David Steel pays tribute to Derek Ezra, emphasising his pro-European views

Derek EzraIn twelve years as Liberal Leader, David Steel only got to nominate eight peers. One of them was former National Coal Board chairman Derek Ezra, who died last December.

In London this week, Lord Steel gave a speech at Haberdashers’ Hall (Derek Ezra was an honorary Liveryman) in which he paid tribute to Derek Ezra. He also explained why his colleague was so in favour of a European organisation that worked together and kept the peace.

During my twelve years as party leader Prime Minister Thatcher was notoriously mean in Liberal peerages, allowing me only eight during that time in spite of the encouragement of the Tory leader in the Lords – Willie Whitelaw – to do better. Subsequent Prime Ministers were much kinder to Ashdown, Kennedy and Clegg and allowed them several nominations in each list. Inevitably my eight nominations were all either former senior MP’s or party office-bearers – with one exception – Derek Ezra.

In his memoirs he says that I nominated him “in order to introduce some industrial experience on to the Liberal benches” and that is true but not the whole truth – I thought it important for the public to see that we had people of his calibre in public life. He was known as chairman of the National Coal Board but few knew he was an ardent Liberal, arguing against the pattern of “them and us” in so much of British business. And what a success he was, one colleague saying “Derek ought to give lessons to the rest of us on how to put questions in the Lords” and another describing his contributions – even from his wheelchair in later life – as combining “integrity, clarity and relevance”. I always considered his expertise on energy and conservation debates as adding greatly to the prestige of our party.

Lord Ezra was an active and committed European from his earliest days as a student at Cambridge, as Major Ezra during the war and in his four-year service in the European Coal and Steel Community in Luxembourg. Delivering a lecture in this very hall in 2005 he mentioned his earlier work with Jean Monnet “one of the most remarkable men of the 20th century” who “was convinced that in order to avoid future wars and promote stability and prosperity, European countries would have to cooperate on a more integrated basis than ever before”. Derek added “Britain remained a reluctant participant – in my opinion much to our disadvantage”.

Sadly the current referendum debate has been missing that big picture. People of Derek’s generation – and mine – do not need reminding that twice in the last century Europe was engulfed in tragic wars. Indeed, but now that we are commemorating the centenary of the disastrous slaughter in the battles at Verdun and Jutland many younger people need to be reminded why Europe decided to come together in one organized Community.

My great predecessor Jo Grimond put it well when he described the creation of the Community as “the disappearance of the cloud which has lain over Europe for a thousand years – the plague of Western European wars –
which has been so completely expunged that new generations do not even appreciate the boon of its dispersal; it is alone worth any petty tribulations that the EEC may inflict”.

In the EU today there are admittedly many tribulations both real and imaginary, and if this were a vote to endorse the European Union as perfect we would deserve to lose. But it is not, and I want to see the UK government taking a lead in reforming it, not abandoning it.

The most “squalid” part of the current debate as John Major rightly described it is the attempt to suggest that migration problems would be solved by leaving the Union. Derek, as the son of Jewish immigrants himself would have been appalled.

Some suggest that people of my generation – in their seventies and above – will only vote remain to save their pensions against a likely drop in the stock market and the value of the pound if we leave. That would not be a good enough reason. We should be more concerned for the lives of our children and grandchildren.

We would do well to recall what the great newscaster Sir Alastair Burnet said at the close of the long boring TV results programme at the first European Parliament elections in 1979:

“35 years ago the people of Europe from the Shetlands to Sicily were at war: today the people of Europe from the Shetlands to Sicily have elected a parliament. Goodnight.”

Derek would have thoroughly approved of that.

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One Comment

  • Richard Underhill 19th Jun '16 - 12:36pm

    This is also a local government issue. Lord Ezra gave us a lecture on a council, Sheffield if I remember correctly, which was able to build a power station using Combined Heat and Power. We, of course, deferred to his expertise in fuel and power, but his point was it was possible to work around the tight financial restrictions that Mrs. T. government was imposing and create something useful and environmental.

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