Obituary: Robin Leigh-Pemberton, Baron Kingsdown

Born: 5 January, 1927, in Kent. Died: 24 November, 2013 in Kent, aged 86
Robin Leigh-Pemberton: Governor of the Bank of England during some of its most turbulent years. Picture: PARobin Leigh-Pemberton: Governor of the Bank of England during some of its most turbulent years. Picture: PA
Robin Leigh-Pemberton: Governor of the Bank of England during some of its most turbulent years. Picture: PA

In 1983 Robin Leigh-Pemberton was appointed Governor of the Bank England – a post he filled with utmost probity and diligence for ten years. He was a man of immense charm and very much the traditional City banker: straight-talking but always in a courteous and civil manner. In the City Leigh-Pemberton was regarded as the quintessential country gentleman. But by the time he arrived at the Bank of England he had a sturdy reputation as a central banker with a keen business acumen. Margaret Thatcher appointed him to be governor amidst much controversy. Leigh-Pemberton had not worked within the Bank and traditionalists considered the appointment a risk; there were many senior executives who were considered more suitable.

But Leigh-Pemberton studiously avoided City criticism and got on with the job. In his ten years at the Bank he had to cope with ongoing sterling crises, unsettled stock markets, monetary reforms and continual disagreements from Whitehall about the government’s economic policy

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Initially, however, the image remained of the gifted amateur but when Leigh-Pemberton left the Bank he was a much respected figure.

Robert Leigh-Pemberton (always known as Robin) was the son of a farmer and soldier – the family had been substantial landowners in Kent for 200.

He attended Eton then won a scholarship to read Greats at Trinity College, Oxford. He did his National Service with the Grenadier Guards, seeing service in Palestine in the years immediately after the war. Leigh-Pemberton then read for the Bar and was called to the Inner Temple in 1954, practising until 1960. He then managed the family farm and sat on the board of several public companies.

One of his most important appointments was to the board of National Westminster Bank in 1972. Five years later he become the bank’s chairman.

After the sad experiences of the secondary banking crisis of the early 1960s there was an air of renewed confidence in the City and Leigh-Pemberton set in motion an adventurous expansion of the bank’s assets both at home and abroad.

National Westminster Bancorp in America was formed, while further operations were inaugurated in Europe, Southeast Asia, Canada and Australia. Natwest was soon challenging Barclays as the largest bank in the UK.

Mrs Thatcher was keen to appoint a governor of the Bank of England in the 1980s who would mirror her own values. When she nominated Leigh-Pemberton it was considered a political appointment and created much ill-will in both the Bank and the Treasury. Leigh-Pemberton was considered an outsider and was the first clearing banker ever to occupy the governor’s chair. The appointment was not only unconventional but upset many international bankers.

Even the announcement was a touch suspicious – made on the day before Christmas Eve to attract as little comment as possible. It was significant that although Leigh-Pemberton served two successful terms as governor John Major decided to appoint as his successor a Bank of England insider – Eddie George.

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During his decade in Threadneedle Street Leigh-Pemberton had to supervise many challenging crises. Within his first year the bullion broker Johnson Matthey collapsed with debts of £250 million. A few years later the debt-ridden BCCI went broke. Leigh-Pemberton was in charge during Black Wednesday in 1992 when the pound crisis culminated in sterling’s ignominious expulsion from the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

There were hectic scenes that day, with the Chancellor Norman Lamont giving frantic press conferences on the steps of the Treasury while the Bank supported the pound to the tune of £1.5bn.

Leigh-Pemberton argued that the Bank should be independent from the political control at the Treasury. That proved one of the first actions of Tony Blair’s government five years later.

Leigh-Pemberton faced the criticism of being an amateur with equanimity.

He proved to be very much his own man and his honesty and integrity eventually won many admirers throughout the banking profession. His urbane style – at times relaxed – gave the impression of aloofness but Leigh-Pemberton, although no technocrat, was a genuine and wise leader of the Bank of England through some turbulent years.

He also preserved a certain sense of the country in the City. For example, he kept bee hives on the roof of the Old Lady.

He was always keen to get to his elegant farm in Kent – where he lived in some style in a Queen Anne mansion with its own Eton Fives court and cricket pitch. Leigh-Pemberton married Rosemary Forbes in 1953.

She and their four sons survive him including James Leigh-Pemberton, who is executive chairman of UKFI, which oversees the government’s stakes in RBS and Lloyds

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