Oliver Franks
Oliver Shewell Franks, Baron Franks OM GCMG KCB CBE KCVO, 1905 - 1992 was an English public servant and academic who has been described as 'one of the founders of the post-war world'. He was certainly one of the most important and influential men never to hold a position in government.

Possessed of one of the finest intellects of his generation, his life was one of high moral purpose and achievement in all of the many roles in which fate would cast him.

These things set him apart from the mass of humankind. It was said, that on meeting Franks, if one managed to break the ice, one would find a lot of very cold water underneath. Many found his combination of extreme deliberation and formidable penetration enfeebling and even alienating.

His gravitas, impregnable reserve and personal moral authority were legendary. Such attributes are associated with senior judges, and with old-time headmasters - figures whose very appearance made whole schools fall rigidly and instantly silent. Franks' did more; like the biblical "King of Kings", his aura was that of a "Headmaster of Headmasters". It could freeze important, fully-grown men.

His physical presence and demeanour - 6' 2" tall and erect, his lofty brow and slightly divergent eyes giving an unnerving impression of all-seeing omniscience, his unhurried, precise Oxford diction, devoid of mannerism or humour, all reinforced it. A rare surviving recording of Franks speaking, made in 1952, can be viewed on uk.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZnooVcbBHk.

Some even compared Franks to Divine Authority. Isaiah Berlin, on holiday in Paris in 1946 was called by Franks to assist him with some government work. "I felt I was being summoned by God; I could not refuse" said Berlin.

It went further. When Provost of Queens College, Oxford, Franks once interviewed a don over a disciplinary matter. Afterwards, the don reported: "I now know what the Last Judgement will be like, only I expect that God will be more human!" A single remark could make the Common Room quail: ("If you reflect on what you have just said, you will realise how foolish it was!" - this to the unfortunate Chaplain). Whether or not Franks ever laughed is not recorded.

During Franks' time as Ambassador in Washington, Churchill, visiting on government business, was his guest at the British embassy. According to one obituary, in his diary, Franks (a man of austere puritan values) allegedly excoriated the great man for, at breakfast, "Tucking in like a boy. A man of 76 shouldn't need so much!" The story is probably apocryphal, as according to his biographer, Franks never kept a personal diary.

Franks seldom showed any feeling, and it was said that he was 'emotionally anaemic' But his personal authority was very real and stemmed from not what he did but from what he was. He was a moral philosopher by training and an ascetic and very deliberate man by nature. His mind stood high above emotional display.

He also, reassuringly, stood above cant. In 1948 a Washington radio station telephoned foreign ambassadors and asked what each would like for Christmas. The French ambassador uttered some sugary platitude about World peace; the Soviet ambassador scored a cheap political point about "freedom from imperialist enslavement". Franks' reply was simple and honest: ‘It’s very kind of you to ask,’ he said, ‘I’d quite like a small box of crystallised fruit.’

Intellectual discourse and its practical application was his metier. He would listen to and absorb vast quantities of information, and summarise the most complex discussion with breathtaking insight and clarity. Michael Wenner, private secretary to Franks in Washington in 1951, recounts his impression of the man in his memoirs, "So It Was". Reflecting on the nature of genius, Wenner says: "Many bright people may quickly suggest a solution to a problem that eventually you, after much research, might think of yourself; but that true genius had a perspective on the nature of the problem, or unrecognized resources which could be brought to bear on it - such that he could suggest an answer which would never occur to others, however educated or bright. By that definition I had met one authentic genius in my life" - and that was Oliver Franks. Any position Franks took carried all before it; backed by his intellect, authority and heavy moral purpose, it became incontrovertible.

Only one biography of Franks was written, by the engaging historian Professor Alex Danchev, researched near to the end of Franks' life and completed soon after his death in 1992. According to Danchev, Franks was cooperative and punctiliously courteous, but volunteered nothing to make the author's task easy. His extreme natural reticence made Franks an awkward interviewee; with genuine modesty he regarded events as more important than the part he had played in them. Apart from his famous reports, Franks himself wrote little - in contrast with his oral fluency when in expository mode, he found writing taxing.

Franks was cerebral but no aesthete; his artistic tastes (such as they were) were decidedly middle-class. But his interests were wide. Franks' religious opinions were not disclosed. He had decided, before entering university, not to become a Congregationalist minister like his father and grandfather. His wife was a Quaker, and he became a member of her church. In his philosophical studies, he readily refuted the traditional 'Proofs of the Existence of God', but did at one time write on 'The objective reality of religious experience'. Interestingly, later on as an undergraduate he invested a £5 book prize in three contemporary Psychology textbooks, including Broad's Appearance, Perception and Reality. Had Franks, by then, perceived a different reality? His moral responsibility and stature were unquestionably imbibed at home. The eldest of four children and a large brood of Shewell cousins, his esteemed father had been a powerful influence over them all.

Paragons are seldom companionable, but Franks retained a small circle of carefully-cultivated friends to the end, conceding that (even for an austere teetotaller like himself) an occasional drink could be an aid to conviviality.

Early Life

Born near Birmingham in 1905, Oliver Franks was the elder son of the Reverend Dr Robert Franks, a Congregationalist minister and distinguished theologian and scholar, and an alumnus of both Cambridge and Oxford. Oliver and his siblings were brought up in an atmosphere of intense liberal learning. A voracious reader from an early age, Oliver had free use of his father's great library, and by the age of 12 had digested even the heavier philosophical tomes. His erudite but modest father admitted that Oliver was "Far more able than I am".

In 1915 he went to Bristol Grammar school, founded in 1532, which then had academic standards and expectations rivalling top public schools, and he routinely carried off form and other prizes. "Old Franks and his books" became a school joke. "He had a mind," said one master, "that was so logical it was almost frightening." Predictably, Franks went on to become both House Captain and Head Boy, and although not much interested in sport, was a useful batsman and captain of the school Rugby First 15.

At 18, Oliver won an Open Scholarship in Greats at Queens College, Oxford. By then he had already had a wider and deeper general education than most graduates. Preternaturally grave and wise, and years ahead of his fellow undergraduates in knowledge and maturity, they nicknamed him "Father Franks".

As a Classics scholar, Franks was one of an elite within an elite, and applied himself with intense diligence to his studies, reading prodigiously, leavened by a little rowing and golf and a short interlude working as a docker during the 1926 General Strike. He studied under famous luminaries such as C.S. Lewis, H.J. Paton, Gilbert Ryle (later to become Franks' best man) and Harold Joachim. Half way through his 4-year course he sat for 'Mods' for which he prepared beforehand by withdrawing into an anchorite's seclusion. He passed with some of the highest marks ever awarded by the university. Franks later taught himself German in order to study Immanuel Kant.

In 1927 he took his final written exams, 'Schools', to be followed by the oral 'Viva voce'. For Franks the Viva was a mere formality, as the examiners had already decided to award him a Congratulatory First - the highest possible honour, rarely given. It was accompanied by the offer of a Fellowship in Philosophy at Queens, which Franks accepted.

Academic Career

Franks had no particular career path mapped out. The academic life suited him, and he remained a praelector (fellow and tutor) at Queens for a decade. In 1935 he broadened his experience by teaching a semester at the University of Chicago (contrary to the city's image) one of the finest centres of scholarship in the World. Franks was offered a permanent professorship in philosophy, which he declined.

With Gilbert Ryle at Oxford, he helped to establish the new degree of Modern Greats, better known as PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). His students held him in awe, but one was nevertheless to marry him - Barbara Tanner, 3 years his junior, whose family in Bristol were acquainted with the Franks'. Eminently compatible, they wed in 1931. Barbara went on to become a distinguished public servant in her own high-minded family tradition, serving as a magistrate and on many committees of good causes. The couple had two daughters, and remained happily married until Barbara's death in 1987.

Barbara did not wish them to be Oxford-bound, and in 1937, aged 32, Franks resigned his fellowship at Queens to take the chair in Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University, a post once held by Adam Smith.

Civil Service

Franks would probably have remained in academia all his life. But the war intervened, and in 1938, like many of his fellow young dons, he was conscripted into the Civil Service and moved to London to work in the Ministry of Supply.

His administrative flair and practical leadership were on a level with his intellectual ability. By 1945 he had risen through the ranks to become Permanent Secretary, or, as he liked to say, "Temporary Permanent Secretary", and in charge of the largest government ministry, employing over 400,000 people, which was to grow even larger the following year when merged with the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Even before reaching the helm, Franks had resolved many critical problems; resupply after Dunkirk, repeated crises in steel production, and deep political and interpersonal issues. Here, his personal authority and gifts of persuasion were a crucial factor. In his work (he was described as some as "the greatest civilian discovery of the war") he dealt directly with Cabinet Minister Ernest Bevin and even Churchill himself. He was made a CBE in 1942; his reputation had been made and it was to stand him in good stead. In 1946 he became a Knight Grand Cross.

When war ended, Franks was entreated to remain in government service; he was offered the headship of any of several Whitehall Ministries and nationalised industries. Relinquishing his chair at Glasgow in 1946, he took the one position he really wanted, and for which he probably had been pre-elected years before - Provost of Queens, his old Oxford College.

The C.E.E.C.

Early in 1947, Franks gave a series of lectures at the London School of Economics on "Central Planning and Control in War and Peace" in which he described the ideal cabinet minister as having "clarity, precision in thought; only a synoptic mind can at once master the mass of necessary detail and yet keep a sharp lookout for the essential" - a description bearing a striking resemblance to Oliver Franks.

But that same year, events once again pulled him out of the groves of academe and back into public service. Western Europe was near-bankrupt in the aftermath of the war, and vulnerable to Soviet hegemony. Many countries had powerful Communist parties itching to exploit the economic chaos and public discontent. Some were being kept afloat by American aid, and falling into ever deeper debt.

The Marshall Plan offered a solution - a massive US aid package to enable Europe to rebuild its infrastructure and regain economic self-sufficiency, and to create a Dollar zone to mutual US and European benefit. But to recover, Europe needed to change, and for the countries to move and work together. A commitment to do so, an appropriate collective European response, was urgently needed.

A working group, the Committee of European Economic cooperation (CEEC), was formed. For Ernest Bevin, then UK Foreign Secretary, there was only one man to represent the UK and to chair the CEEC - Oliver Franks. The difficulties to be faced but the importance of their objective were immense. Delegates themselves did not carry government authority, and governments themselves were hanging on to power only tenuously. And deep alliances between recent and bitter enemies were difficult to make.

This task fully tested Franks' extraordinary powers of analysis, exposition and persuasion. Particularly the latter. For some committee members, the largest possible share of Marshall aid for their own countires was a primary objective. Then, after months of very hard work and negotiation, when a treaty was finally drawn up, at the last minute the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Stafford Cripps refused to sign it on the grounds of National Sovereignty. After an impromptu two-hour head-to-head with Franks, a veritable "Clash of the Titans", Franks persuaded him to sign on the grounds of International Co-operation. Franks' invincible moral authority had won the day. The agreement between the countries were to become the first steps of the European Union. When 16-nation Paris conference was concluded, Franks laid its thoughts and plans before a committee of Congress. They were impressed, not least with Franks himself, who talked for 2½ hours without notes, pause or repetition.

British Embassy, Washington

At the year's end, Franks returned to Oxford, but the respite from public service was to be short. He was to resign, reluctantly, from Queens after only two years as Provost. A compensation was that he was made an honorary Life Fellow.

A new British Ambassador to Washington was needed. It was a time of political tension between the US and Britain. The Marshall plan, from which the USSR disassociated itself, was also the opening step of the Cold War. A formal military alliance between North America and Western European countries - a North Atlantic pact, was imperative, and the two principal allies needed to work in harmony. Britain's Socialist government was, with good reason, under strong American suspicion, while Britain was dependent on American aid.

By political inclination Franks was a Gladstonian Liberal, but he stood above party politics. He was to receive a telephone call from Prime Minister Clement Attlee. In 1948, after some hesitation, the Franks family of four decamped to Washington.

In importance, the post of British Ambassador to Washington same second only to those of Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. The Ambassador had no direct political power, but he was a very influential intermediary. The personality of the Ambassador was important. Washington was the UK's largest diplomatic mission and the embassy employed nearly 1,000 staff.

The most pressing task for (now Sir Oliver) Franks in his tenure as Ambassador was the North Atlantic Pact, which would become NATO. The preparatory talks were conducted by the ambassadors of six nations, and followed by a working party who produced a draft treaty. Franks led the British team which included the traitor Donald McLean, secretly spying for the Soviet Union.

After 4 years as Ambassador, Franks had toured and lectured in every state in the Union. By then, Britain and America had new governments, neither to Franks' particular liking. Both were anxious for him to stay on, if not as Ambassador, then as first Director-General of NATO, a position which Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who had become a personal friend of Franks, pressed him to accept. But Sir Oliver and Lady Franks were more anxious to return home to Oxford, which they did in 1952.

The City

Franks was still only 47, and his career was about to enter a new phase. With his glittering record, relative youth, admirers and contacts in the official and academic worlds, he was offered the pick of top jobs going. As well as NATO, these offers included a position of Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, the chairmanships of British Railways, British Petroleum, the Atomic Energy Authority and the British Coal Board, the Headmastership of Harrow, editorship of 'The Times' and (at Churchill's behest) the director-generalship of the BBC. All these were turned down by Franks, none being to his exact liking.

The offer he finally accepted was the chair of Lloyds Bank, the largest British clearing bank. His lack of a background in banking or finance proved no obstacle; "if you can run an Oxford college you can run anything", he would say. Joining as a director, the following year he became Chairman. The job solved any financial difficulties he might have had, and, importantly for him, it was not full-time, and while with Lloyds between 1954 and 1962, he did much else.

In the first year, he was able to give the BBC Reith Lectures on the subject of "Britain and the Tide of World Affairs", and to lecture to the London School of Economics on the same theme. His was a rather Churchillian view of Britain, its empire and future as a World power, which was soon to prove over-optimistic.

Later Franks succeeded his father-in-law as Chairman of Friends Provident. He also chaired the board of governors of the United Oxford Hospitals and the Committee of London Clearing Bankers. In 1960 he headed a fact-finding tour of India and Pakistan on behalf of the World Bank, and was to lecture on his findings to the US. Among them, he had identified a need for a North-South as well as East-West policy for Western governments.

Between 1957 and 1959, Franks was involved in his first government enquiry, under the redoubtable Lord Radcliffe, into the working of the monetary and credit system. It was exhaustive and exhausting.

Franks had succeeded in the worlds of government and finance, but by this time he yearned to return to Oxford in soul as well as body. A great chance came along, but it was in the hands of others. The Chancellorship of Oxford become vacant in 1959, and Franks was put forward as a candidate by several influential heads of colleges. In the event, the position went to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, by only a narrow margin of votes. The Chancellor of Oxford is basically a figurehead, but perhaps the fear that Franks would be more than that counted against him. There was more - it is alleged that Macmillan, to avoid the political embarrassment of defeat, leaned heavily on his friends within the Oxford electorate to vote for him. (Franks was eventually to become a Chancellor - of the University of East Anglia, from 1965 to 1984).

There were other irons in the fire. Franks was offered the Governorship of the Bank of England by Macmillan. He was the first choice of senior Treasury officials and of the Chancellor of the Exchequer as well, although not of some in the Bank itself with memories of the critical Radcliffe Commission. Franks was on the point of accepting when another position was offered to him - Provost of Worcester College, Oxford, for which both A.J.P. Taylor and Isaiah Berlin had been considered. Few of those recruited from academic life to public service return by deliberate choice, but, after much deliberation, Franks chose Worcester College over the Bank of England, and resigned from Lloyds.

Oxford Regained

Franks became the only second-time Provost in Oxford's history, and he remained at Worcester until his retirement in 1976. At Worcester, the now-mellowed Franks revealed his more human side, voluntarily teaching undergraduates, in whom he often showed a personal interest, and with whom he was popular. Duane Krohnke, a Rhoades Scholar, recalls one remark: “Krohnke, your tutor says you are doing very well. But I do think there is more time for devilry.” Such a note of levity from the august personage of Lord Franks caught Krohnke (who gained a First in PPE in 1963) totally off-guard, and to this day he wonders what "devilry" Franks had had in mind. Krohnke (uniquely among his biographers and obiturists) perceived a shyness in Franks and a difficulty in making "small talk"; this might well have been a part of his reserve.

His soul had truly come home, but not to rest. Like that at Lloyd's, a Provost's job is not full-time. Franks did a two-year stint on the new National Economic Development Council, and then the government was about to drop a bombshell on Oxford. The 1963 Robbins Report on Higher Education had accused Oxford (like Cambridge) of inefficiency, and giving poor value as a national and international institution and for government money, and the University was threatened with changes forced on it from outside. The Robbins Report described the ancient universities as being 'Incoherent, involuted and inert', and Oxford was singled out furthermore for its 'Expensiveness, backwardness, exclusiveness, richness and snugness'. The report acted as a conductor for public and private discontent.

Oxford was hence forced to appoint a full-scale commission of enquiry into its own character and administration, before it could, of its own volition, make any necessary changes. The Franks Commission was born, named after its Chairman. The Commission could only advise and recommend; changes could only be made by the governing council. Many of Oxford's problems stemmed from its historic constitution; it was a community of independent colleges. Any solution would be bound to involve a greater degree of centralised administration, and there would be strong resistance.

After two years, public hearings and millions of words of written and oral evidence later, a report was drafted. In the process, much had been forced out of the woodwork, but it was a job that had to be done, and desirable change would follow. Franks, meanwhile, was elevated to the peerage, becoming Baron Franks (of Headington, where he lived). He had educated Oxford.

Grand Inquisitor

There were to be many Franks Commissions and Reports; he was invariably the first choice of the government of the day. The last major one was the Falkland Islands Review, published in 1982, conducted by a committee of Privy Councillors, appointed by Margaret Thatcher in response to a parliamentary question about the government's handling of the Falklands crisis. The government were exonerated, but not without criticism from outside that, in its terms of reference and choice of reviewers, "The Establishment had judged itself". Victory, ultimately, had decided the issue. Comparisons were drawn with Pearl Harbour, highlighting the fallibility of human interpretation of military intelligence.

Franks was by then 78 and had completed his final government commission. But one more report was to follow, again about Oxford. The university faced another crisis, and was once more under threat of government interference and legal proceedings. The issue of Entitlement (where lecturers were, after a number of years, legally entitled to receive college fellowships) exposed more holes in the collegiate system of government. Many of these would-be fellows were not wanted by any college, and no colleges in particular were obliged to accommodate them. Franks, who had in his time persuaded countries to act for their common good, persuaded the colleges to do likewise, for the good of the University as a whole. The collegiate system itself would otherwise have been at risk.

Life Chronology

Period Main Occupation Other Activities Honours
1915 - 1923
Bristol Grammar School

1923 - 1927
Queens College, Oxford
(Undergraduate 1923 - 27)
(Fellow and praelector 1927 - 37)
General Strike volunteer, 1926
Married, 1931

1937 - 1946
Glasgow University
(Professor of Moral Philosophy)
Visiting Lecturer, University of Chicago, 1935
1939 - 1946
Ministry of Supply
(Permanent Secretary, 1945-46)

Commander of the British Empire, 1942
Knight Grand Cross, 1946.
1946 - 1948
Queens College, Oxford
Lectures to London School of Economics, 1947
Committee of European Economic Cooperation (Chairman), 1947

1948 - 1952
British Ambassador, Washington
North Atlantic Pact preparatory talks (committee Chairman)
1953 - 1962
Lloyds Bank

Director 1953 - 75
Chairman 1954 - 62
BBC Reith Lecture, 1954
Report: Administrative Tribunals and Enquiries, 1955-57
Report: Working of the Monetary System (Radcliffe Enquiry), 1957-59
Friends Provident (Chairman), 1960-62
Board of Governors of the United Oxford Hospitals (Chairman)
Committee of London Clearing Bankers (Chairman), 1957-59
India and Pakistan Report (for World Bank), 1960
Contested Oxford Chancellorship, 1960

1962 - 1976
Worcester College, Oxford
Report: British Business Schools, 1963
Report: Oxford University, 1964-66.
Report: Official Secrets Act Section 2, 1971-72
Report: Committee of London Clearing Banks, 1974
Report: Ministerial Memoirs (with Lord Radcliffe), 1975
Report: Register of immigrants' Dependants, 1976
Wellcome Trust (Chairman), 1965-82
Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, 1965 - 84
Life Peerage (Baron Franks of Headington), 1962

1976 - 1992
Committee on Ministerial Affairs (Chairman), 1976
Honours Scrutiny Committee (Chairman), 1976-92
President Kennedy Memorial Committee (Chairman)
Rhodes Trust (Chairman)
Rockefeller Foundation (Chairman)
Report: Falklands Enquiry 1982 - 83
Entitlement (Oxford University), 1987
Order of Merit, 1977
Deputy Lieutenant for Oxfordshire, 1978
Lord Warden of the Stannaries and Keeper of the Privy Seal of the Duke of Cornwall, 1983 - 1985
Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, 1985

Lord Franks died in 1992, aged 87, while still in full command of his faculties. He had survived an earlier coronary 3 years before. His wife, Barbara, had predeceased him in 1987, as had his son-in-law Professor John Dinwiddy in 1990.

He is survived by his two daughters, one of whom is the economist and author Caroline Dinwiddy.

Biography: Oliver Franks Founding Father. Alex Danchev, 1993. ISBN 0-19-821577-0

Recommended reading: dwkcommentaries.wordpress.com.

Did you know, or ever meet Lord Franks? If so please tell the author Howard Somerville.

1 comment

John Lawrence said:

An interesting and influentual man indeed Howard
2 years ago ( translate )