite the need for stringency he found £98 million for tax cuts, though he courted controversy by directing these at surtax payers and at British firms operating abroad. He continued to resist pressures from the governor of the Bank of England, Cameron Cobbold, for rises in interest rates. Cobbold became ever more insistent, and Powell and Birch believed that tough monetary measures could not be long delayed. Thorneycroft agreed. He accepted Powell's monetarist logic that the government could control inflation by holding the rate of growth in the money supply to a level demanded by economic growth plus inflation. This was Thatcherism twenty years before Thatcher, and it pre-empted Milton Friedman, the supposed father of monetarist economics, too. In July 1957, therefore, Thorneycroft asked his officials ‘to consider possibilities of checking inflation by taking firmer control of the money supply’ (Heffer, 218). On 17 July he told cabinet colleagues that, unless reduced, present spending plans would ‘far outstrip the rise in revenue’ (ibid.). On 16 July he warned Macmillan that 1958's civil estimates would have to be at 1957 levels. On 7 August he requested a study on how a measure of deflation could be brought to the economy.
By early September there was open hostility between Thorneycroft and his senior officials, who felt, in Hall's words, that he had taken against all of them (Heffer, 220). The impression was fostered by Thorneycroft's decision to call upon Lionel Robbins, the arch anti-Keynesian academic, for advice. Meanwhile, reserves had fallen by $200 million during July and August. Thorneycroft had been told on 22 August by Cobbold that a drastic rise in the bank rate was the only option, since Makins (behind Thorneycroft's back) had told Cobbold that there was no question of spending cuts. Macmillan had grave doubts about deflation. However, the cabinet realized it had run out of options. On 19 September 1957 the bank rate rose from 5 to 7 per cent, its highest level in peacetime. It was a great success of Thorneycroft's that he had convinced the cabinet to support the rate rise. However, he achieved this at the price of entrenching the hostility of his officials, and exhausting the capacity for boldness of his colleagues. For his part, he was landed with the nickname ‘Mr Seven Per Cent’.
Macmillan was being advised by Roy Harrod, Keynes's friend and biographer, who railed against him for the practice of the ‘antiquated doctrine’ of limiting the supply of money (Heffer, 222). By November it was apparent that the interest rate rise would not in itself be enough, and stringent economies were required. A wrangle between the Treasury and departmental heads began, earlier than would normally have been the case. Macmillan would be away on a Commonwealth tour for much of the winter, and matters needed to be settled before his departure on 7 January 1958.
There has been much speculation about whether Thorneycroft was put up to his monetarist stand by Powell and Birch, or whether he came to the conclusion himself. He was no fool, and could see the logic of the position and the honesty of proceeding with it. He did, though, go into meetings armed with detailed arguments supplied by Powell, whose great intellect complemented Thorneycroft's advanced political and personal skills.
By early December 1957 Thorneycroft had become confrontational with Makins, telling him that the financial situation was ‘grave’ and could not ‘be defended in terms either of economics or politics’. He added, ‘I do not believe that it is impossible to save £200 million out of a proposed spending of £2926 million. I do not believe there is a single department which could not within 18 months be in a healthier condition as a result of such a policy’ (Heffer, 227). On 8 December he sent Macmillan a warning of the ‘grim picture’ of the existing estimates. Macmillan invited the Treasury to submit a paper on how to make the necessary savings. Thorneycroft had Powell write it. It suggested cuts, which Thorneycroft supported, to welfare services, the introduction of board and lodging fees for hospitals, and an increase in the price of school milk. On 27 December he told Macmillan that it was crucially important such cuts be agreed. Macmillan had already discerned that Thorneycroft was in a ‘resigning mood’ (Horne, 71). When the cabinet discussed the cuts in a series of meetings at the turn of the year, £153 million had to be saved. Macmillan had decided this was impossible, for he feared provoking organized labour. He urged his colleagues to find ways of meeting the chancellor's concerns, but never intended to force the issue. When £100 million of cuts were agreed Macmillan chose not to push for the rest. His personal relations with Thorneycroft had deteriorated sharply, to the point where he noted the ‘rude and cassant’ way in which the chancellor had allegedly behaved (Heffer, 231).
Thorneycroft did not prevail. When it became clear that the cabinet would not match its own anti-inflationary rhetoric—Macmillan, while refusing to implement the cuts, had protested that ‘the Chancellor of the Exchequer could feel assured of the wholehearted determination of his colleagues to support him in his disinflationary policy’ (Heffer, 231)—Thorneycroft, Powell, and Birch resigned. The chancellor's letter of resignation was regarded by Macmillan as ‘a formal and somewhat contemptuous document’ (Heffer, 234) because it outlined why he and his two colleagues had gone: that, for all the protestations to the contrary, the cabinet was not serious about cutting spending to control inflation. Macmillan was offended that Thorneycroft had sent no covering note with his letter expressing personal regret. The prime minister, as he departed for his Commonwealth tour, referred to the resignations as a ‘little local difficulty’, which his party chairman, Lord Hailsham, described as showing ‘more panache than accuracy’ (Hailsham, 163).
In his resignation speech to the House of Commons, on 23 January 1958, Thorneycroft spelt out the problem he had been trying to treat: ‘For twelve years we have been attempting to do more than our resources could manage, and in the process we have been gravely weakening ourselves’. He said, pointedly,
any hon. Member in this House would say he was against inflation, as men say they are against sin. The question is where and when we choose to stand and fight it … I believe that there is an England which would prefer to face these facts and make the necessary decisions now. I believe that living within our resources is neither unfair nor unjust, nor, perhaps, in the long run even unpopular. There are millions of men and women in this country, in the Commonwealth, and in many other countries of the world who depend for the whole of their future on sustaining the value of our money. Self-interest and honour alike demand that we should take the necessary steps to hold it. (Hansard 5C, 580, 23 Jan 1958, 1294–7)
He claimed that the policy was ‘not the path to greatness. It is the road to ruin’ (ibid.).
The two years after his resignation Thorneycroft devoted to extensive overseas travel, including a world tour, and to his increasingly compelling hobby of painting watercolours, which he had embarked upon during a rainy family holiday in 1951. He was not prepared to carp from the back-benches, however justifiable such behaviour might have been as inflation crept upwards. He was keen to work his passage back, and on 27 July 1960 he returned to the cabinet, albeit in the lowly post of minister of aviation. By this time any serious attempt to control public spending had been discarded; within a decade the results would be obvious. Thorneycroft's one doubt about his resignation, voiced in 1980, was that he and his colleagues ‘probably made our stand too early’ (Daily Telegraph, 6 June 1994). It had, however, been a highly principled and courageous act that would resonate for decades.
At aviation, Thorneycroft's main achievement was to convince a sceptical cabinet of the importance of backing the Concorde project. On 14 July 1962, after the so-called ‘night of the long knives’, when Macmillan sacked a third of the cabinet, Thorneycroft was promoted to minister of defence. Soon after taking up his post he had to handle both the Vassal spy case, concerning an employee at the Admiralty, and the Cuban missile crisis. Thorneycroft was part of the inner cabinet formulating the British response to the situation. He also had to handle Kennedy's threat to end the Skybolt nuclear missile project, which risked leaving Britain without any independent nuclear deterrent.
Much of Thorneycroft's time at defence was spent planning a reorganization of the services in collaboration with the chief of the defence staff, Earl Mountbatten of Burma. This important reform, first considered in 1958 but postponed because of hostility from service chiefs, was intended to improve co-ordination between the three service departments and the Ministry of Defence. It meant that the war department, the Admiralty, and the Ministry of Aviation were amalgamated under a secretary of state for defence. Thorneycroft became the first holder of that office in April 1964. He served for just six months, until his party's election defeat in October that year. He shadowed the defence brief in opposition after the election.
When Heath became party leader in July 1965 he made Thorneycroft shadow home affairs spokesman. That role was cut short by Thorneycroft's defeat at Monmouth, after boundary changes, at the March 1966 election. He tried to return to the Commons, but after failing to find a suitable candidacy took a life peerage in 1967, becoming Baron Thorneycroft of Dunston in the county of Stafford.
From then on, with one significant exception, business dominated Thorneycroft's life. When out of office in 1958–60 he had been invited to become a director of Pirelli, having been well known to Dr Alberto Pirelli during his years at the Board of Trade. He rejoined the firm in 1967, becoming chairman of Pirelli General Cable Works Ltd (later Pirelli General plc) from 1967 to 1987, and president from 1987 until his death; and also chairman of Pirelli plc from 1969 to 1987, and president from 1987. Additionally, he was chairman of Pirelli UK plc from 1987 to 1989, and president from 1989 to his death. He also chaired Trusthouse Forte Ltd (later Forte plc) from 1969 to 1981, serving as president from 1982 to 1992. Other chairmanships were of Pye of Cambridge Ltd, from 1967 to 1979, of British Reserve Insurance Co. Ltd from 1980 to 1987, of Gil, Carvajal, & Partners Ltd from 1981 to 1989, and of Banca Nazionale del Lavoro from 1984 until his death. In all his business activities he was never content to be a figurehead, but rather an active chairman. From 1968 to 1975 he chaired SITPRO (Simplification of International Trade Procedures), and the British Overseas Trade Board from 1972 to 1975.
The exception to this portfolio of business interests was the six-year period, from 1975 to 1981, when Thorneycroft chaired the Conservative Party. When Heath had been pressed to resign the leadership in 1974 Thorneycroft urged him to fight his corner. It was a surprise to him, and many others, that this 66-year-old businessman should return to politics at Margaret Thatcher's behest. Thorneycroft's 1958 resignation was not, however, lost on her, who saw it as an early prophecy of the inflationary indiscipline that brought Heath down. Also, she sensed that Thorneycroft would help neutralize the hostility some Conservatives of his generation felt about her regime. In fact, those loyal to Heath had reason to thank Thorneycroft for his willingness to stand up to Mrs Thatcher, notably over manifesto commitments that might prove impossible to deliver. He was persuaded to take the job by William Whitelaw, the deputy leader and a cousin. His business connections were also useful to the party.
A back operation in mid-1975 meant that it was the autumn before Thorneycroft could get to work streamlining the party machine. He did so with a vengeance, courting criticism but restoring a level of professionalism to central office not seen since the days of Lord Woolton, a quarter of a century earlier. He was soon stumping the country making speeches, engendering great popularity for the leadership at a time of unease, after two election defeats. During the 1979 election there were tensions between central office and Mrs Thatcher over how the campaign should be conducted. Thorneycroft wanted to avoid controversy, especially over the party's plans to limit the power of the trades unions. Mrs Thatcher saw things differently, and had her way. It did not affect the result. She praised Thorneycroft as having been ‘shrewd and authoritative’ in the way he handled the tactical side of the campaign (Thatcher, 442). He was also responsible for forging a team of highly gifted policy staff, speechwriters, fund-raisers, and advertising men, who ensured the maximum impact for the party's message. Crucially, it was he who hired Saatchi and Saatchi to mastermind the party's publicity.
Thorneycroft was rewarded for these achievements by being made a Companion of Honour in 1980. Although now past seventy he wished to carry on as chairman, though to maintain his business interests he declined a place in the cabinet. This put him at a disadvantage, for he lost touch with the detail of what the government was doing. In the summer of 1981, during a serious financial downturn, he sharply discounted the claim by the chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, that the recession was at an end. In a reference to the division between wets and dries in the government Thorneycroft claimed he had ‘rising damp’ and could see ‘no sign of the economy picking up at the moment, not anywhere where I am’. He left politics for the last time in a reshuffle that autumn, though headlines claiming he had been sacked were at odds with the truth: he had never wanted to fight another election.
It was a mark of Thorneycroft's lack of vanity, and his healthy perspective on life, that the only book he published was on painting. Modestly entitled The Amateur: a Companion to Watercolour (1985), it was about how to enjoy painting rather than how to paint, and displayed a comprehensive knowledge of and expertise upon the subject. Though an amateur in the truest sense, there was nothing mediocre about Thorneycroft's abilities as a painter. He was a member of the Royal Academy and of the Royal Society of British Artists, and held nine exhibitions: at the Trafford Gallery in 1961 and 1970, at Chichester in 1963, at the Café Royal in 1976, 1981, and 1989, at the Mall Galleries in 1984, at the Cadogan Gallery in 1987, and at Lichfield in 1989. When meeting his civil servants at the Ministry of Aviation in 1960 he told them that his one indulgence was that he wished to be left free to draw in the life class of the Chelsea School of Art on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Lord Clark once observed of Thorneycroft: ‘There are plenty of VIPs who happen to paint; Peter is a painter who happens to be a VIP’ (Independent, 6 June 1994). He painted until shortly before his death, making long annual trips to Venice with his wife—a founder member of the Venice in Peril fund—where he indulged his hobby.
On his book's publication Thorneycroft gave his last interview, at the age of seventy-six. He said
I am one of the most contented men you can imagine. I happened to be the right age just at the moment my party was going to be in power for about 13 years. I held one high office after another. I met men like Lloyd George and Winston [Churchill], and Margaret [Thatcher]. And Chairman of my party. No doubt I was spoken of as a prime minister in earlier days, as a future prime minister. I never attained the highest office, but you don't go round the world disappointed if you're a vicar and haven't been made Archbishop of Canterbury. It would be absolutely bloody ridiculous (Guardian, 28 Oct 1985)
Although a very senior politician, he was never earnest, and had what one of his obituarists termed ‘a prodigious gift for enjoying life’ (Independent, 6 June 1994). He was a first-class cook and a keen fisherman, and loved family life. He died at his home, 42 Eaton Square, London, on 4 June 1994 after a long period of poor health, and was buried near his family's home at St Leonard's, Dunston, Staffordshire, on 9 June. He was survived by his wife and two children.
Thorneycroft's political achievement consisted mainly in four things. First, he was instrumental in divorcing his party from protectionism in trade. Second, his stand on monetarism identified an economic principle that would be adopted by both Conservative and Labour governments from 1979 onwards. Third, he greatly improved the administration of defence. And fourth, as chairman of the Conservative Party he instigated vital reforms and provided important advice to Margaret Thatcher which undoubtedly helped the party win the 1979 general election.
Thorneycroft's second wife, Contessa Carla Maria Concetta Francesca Thorneycroft [née Carla Maria Concetta Francesca Malagola Cappi], Lady Thorneycroft (1914–2007),fashion editor and conservationist, was born on 12 February 1914 in Paris, the daughter of Count Guido Malagola Cappi (1883–1941), archivist and interior designer, and his American wife, Alexandra, née Dunbar-Marshall (1893–1977). She had been born en route from Venice (where her father was keeper of the archives at the Frari) to London (where her mother's parents, distrusting Italian medical care, had insisted her mother go to give birth). She spent her early years in Venice, then Rome. Her parents divorced in 1924. She first met Thorneycroft when she was sixteen: she and her mother had met Thorneycroft's father while holidaying on Capri, and he had invited them to stay at Dunston Hall. They fell in love but failed to keep in touch, and both subsequently married: on 9 April 1934 Carla married Count Giorgio Roberti (b. 1905), chemist. They had a son and a daughter. During the Second World War she worked as a nurse at the Principessa Piemonte hospital in Rome. When the Italians capitulated and the Germans occupied the city and took over the hospital, she took in the Italian wounded at her apartment in via Panama. Operations were performed on her kitchen table; the cook complained when Carla used her saucepans for sterilizing instruments.
Carla Roberti's first marriage ended in divorce in 1946, and she decided to move with her two children to England (reputedly arriving with twenty-three suitcases). She was soon taken on as a fashion editor at Vogue. She met Peter Thorneycroft again at a party given by Henry (Chips) Channon. After their marriage she continued working at Vogue until 1951, but also increasingly played her part in Thorneycroft's political career, both as a renowned hostess and as a talented public speaker.
In 1966, when both Florence and Venice were flooded, Carla Thorneycroft, along with Sir Ashley Clarke and Natalie Brooke (the wife of Humphrey Brooke, secretary to the Royal Academy), was a founder of the Italian Art and Archives Rescue Fund, launched within a week of the floods in Florence. She served as vice-chairman of the organization, and received the Italian order of Merit in 1967. The fund also raised money for restoration work in Venice, and in 1971 was transformed into the Venice in Peril Fund. Carla Thorneycroft was a trustee and vice-chairman from 1971 to 1996, and president thereafter. By the time of her death the charity had funded the restoration of more than forty buildings or works of art in the city. She was also founding president of the League of Friends of the Italian Hospital (1956–89), vice-president of the British-Italian Society (1957–2007), founder member, trustee, and patron of the Rosehill Arts Theatre (1959–77), founder member and trustee of the Chichester Festival Theatre Trust (1962–88), a trustee of the Royal School of Needlework (1964–76; she was an expert at needlepoint), and a member of council of the Friends of Westminster Cathedral (1976–2007, vice-president from 1993). She was appointed DBE in 1995. She died at her flat in Eaton Square, Westminster, on 7 March 2007 of heart failure. She was survived by her two daughters and her stepson, her son having predeceased her.
Simon Heffer DNB