The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Tribute to Lord Barber – 27 April 2006

The text of Sir John Major’s tribute to The Rt Hon Lord Barber of Wentbridge, made on Thursday 27th April 2006.


As I walked to the lectern – I fancied I heard the silent question – “Why him?” After all, I come from a later political generation than Tony Barber.

The answer is that I worked for Tony after he left politics.

I was a very young member of a large Bank. He was the Chairman. It made no difference. Tony offered me his friendship and wise counsel with the warmth that was his hallmark.

I came to know a man to whom pomposity and self-regard were alien. I naively assumed – I was very young – that all politicians were as straightforward, considerate, courteous and loyal: this was a mistake.

Tony Barber was special. Gregarious, with a real sense of fun – he would listen as well as transmit. Because of these human qualities – because he wore no mask of self-regard – it was easy to underestimate him – but a mistake to do so.

Throughout his life Tony Barber showed a tenacity, a will to succeed and an ability to accomplish the unexpected. In 1976, he called me to his office. Standard Chartered owned Banks in California and he wished to mark the American Bicentenary.

“Do you think” he asked, “we could borrow the Magna Carta and take it there?” I demurred: it was, after all, a seminal document in 1000 years of British history and only three copies were known to exist.

“Lincoln Cathedral have a copy” he mused – here I saw him begin to smile – “and a lot of work needs doing on the Cathedral”.

After much negotiation, all was agreed. It was a huge operation to protect the priceless document, insure it, transport it – but everything was put in place.

Tony decided to invite the Dean of Lincoln, Oliver Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, and his wife, to accompany the document. But somewhere in the Bank this arrangement went awry. Instead of two, six airline tickets were booked. Two for Twistleton, Two for Wykeham and Two for Fiennes. “It made me”, said Tony, “check the insurance very carefully”.

Tony had an exceptional War.

He volunteered for the Army and, at first, was in a Royal Artillery anti-aircraft battery in Belgium and France. At Dunkirk, he was among the last to be evacuated having rowed back and forth from the beach, ferrying wounded men to the waiting ships. On his return home – undeterred by this experience – he managed to wangle himself an attachment to the Royal Air Force as a Spitfire photo-reconnaissance pilot.

In 1942, he was flying home from Gibraltar – in thick cloud and against a head wind – when he ran out of fuel and was forced to bail out. He was captured.

From a German point of view, Tony was a very bad Prisoner of War. He escaped several times, once travelling across Poland and Germany, before recapture. He was grilled by the Gestapo for a week and then taken outside – he believed to be shot.

This could have been done with impunity, since no-one knew where he was imprisoned. But – even in the courtyard where he thought he was to die – he continued to resist interrogation and was returned to his cell. The threat to shoot him was what he later called – with characteristic understatement – “a ruse”.

Tony did not waste his time in prison camp. When not planning escapes, he studied to obtain a law degree, and learned, when he was liberated by the Russians, that he had got a First.

He then took another First in PPE at Oxford, won a scholarship to Inner Temple and was called to the Bar. His first client was a professional villain whose case was hopeless. Tony persuaded him to plead guilty. For this, Tony got three guineas. The old lag got seven years.

When Tony was adopted as the Conservative candidate for the safe Labour seat of Doncaster he had two strokes of luck. First, he met Jean, his future wife, who was the candidate for the even less promising seat of Hemsworth. Their marriage was long and happy and they had two much-loved daughters. Louise and Josephine. With Jane, Tony’s half-sister, it was a close and loving family. The last words Tony spoke to me were of Roberta, his granddaughter – who, he felt, had no peer in her generation.

And, second, the Boundary Commission re-shaped Doncaster into a near-marginal seat. In 1950, he narrowly lost, but won the following year: a key win in Churchill’s slender majority.

As a reward, he was invited to second the Loyal Address to The King, a daunting prospect for a new Member. But war and a prison camp puts such ordeals into perspective and he rose to the occasion with aplomb.

Tony was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Harold Macmillan, when he was Prime Minister, and learned a lot from the old master. He treasured a tape recording made at an election hustings in 1964, when the floor of the hall degenerated into a fight. The tape reveals Macmillan’s commentary on the chaos: “Oh, look! He’s hit him again”.

Three years later, Tony was appointed Chairman of the Party. In the 1970 campaign only he and Ted Heath really believed the Conservatives could win – but win they did. In Government, Tony was given responsibility for negotiations to enter the Common Market but when Iain Macleod tragically died six weeks later, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

As Chancellor, he was a reformer. He introduced VAT, abolished Purchase Tax and Selective Employment Tax. He simplified Corporation Tax and Capital Gains Tax and set his policies for growth and employment – the Holy Grail of every Chancellor.

But events intervened. OPEC quadrupled the oil price, leading to severe and unpopular cuts in public expenditure. Inflation flourished and statutory controls were introduced to curb it.

The Miners’ Strike and the 3-day Week culminated in the February 1974 election which the Conservatives narrowly lost. It was an unhappy period and – unsurprisingly – Tony accepted far more of the blame than was due to him.

After retirement from politics, Tony was not interested in taking things easy: he became Chairman of Standard Chartered Bank; a member of the “Eminent Persons Group” which helped lay the foundations for the eventual end of Apartheid; he sat on the Franks Committee reporting on the Falklands War; and was one of a group of “international personalities” who made a pioneering trip to China as she emerged from isolation.

He also took an active role as Chairman of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund and during his stewardship raised the extraordinary sum of £29 million. “It was” he joked, “his third career”. And, also – alas – his last.

Some years after Jean died, Tony married again – to Rosemary – and was blessed again with another happy marriage.

But in his latter years, Tony was cursed by ill-health and suffered from Parkinson’s Disease. Even so, his good humour never faded. As he shuffled around, he was hugely amused that his carer had once been a dancer at the Moulin Rouge. It was the sort of exotica he loved.

He enjoyed anonymity but was amused when a taxi driver mistook him for Roy Plomley, and congratulated him on Desert Island Discs.

Gentle, decent, thoughtful, kind. A lover of life with a generous spirit. A man of wisdom. A brave man. True to himself – and true to others. A man whose infectious humour remained with him to the very end.

Tony Barber was a good man – one of the best – in politics and in life. I was lucky indeed to fall under his tutelage.