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Sir John Harvey-Jones

Sir John Harvey-Jones, former chairman of ICI and later presenter of the BBC’s Troubleshooter programmes in the 1980s, died on 9 January 2008. He was 83.

Perhaps oddly at first glance, considering his position as the head of one of the great bastions of British industry, The Guardian gives him a particularly warm and affectionate tribute:

[Sir John] was a genial and genuine giant of British industry – the sort of man with whom a bear hug and a belly laugh seemed the most appropriate greeting once you got to know him … which took about five minutes.

By contrast, the Financial Times is rather lukewarm about him:

His ability to communicate was what made his books so popular. While containing few fresh insights into business, they cut through layers of what he would have cheerfully described as “bullshit” and set out obscure ideas with clarity and an idiosyncratic wit.

He was not frightened of making a spectacle of himself. At a particularly stuffy dinner at The Economist (of which he was chairman from 1989 to 1994), he showed his frustration by doing a jig on the table.

[You can almost see the author’s single eyebrow raised…]

The Daily Telegraph gives him a good write-up, in spite of what might have been thought to be insurmountable political differences:

Troubleshooter, watched by an audience of more than three million, won a BAFTA award for originality. Part of its success lay in the communication of Harvey-Jones’s genuine love of factories and manufacturing processes, and his patriotism- he claimed to wear Union Flag underpants. His belief in the vital importance of a healthy industrial base (the subject of his 1985 Dimbleby lecture) placed him radically at odds with Thatcherite thinking: he once described the then prime minister as “British industry’s greatest handicap”.

He had in fact been a founder member of the SDP, and proudly pointed out that he had been made to wait longer for his knighthood than any previous chairman of ICI.

The Times is rather coy about his years in the intelligence community just after the Second World War:

He served in submarines from 1942 to the end of the war, when, having qualified as an interpreter in both German and Russian, he served with various Russian missions until 1947. He then held a succession of appointments in Intelligence, including a secondment to the Cabinet Office, for which services he was appointed MBE in 1952. Between 1951 and 1953, he was first lieutenant aboard HMS Amethyst and, until 1954, he was a lieutenant-commander at HMS St Austell Bay. For the next two years he was in charge of the Russian section of the Admiralty.

What he was doing, in fact, was much more exciting, as The Independent explains:

He then returned to active service to run the Navy’s stations at Kiel and Hamburg, where he got to know – and like – most of Germany’s surviving admirals. This was followed by command of a high-speed ex-torpedo boat with a German crew. “What we were ostensibly doing was fishery protection in the Baltic; you can make your own guesses as to what we were actually doing. That was tremendous fun. Marvellous, absolutely marvellous!” In 1949 the Admiralty put him back in the proper Navy, serving during the Korean war before being sent off for some months in the Antarctic. He returned to Britain with an MBE for his work in the Baltic.

Harvey-Jones then spent several years in MI6, the most mysterious period in his career, in work so sensitive that even as chairman of ICI he never dared to visit the Soviet Union. But we do know that he worked in the Russian section, thanks to his knowledge of the language and his experience in the Baltic, and that he shared an office with the Russian spy Gerge Blake.

A colourful character indeed, as The Guardian‘s James Erlichman explains:

But what made him so remarkable was that he emerged in the early 1980s, when virtually every other British industrialist looked a puny, third-rate failure in a grey suit. His generation may have produced people such as Lord Hanson and Sir James Goldsmith, who left the country to pillage, financially, abroad, and buccaneers such as Sir Freddie Laker and Sir Richard Branson, but Harvey-Jones was a swashbuckler who was, miraculously, made chairman of that most pukka of British companies, ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries). And this at a time when the rest of the country’s heavy industries – British Leyland, Triumph and Norton motorcycles, the mines, shipyards and steel industry – were disappearing down the commercial plughole.

(Sir John Henry Harvey-Jones MBE, born 16 April 1924 in London, died 9 January 2008 in Hereford.)

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