Obituaries: Sir George Bishop

Article excerpt

GEORGE BISHOP'S career can be seen as falling into three parts. The first, culminating in his appointment as the youngest ever Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, was devoted to government and the Civil Service. The second, culminating in his period as chairman of Booker McConnell, focused on industry, commerce and banking. The third, culminating in his presidency of the Royal Geographical Society, was linked to mountaineering, photography and travel. Of course, the three parts intermingled.

Bishop was proud of his Lancastrian roots, having grown up near Wigan and winning a scholarship to the Grammar School at Ashton-in- Makerfield before going on, again with a scholarship, to the London School of Economics where he studied Economics and Government under Harold Laski. During his time at the LSE he developed a strong social conscience, but he vigorously opposed the Communists who at that time had a prominent presence there.

On leaving the LSE in 1935, Bishop went to work in South Wales for a Quaker organisation which was helping the unemployed through the encouragement of subsistence production. In his spare time he climbed in North Wales, running the half-mile and driving fast cars. In 1937 he was the winner of the winter trials of the Riley Motor Club. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was a statistician working for the Ministry of Food; to his deep disappointment he had been rejected for military service because his skills were needed in the Civil Service. During the war he ran the Emergency Services Division of the Ministry of Food which, along with the Women's Voluntary Service, was responsible for bringing food and refreshment to the victims of German bombing throughout the UK. The arrival of cups of tea and fresh bread did much for morale. Bishop was greatly helped in the anticipation of the bombing raids and consequent food needs by the code breakers at Bletchley. After the war, Bishop was Private Secretary to two Labour Ministers of Food, Ben Smith and John Strachey. The improvement of food supplies, particularly fats and oils, was of paramount importance. The Government was persuaded to launch the ill-fated Tanganyika ground-nut scheme - growing ground nuts to help supplement the British fat ration - which was ill-prepared, inadequately planned and over-ambitious. With his Minister, John Strachey, Bishop saw the impending disaster and later, as Under-Secretary, had responsibility for winding the scheme up. This experience left him with an abiding scepticism of grandiose agricultural projects justified by untested assumptions of yield, production and profit. Bishop's other responsibilities included milk, sugar and cereals, and he was involved in the international wheat and sugar negotiations where he led the UK delegations. In 1959 he was promoted to Deputy Secretary, at that time the youngest such appointment ever. In 1961 a civil service friend and mentor, Sir Henry Hancock, introduced Bishop to Jock Campbell (later Lord Campbell of Eskan), the chairman of Booker McConnell, which at that time was mainly involved in sugar production in British Guyana. …