Obituary: Lord Ezra, chairman of National Coal Board

Lord Derek Ezra, chairman of the National Coal Board. Picture: Getty Images
Lord Derek Ezra, chairman of the National Coal Board. Picture: Getty Images
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Born 23 February, 1919 in Tasmania, Australia. Died 22 December, 2015 in Sussex. Aged 96.

Lord Ezra was a passionate believer in the coal industry and championed it and its workforce throughout his years as chairman. He forged an excellent working relationship with Joe Gormley, the moderate chairman of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and after the Yom Kippur war of 1973 the two presented to the government the Plan for Coal. It was a combined belief in the future of coal and a demand that the government invest substantial funds in its future.

The government did put up more cash, but the closures supposedly agreed by the miners did not materialise. But the solid friendship between the two men gave hope for the industry and in the corridors of Whitehall they were known as the “Derek and Joe Show”.

Derek Ezra was the son of a property developer and was educated at Monmouth School and Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he read history. He joined the army as a gunner at the outset of the Second World War, but was transferred to the intelligence services.

There he became secretary to the Combined Chief of Staffs’ Committee which implemented Allied policy with regard to the reparations of German military equipment. He was demobbed with the rank of a lieutenant colonel and had also produced research on the coal industry.

Ezra joined the NCB in 1947 and his experience of the industry proved invaluable. In 1960 he became the youngest member of the board and seven years later he was appointed deputy chairman to the charismatic chairman Lord Robens. Although very different in character and business style, they worked well together and Ezra was the only real candidate to take over the chairmanship in 1971.

Within months Ezra had to face severe industrial unrest. The NUM put in high pay demands that would have crippled the NCB’s already pressed finances. To his dismay, Ezra warned both the government and the unions if such an increase was agreed jobs would go and pits closed. The miners remained adamant and in early 1972 there was a national miners’ strike.

The then prime minister, Edward Heath, threatened to bring out the army to move coal stocks. Ezra vehemently opposed the plan. Within five weeks the unions won outright and the Wilberforce Inquiry decided the miners were a special case, saying: “It is unreasonable to expect miners’ wages to be held down.

That sparked huge demands throughout industry and the Heath government did a political volte face and introduced a hurried prices and incomes policy which solved little.

All it did was allow the NUM to make another wage demand in 1973 and the general election, called the following year by Heath, along the lines of “who governs Britain?”, resulted in the Tories losing and put Harold Wilson back in Number 10. The first thing he did was to generously settle with the miners. Ezra was caught in a political No Man’s Land.

Ezra and Gormley tried to introduce modern technology and improve working conditions in the Plan for Coal but the industry was caught up in confrontation and agreements were not easy. Gormley even delayed his retirement at Ezra’s request.

In 1981, a new broom was in Downing Street and Margaret Thatcher was in no mood to tolerate the coal industry loose such vast sums. Ezra went to the PM and asked for more money to compensate for pit closures. Thatcher refused point blank: she lamented that previous governments had not invested more heavily in nuclear power. Rumours circulated that the government had a “hit list” of pits and savage reduction in the number of miners. Thatcher was angered that Ezra continued to speak to the unions but she realised the government was not prepared for a drawn-out strike. “Defeat in a coal strike,” she wrote in her memoirs “would have been disastrous”.

The plans were dropped. In truth, the PM and Ezra had a different vision for the future of the industry. Ezra remained a strong advocate of expansion and questioned the rule of the marketplace. He argued that closures had social, domestic and political repercussions and criticised the government for relying too heavily on imported oil.

Next time, Thatcher was prepared with high stocks of coal: the 1984 strike was bitter and long. By then Ezra had retired and Arthur Scargill was at the NUM. Ezra’s calm authority and understanding of the industry had gone too.

In retirement, he chaired the Micropower Council and sat on the boards of Morgan Grenfell and Redland Holdings. He was knighted in 1974 and created a life peer in 1983.

Ezra, a straightforward and genuine man who was invariably courteous and civilised, married Julia Elizabeth Wilkins in 1950. She died in 2011; there were no children.