Rt Hon. David James Fletcher, Baron Hunt of Wirral MBE
Doctor of Laws
20 February 2008 – Orator: Professor David Clarke
Our graduands today may be recalling their time at this University, looking back to their application for a place, reflecting upon their achievement and wondering how their time here might impact on their future careers. For our honorary graduand this afternoon, Lord Hunt of Wirral, his time as an undergraduate at Bristol was certainly formative; but I doubt if any others graduating today made his decision to apply in the way that he did. Not for him a careful crafting of a UCAS application or the completion of a detailed postgraduate application dependent upon good results. He was on a gap year in Montpelier where he met many Bristol students. A letter querying how to apply here resulted in a suggestion that he visit. After what he describes as a wonderful chat with Professor Pettit, he received, to his incredulity, the offer of a place. And it was at Bristol that the seeds of his future career were sown.
David Hunt was born into a Merseyside shipping family but his father, realising shipping was in decline, urged him to consider an alternative career and so he arrived here in 1962 to read law. Signs of his later success in law and politics were soon evident, with a first class in one of his first year examinations and election to the role of chairman of the University Conservative Association. But it was his aptitude for what we would now term oral communication skills that came to dominate his time at Bristol. He honed his techniques through debates in the Winston Club, named, Madam Chancellor, in honour of a former Chancellor of this University, to such good effect that he became national individual debating champion, appropriately winning the contest in Liverpool. He teamed up for competitions with Bob Marshall Andrews, destined to become a fellow MP but sitting on the opposite benches in Parliament.
Together, they became the best student debaters in the country, winning the Observer Mace and breaking the Oxbridge dominance of the event, before a panel of judges that included luminaries such as Tony Benn, Keith Joseph and Mark Bonham Carter. They proposed a motion that ‘This House will not recommend higher education to our children’ and succeeding with the theme that ‘it polishes the pebble but diminishes the diamond’. Needless to say, all Lord Hunt’s children have entered universities! Building on this success, David was selected for an English Speaking Union scholarship and debated at 50 universities in the United States in 11 weeks, never losing a single contest, thus proving that UK higher education can make diamonds shine brilliantly. Subsequently, he organised the first transatlantic telephone debate and more recently took part in the first internet debate. He became a governor of the English Speaking Union, its Deputy Chair in 2002 and Chair in 2005.
David admits he had a ball at university and concentrated on his debating (including empirical research on student views for the competition final) – so much so that he badly neglected his studies in his final year. This time the Dean, Professor Hornby, came to the rescue. With admirable foresight of the way oral communication skills are now built into our assessment techniques, he took the view that the debating skills and the credit David had brought to this University could compensate for inadequacies elsewhere. And the degree result at Pass level did not hinder either. In an interview before his finals at Stanley Wasbrough in Berkeley Square in Bristol (the nearest firm he could find to this Wills Memorial Building), it was noted that he had a first in his preliminary exams and the expectation was that he would perform again at a high standard in his finals. Fortunately, no-one at the firm ever asked the class of degree he achieved.
Qualifying as a solicitor in 1968, he was made a partner at the firm the following year when only 26, declining the opportunity to continue lecturing duties he had undertaken and, for the moment at least, spurning the opportunity to enter politics as a private secretary to Ted Heath. The practice acted for many insurance companies and his abilities were noted by the Transport and General Workers Union when David successfully acted for a shop steward. The union decided to instruct him (notwithstanding he was a Tory prospective parliamentary candidate) and 367 cases were transferred to that firm. It was a union link that was to provide benefits when he was later Secretary of State for Employment. David has remained a practising solicitor, specialising in insurance and financial services, throughout his political career – indeed he regards politics as his hobby, not the other way round – and the list of his achievements makes one wonder how he found time for the hobby! An accredited Mediator, and a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Insurance Times. He led the establishment of bodies for Pension Protection and for Pensions advice, served as the first Chairman of both the Association of Independent Financial Advisers and later the Professional Standards Board of the Chartered Insurance Institute. He chaired the review of the Financial Ombudsman Service. The complete list of his achievements cannot be enumerated in full in this context but the importance of his contributions to law and the development of good practice within the highest ethical standards cannot be underestimated.
Though David narrowly lost when he stood for election at Bristol for the President of the Students Union, he was a rising star elsewhere becoming Chair of the British Youth Council and President of the Atlantic Association of Young Political Leaders. His speaking prowess came to the notice of the Conservative party leaders when he was taking part in a 1967 party conference debate on education. His stance of opposition to grammar schools was not well received by the party faithful but invitations flowed in. Though he had declined that opportunity to join Ted Heath’s office, he stood as Conservative candidate in Bristol South, unsuccessfully of course, in 1970. His eventual entry into Parliament was not by the easy route of a safe seat at a General Election but in the glare of media spotlight at a by-election in the retiring Speaker’s seat in 1976. Harold Wilson then resigned the day he took his seat in the House of Commons (David’s campaign slogan had been ‘Wirral must tell Harold Wilson to go’). He was to serve for 21 years as MP firstly for Wirral and then for Wirral West after boundary changes. Within six months, he was an opposition front bench spokesman and then served continuously in the successive administrations of Margaret Thatcher and John Major and was a member of the Cabinet for five years. Never one to shirk a difficult task, he was John Nott’s Parliamentary Private Secretary during the Falklands war and Coal Minister during the miners’ strike, had a long spell as Deputy Chief Whip keeping a secure base for his political boss and was Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities in 1989, where he was tasked with the introduction of the community charge, known to all outside that Government as the poll tax. His first Cabinet post was in 1990 when he became Secretary of State for Wales for three years, which he regards as his most enjoyable political office.
He is proud of the establishment under his tenure of the Welsh Development Agency and the many new jobs he saw established in the Principality – on one memorable day opening eleven new factories. There were also significant legacies from later posts, establishing new Modern Apprenticeships while Secretary of State for Employment and promulgating the Civil Service Code while Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Astonishingly, all this was achieved while maintaining his legal practice. When his firm asked him to become Senior Partner in 1995, he resigned from the Cabinet to take up that role. In the ten years he led the firm, it grew from 150 fee earners and one office to 732 Solicitors in 7 offices thus establishing Beachcroft LLP as a major commercial practice. I do wonder though whether he allowed the firm to admit any trainees without first checking their degree result. I rather think not.
He lost his seat in the Commons in the Labour landslide of 1997 but that allowed him to move to the more opulent surroundings of the House of Lords as Baron Hunt of Wirral. When his busy life in practice has permitted, he is to be found as a regular contributor to debates in the upper chamber and steps up on an ad hoc basis to the opposition front bench. Recently, and most notably, he chaired the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Legal Services Bill transforming that draft legislation (in the face of Government opposition) into an Act that restored the Clementi Report’s insistence on legal independence and the importance of the public interest.
As President and Patron of over 50 charities and voluntary organisations (his role in establishment of the Abbeyfield Housing Association may be mentioned in this context), David’s commitment to public service and giving back to the communities where he has served is an illustration of the maxim ‘that if you want something done, ask a busy person’. His work with the Holocaust Education Trust arises from his determination to ensure that evil in every generation is fought. He is especially proud of his efforts on behalf of Hoylake Cottage Hospital in the Wirral. And he has never forgotten this University, donating the Hunt Cup for debating as he left and more recently playing a significant part in raising funds for both the University as a patron of the Campaign for Resource and for the Law School.
Madam Chancellor, David Hunt’s life has centred on Merseyside where he was born, and served as an MP, on Bristol and the West Country where now he lives with his wife Paddy (whom we welcome today with members of his family), and London where he continues his work leading the Financial Services Division of Beachcroft LLP and indulges his passion for public service and the cut and thrust of political life in the House of Lords. In an era where the House of Commons is dominated by career politicians (and all to often subject to stories of scandal and sleeze), David Hunt has maintained both the valued perspective that an outside career can provide and demonstrated the highest personal standards of integrity and behaviour. His focus on the art of persuasion has been combined with boundless energy, enthusiasm and tenacity.
Madam Chancellor, I present to you the Right Honourable David James Fletcher, Baron Hunt of Wirral, MBE, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.