16 December 2009

Distinguished service to country and Church: Sir Richard O’Brien BILL MACKENZIE

Distinguished service to country and Church: Sir Richard O’Brien BILL MACKENZIE

RICHARD O’BRIEN, who died last Friday, aged 89, served his country and his Church with high courage and distinction. A much-wounded and much-decorated infantry officer in the Second World War, he devoted his peacetime energies to combating industrial strife and unemployment; and he chaired two commissions of great influence in the modernising of the late-20th-century Church of England.

They were the Crown Appoint­ments Commission that chose Robert Runcie for Canterbury, and a few years later the Archbishops’ Com­mission that produced Faith in the City and the Church Urban Fund.

(As a member of the Council of Hymns Ancient & Modern when the charity bought the Church Times in 1989, he also chaired for eight years the subsidiary that managed this newspaper.)

Richard O’Brien was born on 15 February 1920 in Chesterfield. His mother was the daughter of a local railway clerk; his father was an immigrant Irish GP who before their marriage had won an MC in the First World War as a British army doctor in the Middle East. Richard was their only child.

At school at Oundle in North­amptonshire, he rebelled against authority until his last year. At Cambridge, once he had made his way into Clare College at the second attempt, he began to apply himself; but the renewed outbreak of war shortened his time. He took a respectable two-year degree in law and joined the Army.

Still in his early 20s, he had a spectacular war. His first battle was Alamein, in October 1942, where the Eighth Army turned back the German advance across north Africa: as a platoon commander in the Sherwood Foresters, he stayed in the front line despite injuries from mortar fire, and was awarded an MC.

In the Anzio landings on the west coast of Italy in the spring of 1944, he won a second MC for taking German prisoners and a German-held farm in a rain-drenched platoon attack by night. In another night patrol, he barely survived a prolonged loss of blood after a German grenade had blown up at his feet.


When heavy losses broke up his battalion of the Foresters, he helped reinvigorate, as a company com­mander, a dispirited battalion of the Leicesters. In November 1944, he won a DSO for his company’s part in a long push up the Apennines. To his men he seemed indifferent to his own safety.

Wounded a third time during a winter spent trying to cool conflicting passions in Greece after the Germans had left it, he was chosen on his record to join the personal staff of Field Marshal Montgomery in Germany. The date was March 1945. The war was in its last weeks.

Montgomery, the leading British commander of the century, was The Master to his staff. The 25-year-old Major O’Brien won his confidence and learnt much from him: the importance of morale (“seeing to the soldiers’ bootlaces” was the catchphrase), of clear objectives, of planned action towards them, and of sound information about progress made. None of this was wasted in later life.

It was from Montgomery, with whom O’Brien spent his last 18 months as a soldier, that he had his most notable assignment. In May 1945, he was flown over the German lines to deliver to Field Marshal Keitel, who commanded the German armed forces, the terms of the total German surrender that General Eisenhower had agreed with German government representatives in France. Keitel issued the necessary orders.

O’Brien’s first civilian job was with the National Association of Boys’ Clubs in Wakefield. There he also founded a club as a volunteer, and served as a JP. Drawn to politics, he stood unsuccessfully for Wakefield council in the Labour interest; but by then he had joined the management of a local engineering firm, and his interests shifted to the good conduct of industrial affairs.

In 1951, he married Ailsa Craig (whose brother, Maxwell Craig, became a noted Church of Scotland minister and ecumenist). Also a doctor’s child and herself a doctor, she later became a busy child psychiatrist, and, in retirement, a conscientious chairwoman of schools governors and churchwarden. The couple had three daughters and two sons: Lady O’Brien and all five of them survive her husband.

The O’Briens moved in 1961 to Birmingham. After a spell running part of the northern engineering group Head Wrightson, Richard O’Brien had become Director of Personnel for the British Motor Corporation. A two-year attachment to the new Department of Economic Affairs in London, 1966-68, widened his knowledge of Labour relations and Whitehall, and later he was a useful counterweight to right-wing thinking in the CBI as chairman of its employment policy committee.


But he helped run another Birmingham company, Delta Metal, and served on the council of Birmingham University and on the city’s race-relations committee, before he moved house to London in 1975 to become chairman of the Manpower Services Commission (MSC). The appointment was made by a Wilson government, with the approval of both the CBI and the TUC.

The Manpower Services Commis­sion had been set up by the Heath government to combat industrial decline, job shortages, and strikes. It sought to devise and operate policies that should value workers both as keys to production and as human beings with their own needs.

In this enterprise, the expert and eirenic O’Brien style of chairmanship won the co-operation of both sides in industry and of the world of further education. Under him, with a large staff and a big budget, employment exchanges were transmuted into job centres, and many training and job-creation programmes were set going. He found it an exhilarating time. The universities of Aston, Bath, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Warwick saluted his work with honorary doctorates.

Margaret Thatcher’s election victory over James Callaghan in 1979 brought different industrial ideals to the fore. Concerting policy with the unions, in particular, dropped from favour. Mrs Thatcher did approve a knighthood for the MSC chairman in 1980; but two years later she aroused protests in Parliament and the press by declining to have his contract renewed. He accepted the rebuff in gentlemanly silence.

Yet she had continued him in another crucial post. Just before the election, he had been chosen by Mr Callaghan to chair the Crown Appointments Commission — itself still a new body — that was to choose a successor to Donald Coggan as Archbishop of Canterbury. Mrs Thatcher would have been within the conventions if she had withdrawn the chairmanship. Instead, she lectured the holder and let it stand.

The O’Briens had long been active Anglicans: at Wakefield Cathedral, at St Augustine’s and the Cathedral in Birmingham, at St George’s on Camp­den Hill in London. Richard O’Brien had worked with the Industrial Christian Fellowship, and supported industrial chaplains. The bearing of Christianity on society preoccupied him.

Even so, he was taken aback by this new task. It tested his powers of chairmanship to the full. In the commission, party feeling ran high. He nevertheless drew out of it unanimous recommendations. The name of Robert Runcie was forwarded from Downing Street to the Palace; and, although due secrecy had been kept, there has never been any hint that this was not the commission’s first choice.


And release from the MSC, which proved to have been his last full-time job, gave Sir Richard time for the longest of his church tasks: the chairmanship of the Archbishop’s Com­mission on Urban Priority Areas.

This commission was appointed by Dr Runcie in 1983 “to reflect on the challenge which God may be making to Church and Nation” in the derelict parts, outer as well as inner, of English cities. Among its members were bishops, dons, employers, trade unionists. They were much affected by what they saw; and the report that in 1985 expressed these strong and diverse feelings, Faith in the City, was the more penetrating because Sir Richard’s tireless chairmanship had again produced unanimity.

The report lifted up a principled Christian voice for the honest sharing of wealth and burdens. Even before it was published, ministers sought to discredit its recommendations to government. These were mostly for extra spending on relief schemes already in place, and had scant success. But Thatcherite over-reaction sharpened the effect of the recommendations to the Church. These were the more numerous group, asking in particular for a shift in resources from richer dioceses and parishes to poorer. The General Synod gave Sir Richard a standing ovation.

He found himself addressing packed meetings up and down the land; and later, under the titular chairmanship of successive Arch­bishops of Canterbury, running the Church Urban Fund that the report had proposed. Between 1988 and 1995, when Sir Richard left it, the fund collected and spent £25 million on carefully approved projects, often ecumenical, sometimes experimental, that increased Christian witness by addressing local needs.

The money was raised by diocesan quota. Sir Richard had no qualms about prodding bishops who dragged their feet. Report and fund together made up a classic O’Brien operation: agree the policy, identify the aims, achieve the means. For his work he was awarded a Lambeth doctorate and an Archbishop’s medal.

Other part-time work was not neglected. Between 1982 and 1985, he chaired the Engineering Industry Training Board. In the ’80s and early ’90s, he served as the unpaid chair­man or president of a host of bodies concerned to improve industrial or civic life. An especially long con­nection was with the Policy Studies Institute, a radical think tank. Three chairmanships he kept into the late ’90s were of Concordia, which runs international work-camps for young people, and of two London concerns; a local action group in north Kensington; and the Friends of Chiswick House. He had remained a familiar figure on the Holland Park tennis courts till he was 75.

Richard O’Brien was a man with­out conceit or malice; loyal, tolerant, tender-hearted, clear-minded. Brave without aggressive­ness, he sought consensus without flabbiness. In cam­paigns of many kinds, he under­stood and practised the leadership that depends on entering into the concerns of the led. His steady faith as a Christian confirmed the lesson he had learnt as a soldier: the supreme value of every human life.

This obituary was prepared by the late John Whale, editor of the Church Times 1989-95.

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