Obituary: Sir Fred Catherwood, politician

Born: 30 January, 1925 in Ulster. Died: 30 November, 2014 in Cambridgeshire, aged 89.
Sir Fred Catherwood: Tory MEP and industrialist with strong Christian convictionsSir Fred Catherwood: Tory MEP and industrialist with strong Christian convictions
Sir Fred Catherwood: Tory MEP and industrialist with strong Christian convictions

Throughout Sir Fred Catherwood’s distinguished business career he sought to apply his Christian principles, warning against excessive remuneration – in 1964 he spoke about greed and high salaries in the workplace: “Luxurious expenditure is both depraving and a social evil.”

Catherwood was a committed European – and the first Conservative MEP in June 1979. In 1984 he advocated a single European currency, which put him at odds with Margaret Thatcher.

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It was his faith that guided much of his life. He came from a Presbyterian family and in the summer of 1934 Catherwood attended weekend retreats led by Fred Elliott, the Scottish miner missionary.

As chairman of the Evangelical Society, Catherwood addressed the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He warned: “The danger to democracy today does not come from communism but from humanism.”

In 1977 Catherwood was a principal speaker in the Usher Hall at a meeting of Elders of the Kirk on how to become more effective church workers.

Henry Frederick Ross Catherwood, whose father ran a thriving bus company business in Londonderry, attended Shrewsbury School, read History and Law at Clare College, Cambridge and studied accountancy with Price, Waterhouse, qualifying in 1951. After various posts in industry, in 1955 he was appointed chief executive of British Aluminium. The company had substantial business interests in Scotland, producing carbon at three sites. During Catherwood’s time as chief executive, British Aluminium acquired interests in Canada and British Guyana.

In 1964, Catherwood was seconded to Harold Wilson’s Department of Economic Affairs with a brief to modernise and stimulate UK industry – a daunting task when the economy was heavily under pressure. Two years later he was moved to the National Economic Development Council (Neddy) where his imaginative foresight brought a fresh energy to various areas of the economy. He was principally involved in creating what became known as “Little Neddies”. They provided specialised knowledge for some of the most run-down industrial areas.

His belief that communication could draw management and unions together to their mutual benefit never really worked: the lacklustre economy made such good intentions falter.

In 1971 he returned to the private sector and was appointed chief executive of the builders John Laing but after four years decided to concentrate his energies as chairman of the British Institute of Management. He also served as chairman of the British Overseas Trade Board and with the Duke of Kent, who acted as Catherwood’s unpaid deputy, they formed a formidable team representing British industry abroad.

He was a much-respected figure both at home and abroad and his views on management were always innovative and original. He advocated joint responsibility in the boardroom and on the shop floor and the need for managers to notice, listen, respect and build up trust with workers. In 1968 Catherwood wrote a paper, Industry and Society, which clearly expressed these views and concluded: “Management must manage.”

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In 1979, he was elected as a member of the European Parliament for Cambridgeshire and proved a most active MEP, taking the chair of the Committee on External Economic Relations (1979-84) and serving for two periods on the committee that liaised between the EEC and the US. He admired John Major but after retiring as an MEP in 1994 he had little to do with politics or the Conservative party.

Instead, he devoted himself to evangelical work in the deprived inner-cities, and for a decade served as a most active president of the UK Evangelical Alliance. He conducted Sunday afternoon Bible discussions at Westminster Chapel, the independent evangelical church in central London. Apart from holidays in Wales, he never travelled abroad: “No foreign languages, no foreign food and no aeroplanes!” he once said.

His interest in the structure and techniques of management made him an ideal negotiator and advisor to governments. Catherwood was an able intermediary and go-between and served on a host of official bodies – notably the Northern Ireland Development Council. Somewhat to his colleagues’ surprise, he agreed to be treasurer to Lord Longford’s controversial investigation into the porn industry in the 1970s.

Catherwood wrote widely on religious and economic matters and published his autobiography, At the Cutting Edge, in 1995.

He remained a decent and highly regarded businessman who had the ability to pronounce on economic matters with a keen eye – often foreseeing future events. His words, always carefully chosen, were succinct and telling. In 1984 Catherwood said: “Most of our current industrial problems come from the dinosaurs of industry, whose heads cannot control their bodies. Big is bad, and small is sensible.”

Catherwood, who was knighted in 1971, married Elizabeth Lloyd Jones in 1954. She and their two sons and a daughter survive him.