Obituary : Sir Richard O’Brien

Sir Richard O’Brien

Sir Richard O’Brien, who died on December 11 2009 aged 89, chaired the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) from 1976 to 1982 and later served as chairman of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s controversial Commission on Urban Priority Areas; during the Second World War he fought with great bravery and was awarded an MC, Bar and a DSO, ending the conflict as personal assistant to Field Marshal Montgomery.

After conflict’s end, O’Brien built a reputation as a superb negotiator in industry and, as director of the CBI’s industrial policy committee in the early 1970s, established himself in the heart of the postwar consensus in favour of government intervention and planning.

In 1976 the Labour Government of James Callaghan appointed him to chair the MSC, the quango set up by Edward Heath to supervise the nation’s training schemes. Under his leadership, the MSC implemented the recommendation of the 1977 Holland Report that there should be a new Youth Opportunities programme to improve access to employment for 16 to 18 year olds. In 1981 the MSC published two papers which set the skills training agenda for the rest of the decade.

In 1979, Mrs Thatcher confirmed his appointment in another role – as first chairman of the Crown Appointments Commission to appoint an Archbishop of Canterbury. In her account of her time in Downing Street, Mrs Thatcher remarked: “In view of my later relations with the hierarchy, I could wish that Sir Richard had combined his two jobs and established a decent training scheme for bishops.”

It was O’Brien who recommended Robert Runcie for the see of Canterbury on the retirement of Donald Coggan in 1980, and it was Runcie who, after the inner-city riots of the early 1980s and the Scarman report that followed, invited him to chair a commission to examine the “challenge which God may be making to Church and Nation” in Britain’s Urban Priority Areas.

The commission’s report, Faith in the City, which was published in 1985, criticised the government’s handling of social problems in inner-city areas and made radical recommendations affecting the whole range of policies, from local authority finance and benefits to housing, “care in the community” and law enforcement. An unnamed cabinet minister reportedly dismissed the report as “pure Marxist theology” and Margaret Thatcher is said to have complained that there was nothing in it “about self-help or doing anything for yourself”. But Douglas Hurd, then Home Secretary, was impressed by the conclusions on crime while the Secretary of State for Defence Michael Heseltine told the Archbishop: “Your bishops have it wrong. Conditions in the inner cities are much worse than they say.”

The attacks on the report had the benefit of triggering an extensive public and media debate about the inner-cities, relations between church and state, and the perceived growing divide between rich and poor. It led, among other things, to the foundation of a Church Urban Fund to strengthen the Church’s presence in inner-city areas and undoubtedly helped to push the government into giving higher priority to inner-city policy. According to other commission members, it was O’Brien who ensured that every claim in the report was backed by evidence. This meant that nobody was ever able to criticise it on a factual level.

The only child of a Derbyshire family doctor, Richard O’Brien was born in Chesterfield on February 15 1920 and educated at Oundle and at Clare College, Cambridge, where he read Law.

His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war and, in 1941, he was commissioned into The Sherwood Foresters. He saw action in North Africa and Italy and proved himself an outstanding front line commander.

He took part in the Battle of El Alamein as a platoon leader with the 14th Battalion (14 SF). In the early hours of November 2 1942, his company was halted on the edge of a minefield and came under heavy artillery fire. Several mortar bombs fell close to his truck. His platoon sergeant was killed, several of his men were hit and O’Brien himself was wounded by bomb splinters in the thigh, neck and arm. He lost a lot of blood but, having evacuated the wounded men, refused to go back to have his wounds dressed and led the rest of his platoon, in their trucks, through the enemy minefield.

By first light, he was too weak to stand unaided but continued to give orders from his vehicle. A medical officer who was brought to him dressed his wounds but found he still had splinters in his thigh.

O’Brien begged to be allowed to remain with his men but was ordered by a senior officer to get himself to an ambulance. He was awarded the first of his immediate Military Crosses.

After serving in Iraq in 1943, he landed with his battalion in Italy in Spring the next year and took part in some of the toughest fighting of the war. On March 15, at the Anzio beachhead, he led a fighting patrol to reconnoitre a house which had been identified as an enemy strong-point.

The night was as black as pitch, the rain unremitting and they had to cover 1,000 yards of rough hill country. Half way there, they came under heavy machine gunfire from an outpost. At the approaches to the house, O’Brien found Teller mines.

In the intense darkness, he and his men had to go by touch and feel to find a way through. Moving on ahead, he found a tracked vehicle. A search revealed two men inside. He grabbed them and brought them back to his patrol.

In a sandbagged outhouse, he discovered another three men. They resisted, but ‒ unaided ‒ he also made them prisoners. After finding a tank, he called forward part of the patrol and climbed up the side.

Hand grenades were hurled from the turret and five of his men became casualties. Before O’Brien could use his tommy-gun, the thrower disappeared inside the tank and slammed the hatch shut. Having decided that honour was satisfied, O’Brien returned to his lines with four fit men, five casualties, of whom two could not walk, and five prisoners. The citation for the Bar to his MC stated that he had shown “courage and determination of the highest order”.

In the battle of the Gothic Line, 14 SF suffered heavy losses and was disbanded. O’Brien transferred to the 2/5th battalion The Royal Leicestershire regiment (2/5 RL) in September 1944 and, in November, as the approach of winter threatened to bring operations to a halt, he led “C” company in a series of vitally important engagements near Forli. He was awarded a DSO.

O’Brien accompanied 2/5 RL to Greece for two months during which time he was wounded by a sniper. He returned to Italy for a spell but, shortly before the war ended, was appointed personal assistant to Field Marshal Montgomery, whom he found “alert, lively, courteous and amusing”, and with whom he maintained a friendship after the war.

It was O’Brien who presented the surrender terms to German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, who kept him waiting because he was unwilling to receive an emissary of Montgomery “who only commanded armies while he, Keitel, was responsible for all the German armed forces and should deal only with Eisenhower’s representative”.

When O’Brien did finally meet Keitel he found that the German officer “looked exactly like his Osbert Lancaster cartoon ‒ stiff, bull-necked, stolid and unattractive. I stood rigidly to attention wishing to give a good impression of military correctness and discipline. He finished. I threw another salute, stamped again on the wooden floor and marched out.”

O’Brien remained with Montgomery after the war when he became the C-in-C of the British Forces of Occupation in Germany, spending 18 months with the Field Marshal, largely at Schloss Ostenwalde in Hanover. He noted that Montgomery, who once took him to Number 10 and introduced him to Clement Attlee “enjoyed nothing so much as lively critical conversation with the young on anything and everything except his own conduct of battles”.

Afterwards, having retired from the Army in the rank of major, O’Brien spent two years as development officer of the National Association of Boys’ Clubs. It was a role which he had been inspired to pursue by Attlee, who – when the two had met with Montgomery – had told of his own involvement in Boys’ Clubs before the war. O’Brien then embarked on a career in engineering, first with the Wakefield-based firm Richard Sutcliffe, where he began as personnel manager and rose to production director, then as director and general manager of Head Wrightson Mineral Engineering.

In 1961 he was appointed to the testing position of director of industrial relations at the strike-prone and inefficient British Motor Corporation (the forerunner of British Leyland), but left in 1966 to become industrial adviser on manpower to the short-lived Department of Economic Affairs. In 1968 he joined Delta Metals, where he became director of manpower. In 1971 he was invited by the CBI’s Director-General Campbell Adamson to chair the organisation’s industrial policy committee.

Although Norman Tebbit did not renew O’Brien’s appointment at the MSC, O’Brien thought that Mrs Thatcher lay behind the decision. Tebbit went on to appoint him chairman of the Engineering Industry Training Board in 1982 and O’Brien continued to serve on a variety of bodies concerned with training and education. From 1984 to 1990 he was chairman of the Policy Studies Institute, serving subsequently as its joint chairman until 1998.

A lifelong Anglican of moderate progressive sympathies, O’Brien combined his industrial interests with work on church committees – he was vice-chairman of the Church Urban Fund and a member of the Court of Advisers at St Paul’s Cathedral ‒ and for charities. Among other things he served as a trustee of HURT (Help Untwist Rape Trauma) the charity established by Jill Saward, the vicar’s daughter who was subjected to a vicious rape attack in 1986.

A sociable man, O’Brien enjoyed giving dinner parties at his home in Kensington and played tennis, golf and squash. Even though he himself could be regarded as an Establishment figure, he always enjoyed the company of the young and the radically-minded. Friends included the historian EP Thompson and the film director Lindsay Anderson. He was knighted in 1980.

Richard O’Brien married, in 1951, Elizabeth Craig, who survives him with their two sons and three daughters.

Keith Adams

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