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O'Brien, Sir Richard (1920–2009), industrial relations reformer, was born on 15 February 1920 at 481 Chatsworth Road, Chesterfield, the only child of Charles O'Brien (1886–1952), physician, and his wife, Marjorie Maude (1892–1977), daughter of John V. Newton, railway clerk. He attended Oundle School before in 1938 matriculating at Clare College, Cambridge, where he read law. He returned with difficulty from France when Hitler invaded Poland, and was standing in the Downing Street crowds when the Second World War was declared. While awaiting call-up he read T. E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom as preparation for military life.

O'Brien was commissioned into the Sherwood Foresters in 1940, and faced his first military engagement at El Alamein in 1942. There he commanded a platoon of his regiment's 14th battalion which came under heavy artillery and mortar fire while floundering in a minefield. Despite mortar splinter wounds in his thigh, arm, and neck, he refused medical attention until the survivors of his platoon had left the minefield. His brave leadership was marked by the award of the MC. He received a bar to his MC in 1944 for leading a night patrol at Anzio which in bad conditions assailed a German strong point, and took prisoners: characteristically he gave equal credit to his corporal, who in peacetime sold newspapers outside Earls Court exhibition centre. Subsequently he came near to death after a German grenade exploded at his feet. His battalion suffered such heavy casualties in northern Italy that it was disbanded. He was transferred to the Royal Leicestershire regiment, and appointed DSO for leading attacks in the Apennines. His battalion was the first into Epirus after the German retreat, and he led the liberation of many ruined villages and starving villagers in northern Greece. His first-hand experiences of the Greek civil war proved an abiding influence. In the spring of 1945 he was assigned to Montgomery's headquarters at Lüneburg Heath as a liaison officer. After Jodl unconditionally surrendered to Eisenhower on 7 May, Montgomery dispatched O'Brien to Flensburg on the German–Danish border to receive the acceptance of these terms from Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, head of the Wehrmacht, as O'Brien described in an article published in The Times on 27 April 1985.

Following demobilization with the rank of major in 1946, O'Brien thought of entering politics, and was sent by Montgomery to consult Clement Attlee in Downing Street. Attlee advised him to work in the Boys' Club movement as a way of understanding people and their problems. Consequently, he spent two years as development officer of the National Association of Boys' Clubs in Wakefield. Having spent the summer of 1947 as deputy commandant of a work camp of volunteers rebuilding Yugoslavia's railways, he was for over half a century a driving force in Concordia, an organization for young volunteers to join work camps in both Britain and disadvantaged areas overseas.

In 1948, after consulting Leeds labour exchange, O'Brien began work as personnel manager for Richard Sutcliffe Ltd, a Wakefield company making metal conveyor idlers for mines. He became successively sales manager, production manager, and production director. During this period he was a congregant of Wakefield Cathedral, espoused the ‘social gospel’ branch of Anglicanism, and joined the Industrial Christian Fellowship. He made a pioneering management training film, produced a Lindsay Anderson film about Wakefield, stood unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate for Wakefield council, served as a Wakefield magistrate (1955–61), and joined the board of visitors of Wakefield prison (where he proved an effective opponent of flogging). He was later involved in Hewell Grange borstal and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO).

On 20 October 1951, at St John's Presbyterian Church, Huddersfield, O'Brien married Elizabeth McQuilkan Davidson (Ailsa) Craig (b. 1926), then a physician at a hospital in Leeds, afterwards head of the first family planning clinic in Wakefield, and later a child psychiatrist. She was the daughter of William Craig, a Halifax medical practitioner. O'Brien inspired their two sons and three daughters by his vitality, curiosity, and joy of life.

After three years as general manager of Head Wrightson Mineral Engineering Ltd (1958–61), O'Brien was recruited as director of industrial relations at the British Motor Corporation (BMC) by George Harriman, who had lately been installed as chairman and managing director. BMC was a troubled organization, recently overtaken by Volkswagen and Fiat as the largest European motor car manufacturer. It was estimated in 1961 that BMC was making pre-tax profits of only £6 10s. on each car it produced. O'Brien was frustrated by the short-term, improvisational decision-taking of his colleagues and especially by the antagonism of BMC's director of personnel. He found that to have impact at BMC, he had to be aggressively rude, although he was an eirenic man who loathed rancour.

O'Brien was recruited in 1966 as industrial adviser (manpower) to the Department of Economic Affairs. His experiences at BMC had convinced him that national pay levels mattered less than local pay-relativity, as he testified to the royal commission on trade unions in 1966. He urged that wage negotiations should be conducted at plant level, rather than nationally or sector-wide, with trade unions' national leaders focusing on general work conditions and social justice. The sectionalism caused by multitudinous trade unions could, he proposed, be overcome by works committees and trusting shop stewards with responsibilities.

In 1968 O'Brien returned to manufacturing as director of manpower at Delta Metals, a Birmingham-based company with 28,000 employees, supplying copper products to the building, electrical, and motor sectors. While based in Birmingham he was active in improving race relations, joined the board of Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and served on the council of Birmingham University, while his wife sat on the council of Aston University. From 1971 to 1976 he chaired the employment policy committee of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). This led to his participation in Edward Heath's Downing Street conferences seeking consensus in industrial relations and economic policy. Their failure to reach agreement was, he thought, tragic. He believed that the discrepancies of status between the shop floor, management corridors, and boardroom exacerbated industrial unrest; but his advocacy of worker participation in management, through statutory factory councils with industrial workers as members, was rejected by the CBI.

In 1976 O'Brien was appointed the first full-time executive chairman of the Manpower Services Commission (MSC). His recruitment to the National Economic Development Council followed in 1977. His time at the MSC proved to be the most fulfilling of his careers. The MSC had been formed by the Heath government in 1973 as a non-departmental public body charged with co-ordinating employment and training, and with modernizing employment exchanges into job centres. Its ten commissioners represented manufacturing, trade unions, and municipal and educational authorities. The Work Experience programme, the Youth Opportunity programme, and the Unified Vocational Preparation programme were constructive initiatives for which O'Brien was responsible, which helped school-leavers to find good jobs by training, apprenticeships, and improved contacts between schools and workplaces. Under O'Brien's direction the MSC co-operated with NACRO in providing training and work experience for people with criminal convictions. In emulation of Montgomery's visits to his troops, he inspired staff by his indefatigable visits to MSC outposts from Redruth to Kirkwall. He cut swathes through interdepartmental rivalries while retaining the trust of the CBI and the Trades Union Congress.

O'Brien's determination to provide employers with better trained, better motivated, better qualified, confident, and committed young workers enhanced national productivity and personal fulfilment. But his progressive ideals, his belief in consensus and government planning in economic affairs, his lobbying for more outlay on training, coupled with the MSC's support for the Trades Union Congress view that government statistics understated the level of unemployment by about 750,000, were uncongenial to the free marketeers of Margaret Thatcher's government. At the prime minister's instigation, her employment secretary, Norman Tebbit, dismissed O'Brien from the MSC in February 1982.

O'Brien's distress at the human waste of unemployment led him into co-operation with the economist Richard Layard. In 1985 they formed the Employment Institute with seed funding of £100,000 from the Rowntree trusts. The institute opposed defeatism about high unemployment, campaigned for a charter for jobs, and received scurrilous abuse from right-wingers. ‘In the Employment Institute, Richard was a tower of strength, both in his passionate commitment to the cause, and through his wide connections to people in all walks of life’, recalled Lord Layard (private information). O'Brien remained chairman of the Employment Institute until 1987.

In 1979 O'Brien had been appointed the first chairman of the Crown Appointments Commission, set up to advise the prime minister on the choice of the next archbishop of Canterbury. He oversaw new procedures, which had not previously been changed since the reign of Henry VIII. Tensions ran high among the commissioners, and O'Brien found the experience testing. Their nominee, Robert Runcie, appointed O'Brien in 1983 as chairman of an inquiry into urban priority areas (comprising inner cities and outer housing estates, where the problems were less recognized but more grievous) and the efficacy of the Church of England's pastoral role therein. True to his entrenched belief in paying close personal attention to people in all localities, O'Brien stayed in parishioners' homes when the commissioners visited dioceses. There was deep dissension among the commissioners, and considerable strains, but his skills at obtaining consensus achieved a unanimous report, Faith in the City, a Christian analysis of industrial society in the 1980s, which was prematurely leaked by the government (which had been given a confidential copy as a courtesy) in December 1985, and denounced as ‘Marxist’ in official briefings. O'Brien loathed government policies that resulted, perhaps deliberately, in social exclusion, and sought a resurgence of urban confidence and self-respect. The report's recommendation of the abolition of the mortgage interest subsidy was a direct challenge to the Thatcher government's electoral strategy and infuriated the prime minister's cohorts, who tried to divert attention from the report's focus on the growing divide between rich and poor, and the demoralization of urban priority areas, into a verbal war between church and state. The chief upshot of Faith in the City was the establishment of the Church Urban Fund, which paid for church-linked projects in urban priority areas and induced able young clergy to work there. O'Brien was its deputy chairman (1988–94).

Among other voluntary activities, O'Brien was a member of the council of John Garnett's Industrial Society from 1962 to 1986, and wrote the account of Garnett published in the DNB. After leaving the MSC he succeeded Lord Scanlon as chairman of the Engineering Industry Training Board (1982–5). He served on the council of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1984–2000), chaired the Policy Studies Institute (1984–90), and in 1988 became president of the Campaign for Work. He was a disciplined worker, with calm, equable methods and a sunny, generous nature. He was knighted in 1980, and received several honorary degrees. He suffered from Parkinson's disease and died on 11 December 2009 at his home, 54 Abbotsbury Close, Kensington. His funeral was held at St George's Church, Campden Hill, Kensington, and there was a memorial service at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 26 February 2010. He was survived by his wife, Ailsa, and their five children.

Richard Davenport-Hines


R. O'Brien, ‘A layman looks at the church’, Wakefield Cathedral Magazine (Sept–Nov 1953) · Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers' Associations: minutes of evidence, 6 September 1966 (HMSO, 1966) [7519–7717] · R. O'Brien, Education, industry and people (1978) · R. O'Brien, ‘Management is about decision-taking’, People and Jobs, 3 (Oct 1983), 18–20 · R. O'Brien, ‘A good listener’, Monty at close quarters, ed. T. E. B. Howarth (1985), 49–53 · R. O'Brien, ‘Recollections’, typescript, 1997 · Daily Telegraph (14 Dec 2009) · The Times (27 April 1985); (16 Dec 2009); (26 Dec 2009); (29 Dec 2009) · The Guardian (17 Dec 2009) · www.clarealumni.com, accessed on 16 Aug 2012 · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) [Lady O'Brien, widow; Lord Layard] · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


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obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£35,486: probate, 24 June 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales