Keith Sinjohn Joseph

(1918—1994) politician

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(b. London, 17 Jan. 1918; d. London, 10 Dec. 1994) British; Secretary of State for Social Services 1970 –4, Industry 1979 –81, Education 1981 –6; Baron (life peer) 1987 Keith Joseph was that rare British animal, an intellectual in politics. His father was Sir Samuel Joseph, a self-made wealthy man who helped to build up Bovis, the building firm, and became lord mayor of London. He could afford to send Keith to Harrow and then Magdalen College, Oxford. After war service Keith gained a fellowship at All Souls College and passed for the bar but never practised. He became an MP in February 1956, winning the safe Conservative seat of Leeds North-East at a by-election, a seat he held until his retirement from the Commons in 1987. In the 1970s and 1980s he was one of the few Conservatives to hold a seat in a northern city.

Sir Keith Joseph showed an early interest in social issues, a feature that made him unusual among Conservatives. He was also one of only two Jewish Conservative MPs at the time of his entry to parliament. He was a defender of entrepreneurial capitalism which he saw as a means of improving quality of life for the disadvantaged. But he was not a simple right winger, opposing capital punishment and, surprisingly for a Jew, regretting the Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956.

Sir Keith's political career was not advanced under Conservative leader Edward Heath. In spite of Joseph's interest in economic issues Heath kept him away from economic posts. As Secretary of State for Social Services in the 1970 Heath government, Joseph substantially increased his departmental budget. When the party was in opposition after 1974 he repented of his role in government, claiming in April 1974 that, at the age of 56, he had only just become a true Conservative. He regretted his participation in the Heath government's introduction of statutory controls on incomes and prices and other measures which weakened the market economy. He was influenced by the writings of Hayek and Milton Friedman and the ideas of the free market Institute of Economic Affairs.

Sir Keith was seen as the obvious right-wing challenger to Ted Heath for the leadership in late 1974. But after some ill-judged speeches he withdrew and threw his support behind Mrs Thatcher. He lacked the popular touch, and realized that he was not cut out for the position. At this time Joseph was an advocate of what came to be known as Thatcherism. He called for big cuts in taxes and public spending, a reduction in the power of the trade unions, firm control of money supply to combat inflation, and encouragement for the free market. In speeches, pamphlets, and press articles Joseph opposed the drift of post-war politics and is properly credited with doing much to change the climate of opinion and shift the political agenda to the right.

When she became party leader in 1975 Mrs Thatcher gave Joseph responsibility in the shadow Cabinet for policy. Some Conservative colleagues were aghast at his claims that government should abandon the goal of full employment—because it was beyond its power to deliver it. They could imagine the charges from political opponents: ‘Sir Keith calls for more unemployment.’

In the Thatcher government in 1979 he was made Secretary of State for Industry. In spite of his philosophy he found himself providing large subsidies to troubled firms like British Leyland, British Steel and Rolls-Royce. He bore the brunt of much criticism as employment nearly doubled in the first two years of government. In 1981 he was happy to move to the Department of Education. He launched a number of ideas, many of which were to be embodied in the Education Reform Act (1988) of Kenneth Baker. Much of this period as a minister, however, was dogged by bad relations with the teachers, strikes, and long-running pay disputes. He left the Commons in 1987 and took a seat in the Lords.

Sir Keith was not given high marks as an administrator. His critics thought that he was indecisive—because he was open-minded—and listened to his civil servants too much. It was said that he was ‘a lion in opposition and a lamb in government’. But he was creative and had the talent and courage to question and overturn much of the conventional wisdom of the day.

From A Dictionary of Political Biography in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Politics.

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