Baroness Celia Thomas writes…Derek Ezra 1919-2015

Liberal Democrat peer Derek Ezra died on 22 December 2015 at the age of 96. Celia Thomas remembers him.

Liberal Peers were absolutely delighted when Derek Ezra took the Liberal whip on becoming a Peer in 1983. He was one of the best known men in public life at the time, having been a well-respected Chairman of the Coal Board from 1972 to 1982. He had been a Liberal since university days, he told us, where he joined the Cambridge University Liberal Club in 1936. There he was a friend of Richard Wainwright, who was later to become the Liberal MP for Colne Valley.

A few years later, when war broke out, Derek became a gunner, rising eventually to the rank of Lt. Colonel; he later joined British Intelligence, where he was secretary of the Combined Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee. After the war, he spent four years in Luxembourg as a member of the UK delegation to the European Coal and Steel Community where he worked with Jean Monnet, largely regarded as the founding father of the European Community. From that time on, Derek was a passionate, but not uncritical, supporter of the European Union.

Derek joined the Coal Board in the marketing department in 1947, rising through the organisation to become its Chairman in 1972. His working relationship with the powerful National Union of Mineworkers and their leader, Joe Gormley was one based on pragmatism, and a mutual respect, much to the fury of the Tory press. Quiet downsizing of the industry was carried out all the time from 1947 when the workforce was 700,000 to 230,000 when Derek retired, although it was not fast enough for Mrs. Thatcher and her Government. But even she could not force the pace when the country faced an all-out strike in the early eighties with not enough coal stocks to last the winter, and she had to climb down. Things were very different after Derek left, when his predecessor was the combative Scots-born American Ian MacGregor and the Union was led by Arthur Scargill. Strikes and the three-day week followed, with some Tories blaming Derek for not addressing the problem of productivity and the closure of pits sooner.

Derek’s politics had to be kept strictly under wraps while he held public office, but he took to speaking from the Liberal front bench from 1983 onwards with great gusto, not just on energy, but on manufacturing and trade, industry as a whole, and Europe. He would always sum up what his message was at the beginning of his speech, expand on about three different points, and then weave them together for his conclusion. So his speeches were the easiest to report – which was my job for the Liberal News for many years.

Shortly after he was introduced, he became a member of the Select Committee on Overseas Trade which reported in 1986. In the debate on the Report, he drew particular attention to the lack of competitiveness, skills and training, investment, and quality of goods in Britain – matters he updated when he returned to the same theme fourteen years later – this time concentrating on the lag in productivity, the lack of enough research and development, innovation and spin-offs from universities. During his time in the Lords, he was heavily involved in many organisations, and became chairmen of several energy companies. He was especially interested in the development of combined heat and power, and of course in clean coal technology. Latterly, when well into his nineties, we all looked forward to his occasional visits to the House to ask an oral question

* Celia Thomas is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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  • Richard Underhill 7th Jan '16 - 12:12pm

    He was also right about Combined Heat and Power, including the use of recycled materials. The government of the day did not, although a scientist was PM. where local government was sufficiently go-ahead they could and did.

  • David Evans 8th Jan '16 - 12:27pm

    Derek was a good liberal who did a very difficult job in the NCB for many years, until Margaret Thatcher replaced him with Mr McGregor. His peerage was well deserved and he brought his liberal values and his industrial expertise into his contributions in the HoL which were always clear and well reasoned. He will be sadly missed.

  • I think some corrections are needed on matters of fact.

    Derek Ezra’s predecessor was Alf Robens. His successor was Norman Siddall who retired after 15 months because of ill-health. It was then that Ian McGregor became chairman. There was no three day week during the strike of 1984-85. The three day week was intoduced during the 1974 strike.

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