When Ben Stoneham began his career, the country was on the edge of some of the greatest internal turmoil it had experienced for many years.
Economic crises had struck at a previously confident UK economy, protests loomed – and what followed became an all-out battle between politicians who believed they had to cut and workers who believed the cuts hit them hardest.
Now the former Coal Board employee, who has become Lord Stoneham, Baron of Droxford, has begun his new career as a life peer in the House of Lords in the wake of an economic crisis which has led politicians to cut and... well, you get the picture.
But the Lib Dem believes the similarities end there.
He says of his time with the Coal Board: ‘It was a very interesting time and I learned a lot, especially about industrial relations. I ended up as private secretary to the chair of the board, although I had left by the time of the strikes in the 1980s. But I don’t think the same things will happen this time.
‘I think the trade union movement is much weaker than it was then. There are tensions, but I think there’s a strong realisation this time that we couldn’t go on with public spending the way we have.’
But he is under no illusions about the effects of the industrial battles of the 1980s.
‘It’s very, very sad,’ he says.
‘When I joined the Coal Board, it looked after more than 250,000 employees. Whole communities still haven’t really recovered. I think it was down to Arthur Scargill, but also the Board’s intransigence.’
Lord Stoneham is better-known, particularly in Hampshire, for his time as managing director of The News, a role he took up in 1989, and two other roles in which he changed the face of his adopted home.
He explains: ‘I went from the Coal Board to the newspaper industry in the 1980s. It was also a time where industrial relations skills were worthwhile, as new technologies were being introduced. It was very exciting. I worked with Derek Penketh, who was MD of Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers, which then owned The News, and in 1989 I took over the role.’
He oversaw a period in which he believes newspapers, especially local papers, were at their most adventurous.
Lord Stoneham says: ‘New technologies were being used, which meant we could print bigger, cheaper, more colourful papers. And where we led, the nationals followed. The Independent was printed in Portsmouth when it was set up, and was launched from The News’ Hilsea office.’
He remained at the paper until 1999, when he stepped down after Johnston Press bought it.
But he still has The News delivered to his home in Droxford in the Meon Valley, a fact confirmed prior to our meeting by a Lib Dem party press officer who said, perhaps a little wearily: ‘He’ll be very pleased to talk to you. He brings your newspaper in to show us.’
While at The News, Lord Stoneham joined the board of the Portsmouth Harbour Renaissance Scheme, which he chaired for 10 years. It led the regeneration of the city’s Historic Dockyard, development of Gunwharf Quays and the building of the Spinnaker Tower.
It’s in the board’s achievements that he sees the most hopeful parallel with today’s economic situation.
He says: ‘I was sitting in The News’s office in the early 1990s and the situation was similar to today. We had just had a huge property recession, there were talks of defence cuts and unemployment in Portsmouth was over 10 per cent.
‘The local economy looked bleak and The News depends on the local economy for revenue and prosperity.
‘The chief executive of Portsmouth City Council invited me to a seminar, where I said the release of MoD land was something we had to take advantage of, to develop the dockyard, and transform the image of the city so we could revive tourism and build on the university’s strengths. As a result, I was asked to chair the scheme.’
The scheme’s members, including councillors and officers from Portsmouth City Council and Gosport Borough Council, joined businesspeople and voluntary groups to discuss how they could shape Portsmouth’s future.
Lord Stoneham recalls: ‘We had people from all sorts of groups. We knew the government had money for millennium projects and we worked hard together to ensure we had something in place worthy of that. I am very proud indeed to have been involved.’
He pays tribute to the city council’s development director Paul Spooner for his ‘visionary’ work and drew comparisons with the coalition’s Big Society idea.
‘I think it’s exactly what they mean when they say Big Society. It should be an example of how different groups of people can work together for a common aim, and succeed. It’s an example of how the south coast can be improved, and also how projects across the UK can work.
‘I believe it’s had a significant impact on people’s lives.’
Mention of the coalition leads to some political discussion, as Lord Stoneham started his political life in the 1970s Labour Party, working as its treasurer in the 1979 election campaign.
He joined the SDP, along with current Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock, on its formation, and acted, in the recent words of fellow peer the Earl of Caithness, as a ‘maternity nurse’ to the Lib Dem party.
At the last election, he was party leader Nick Clegg’s operations director. But as a former ‘left winger’ (he prefers the term ‘social democrat’) how does he feel about his party’s alliance with the Conservatives?
‘I left the Labour Party because I feared it had lost sight of its social democratic roots. It had to change, or I had to leave, as it had moved to the left.
‘The party changed, but not until Tony Blair took over. I’m proud of what we have done, because we created a real third force in the country. I would very much have liked a coalition with Labour, but I think the country wanted change,’
He adds: ‘Labour seemed not to want to enter a coalition and we had little choice but to work with the Conservatives. I think any government making the cuts we have had to make is unlikely to be popular, and the next couple of years will be our making or breaking, but I’m confident we’ll come through.’
Lord Stoneham is one of 15 newly-appointed Lib Dem peers who have pledged to push for an elected second chamber.
He explains: ‘It may seem a little strange to have been appointed and call for elected members, but in the modern age it’s the right thing, I think. The system as it stands is open to abuse and it should be altered, although that could take a long time.’
He hopes a full constitution for the UK can also come out of the reform, stating clearly the job of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
‘It’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland,’ he says.
‘There’s nothing written down. We do have precedent, and that guides the Houses, but a move to an elected second chamber means we will need to spell out clearly that the Lords’ job is to scrutinise and give more time to legislation. It’s a vital job, and it’s what any new second chamber must continue, as it does today.’
In his time in The Lords so far, Lord Stoneham has spoken on tourism, including hopes for an extension of British Summer Time, and has joined a group to analyse the government’s new pensions bill, which he hopes will pay people more, even though it may increase the national retirement age.
In future he also hopes to speak on housing issues, in keeping with his current role as chairman of First Wessex Housing Association.
In that position he led the Rowner regeneration project, in which new homes and shops have been built, with more planned, in the Gosport area.
He says: ‘It’s vitally important. Good housing does so much to improve people’s lives and it’s something we should be doing for people across the country. I haven’t contributed to housing debates yet, as I am still finding my feet and have signed up to the pensions group, but I think I will contribute when I can.’
Lord Stoneham says he will always have a strong bond with Portsmouth. He explains: ‘I come back often. I am at Fratton Park with my sons every other week to support Pompey.
‘There are still things which can be done to make the city even better. I’d like to see work at the entrance. It’s an island and that’s what we tried to emphasise with the bridge and the Sails of the South, but I think Pounds Yard must be improved too.
‘It would also be good to see the Northern Quarter development with its extension to the shopping at Commercial Road. There’s a lot which can happen in Portsmouth. Its main strength is its people. The whole community, at every level, wants to be involved in projects to improve the city and when we all pull together we’ve already seen what can be done.’