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  (Henry) Paul Guinness Channon (1935–2007), by unknown photographer, 1986 (Henry) Paul Guinness Channon (1935–2007), by unknown photographer, 1986
Channon, (Henry) Paul Guinness, Baron Kelvedon (1935–2007), politician, was born on 9 October 1935 at 21 St James's Place, Westminster, the only child of , politician, and his wife, Lady Honor Dorothy Mary, née Guinness (1909–1976). Few twentieth-century politicians have inherited so many advantages of wealth and family connections. His mother was the daughter of the second earl of Iveagh and heiress to a brewing fortune. His American-born father wrote one of the most celebrated political diaries of the twentieth century and was a Conservative MP for the last twenty-three years of his life. He had taken over the seat, Southend-on-Sea, from his mother-in-law, Lady Iveagh, who in turn had replaced her husband, the Hon. Rupert Guinness, as MP when he became second earl of Iveagh. Guinness had first won Southend in 1912. Thus in January 1959, when following his father's death Paul Channon won a by-election for what had become the constituency of Southend West, he was maintaining an unbroken family connection with the seat that had already persisted for the best part of five decades. When he was selected as the Conservative candidate against stiff opposition, led by Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express, his grandmother, Lady Iveagh, told the constituency party that ‘you have done the right thing by backing a colt when you know the stable he was trained in’ (The Times, 14 Jan 1959).

Certainly Channon would not have entered parliament at the age of twenty-three if he had relied on his own proven merits. Educated at Lockers Park, Hertfordshire, and Eton College, he had undertaken a year's national service in the Royal Horse Guards before entering Christ Church, Oxford. His father's death, and the ensuing by-election, occurred at the start of Channon's final year, and he never took a degree. But in this truncated academic career he won the presidency of Oxford's Conservative Association and his maiden speech, which drew on his experiences of national service in Cyprus, showed that he had more to offer than an exalted pedigree.

The first steps of Channon's path towards ministerial office were assisted by Conservatives who had been associated with his father. In 1959 he was appointed parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to the minister of power, Richard Wood, son of Lord Halifax, before serving ‘Rab’ Butler (successively home secretary, first secretary of state, and foreign secretary) in the same capacity from 1960 to 1964. Channon's father had been Butler's PPS in 1938–41, when the latter was under-secretary at the Foreign Office. On 7 August 1963 Channon married Ingrid Olivia Georgia Guinness, née Wyndham (b. 1931), daughter of Major Guy Richard Charles Wyndham, army officer and artist, and former wife of Channon's cousin Jonathan Guinness, later third Baron Moyne. It was a happy union that produced three children, Olivia (b. 1964), Georgia (b. 1966), and Henry (b. 1970).

The tories lost office in 1964, not least because of their close connections to the aristocratic establishment. Yet Channon's origins were not held against him by colleagues who had come to appreciate his personal qualities. His voting record placed him clearly on the ‘progressive’ wing of his party, alongside most other senior Conservatives of the time. In 1965 he was elected to the executive of the Conservative backbench 1922 committee, and when Edward Heath became leader of the party in the same year he gave Channon a front-bench speaking role, on public building and works. In 1967 he was given an even more congenial job, covering the arts. A love of art was almost the only trait that he shared with his father. However, when the Conservatives returned to office in 1970 a more senior figure, Viscount Eccles, was given the arts portfolio. For most of the period until the government fell in February 1974 Channon was a junior minister within the Department of the Environment, working on housing. His housing duties were interrupted briefly in 1972 by a spell as a junior minister for Northern Ireland. During this time his historic London home, 96 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, was the venue of a controversial and abortive meeting between the secretary of state, William Whitelaw, and representatives of the Provisional IRA.

In opposition again after 1974, Channon continued to speak for the Conservative Party on environment issues, though still in a junior capacity. Despite his relative youth, by 1974 he had been in parliament for fifteen years and could have expected promotion. Instead when Heath was replaced as Conservative leader by Margaret Thatcher in 1975 his prospects sharply declined; the new leader spoke of him slightingly as ‘that millionaire’ (Daily Telegraph, 30 Jan 2007). With no constructive outlet for his energies in London he turned towards Europe for political engagement, serving as deputy leader of the Conservative delegation to the Council of Europe and the Western European Union from 1976 to 1979, but in the latter year he failed to secure a nomination for the first elections to the European parliament. After the Conservative victory in the general election of 1979 Thatcher indicated that her view of Channon was unchanged by floating the idea that he should take a peerage. After his refusal she relented to the extent of appointing him to another junior post, this time in the Civil Service Department, under Christopher Soames. Since Soames was soon dispatched to oversee the transition to majority rule in Rhodesia, Channon was effective head of the department for much of the time. In 1981 he finally became arts minister, but unlike Heath, Thatcher did not believe that the state should have an active role in this field. Having recognized that Channon was an able administrator and an energetic lobbyist on behalf of his department she moved him in 1983 to the newly established Department of Trade and Industry, again as a junior minister.

In January 1986 the secretary of state for trade and industry, Leon Brittan, was forced to resign as a result of the Westland affair. Channon (seen as a safe pair of hands) took Brittan's place, sixteen years after his first appointment as a junior minister. For the first time since his selection for Southend West, he had found himself in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately he had used up his ration of good fortune. Within a few months of joining the cabinet he lost his daughter Olivia to a drugs overdose after a party to celebrate the end of her final examinations, at Channon's old college. Even if Channon had never entered politics the death of his daughter in such circumstances would have attracted prurient media interest.

Channon's political life provided no respite from this personal tragedy. When he took over trade and industry the department was engaged in negotiations to sell off parts of the state-owned British Leyland motor company to the American firms General Motors and Ford. Although Channon managed to block both deals the incident aroused patriotic anger within parliament and among the general public, and Channon was not the kind of man to deal effectively with emotional diatribes. At trade and industry he was also faced with a series of controversial takeover battles, including the attempt of the Guinness brewing firm to take control of Distillers. Channon delegated oversight of this transaction to his junior minister, Michael Howard, but allegations of ‘insider dealing’ in shares led to lengthy legal proceedings against three prominent businessmen, inevitably harming both Channon and the family firm.

After the 1987 general election Thatcher moved Channon to transport. Although this was clearly a demotion within the cabinet, it signalled that the prime minister retained her faith in Channon's administrative abilities. Unfortunately for Channon transport had just been afflicted by the sinking of the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise, costing almost 200 lives; and in his relatively brief spell as secretary of state the department would be hit by an additional trio of tragedies. In November 1987 thirty-one people were killed in the Kings Cross fire; in December 1988 there were thirty-five fatalities after a collision between two trains outside Clapham Junction; and just nine days later a bomb exploded inside a Pan-Am jet flying over Lockerbie, killing 270 people on the plane and in the town. Channon was much criticized when, two days after the Lockerbie disaster, and while questions were being asked of the Department of Transport's failure to pass on warnings, he left Britain for a holiday on the island of Mustique, which was particularly identified in the public mind with aristocratic debauchery thanks to publicity surrounding Princess Margaret and her friends. By this time looking hopelessly accident-prone, in the cabinet reshuffle of July 1989 he left the government. In the Conservative leadership election of the following year he voted for Michael Heseltine rather than Thatcher, but this decision was entirely consistent with his ideological inclinations on domestic and European issues.

Channon's first years in his new role as a backbench MP were marked by skilful chairmanship of the Commons' transport select committee. In 1992 he hoped to follow three family members by serving as speaker of the house. Instead, amid procedural wrangling, he was forced to withdraw from the fray. Later in the 1992–7 parliament his old ally Willie Whitelaw asked him if he intended to stand for election again. Channon replied: ‘You must be mad! I don't want anything to do with this lot, and hope I'll never see them again’ (private information). He announced his decision to stand down in 1995. Finally accepting a peerage after the election of 1997, he took the title of Baron Kelvedon from the main family home in Essex, Kelvedon Hall. However, he made little mark in the House of Lords, and his health was poor for many years owing to the onset of lewy body disease. He died at the Lister Hospital, Westminster, on 27 January 2007, and was survived by his wife and two of his children. A memorial service was held at St Margaret's, Westminster, on 12 June 2007. Essentially a pragmatist rather than a Thatcherite ideologue, he had continued to uphold an ethic of public duty long after he had been overtaken by more self-serving colleagues. In stark contrast to his garrulous, extrovert father, he was discreet even in retirement, when he could have helped his reputation by publishing an exculpatory account of his long years of ministerial service. As it was, at the time of his death he was remembered, perhaps unfairly, as a maladroit minister whose daughter had died after a decadent party.

Mark Garnett

Sources  

A. Clark, Diaries (1993) · M. Thatcher, The Downing Street years (1993) · The Times (30 Jan 2007) · Daily Telegraph (30 Jan 2007) · The Guardian (31 Jan 2007) · The Independent (31 Jan 2007) · Burke, Peerage · WW (2007) · private information (2011) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFINA, current affairs footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, documentary recordings · BL NSA, current affairs recordings


Likenesses  

photographs, 1970–2002, Getty Images, London · photographs, 1983–2002, Rex Features, London · photograph, 1986, Getty Images, London [see illus.] · photographs, 1986–93, PA Photos, London · photographs, 1988–97, Photoshot, London · Marc [M. Boxer], caricature, repro. in The Observer (23 Feb 1986) · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£78,437,281: probate, 22 Feb 2008, CGPLA Eng. & Wales