Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher reportedly said of Lord David Young, who has died at the age of 90: “Others bring me problems, David brings me solutions.”
Whether this quotation is apocryphal or not, even his most vehement detractors would agree that it was Young’s energy and infectious enthusiasm for every aspect of his twin careers of business and politics that helped him address and solve intransigent problems and overcome some very public setbacks.
It was these qualities that encouraged Thatcher to bring Young, then the relatively unknown chair of the Manpower Services Commission (MSC), into her cabinet as minister without portfolio and elevate him to the peerage. From there he quickly became secretary of state for employment and secretary of state at the Department of Trade and Industry.
Despite the influence and power he wielded at a time when Thatcher was at the height of her powers, Young was hampered by being “helicoptered” into the cabinet and enjoying a close relationship with the prime minister. While others had to cultivate their constituencies and account for their actions to the House of Commons, Young seemed unaffected by the daily concerns of an elected politician.
Being an outsider with insider influence proved a rich vein for those envious of his lightning promotion and ready access to Thatcher. Whatever his successes, whether in contributing to the fall in unemployment or to a Tory election victory, the media appeared to find ready allies among those willing to brief against him.
Born in 1932, Young was the elder son of his Lithuanian flour merchant father who had grown up in the UK. Young was brought up in a tight-knit Jewish community in north London — an upbringing that underpinned every aspect of his life.
He attended Christ’s College, Finchley, a state school where he failed to shine academically, leaving at 16 to become an articled clerk at his uncle’s small firm of solicitors. At night he studied for a law degree at University College London. In 1956 — the year that he qualified — he married Lita Shaw. At the wedding, Isaac Wolfson, chair of Great Universal Stores and a family friend, offered him a job as his personal assistant, and for the next five years he learnt the rudiments of business and accountancy.
In 1961, David branched out on his own, revealing the strong entrepreneurial streak that characterised much of his commercial and political life. He founded Eldonwall, the industrial property company through which he would make his fortune — and lose it. In 1970, he sold the business in return for shares in Town and City Properties, which collapsed in the 1974 property crash.
Following its collapse, David and Lita Young decided to emigrate to the US — but stayed just one day. A riot outside their Boston hotel convinced them that life in Britain would be better for them and their young family. To rebuild his finances, David returned to what he knew best: property development. He established the European subsidiary of the US bank Manufacturers Hanover, and made a fortune again when he sold his equity stake and turned his attention to politics.
The businessman became an unpaid adviser to Sir Keith Joseph (later Lord Joseph) who had been appointed secretary of state at the Department of Trade and Industry. Three years later, Young was appointed chair of the Manpower Services Commission and caught the eye of his chief political patron, Margaret Thatcher.
In 1984, Thatcher brought him into her cabinet as a minister without portfolio and appointed him to the House of Lords. The following year, he became employment secretary, presiding over a drop in unemployment below the politically sensitive 3mn mark in time for the 1987 election campaign.
His responsibility for that Tory victory was the subject of much debate. His supporters give him credit for the advertising campaign that followed an opinion poll (“Wobbly Thursday”) suggesting support for the government was ebbing away. His critics claim the Tories would have won anyway.
Whatever the truth, Young was rewarded with the department of trade — as its head, he transformed the unit into what he called “the department for enterprise”. Despite considerable success, particularly with policies aimed at small companies, Lord Young’s time at the DTI was overshadowed by a string of high-profile, politically supercharged crises — the Fayeds’ takeover of Harrods, the collapse of Barlow Clowes and the sale of Rover.
“I decided to stand down”, he once said, “because I had privatised everything I could at the DTI. British Steel, Rover, everything had gone and I realised I was left with a Department of Regulation.”
After leaving politics in 1989, he returned to business life first as European chair of US bank Salomon Brothers, and then chair of telecommunications company Cable and Wireless, from which he was ousted five years later, after a boardroom coup.
Young Associates, the venture capital group he started in 1996, gave him some of the happiest days of his business life, investing in fledgling businesses and inspiring their entrepreneurial founders with his drive and boundless optimism.
His fascination with business in general and, in particular, the structure and role of the board, was a key feature of his time as president of the Institute of Directors.
In 2010, in his late seventies, Young had a swansong in government as “enterprise tsar” to the new Tory premier David Cameron, who asked him to conduct a “brutally honest” assessment of the country’s health and safety culture.
He was forced to resign after claiming that the vast majority of Britons had “never had it so good” — the remark was seen as inflammatory in the middle of a recession — but he was later reappointed by Cameron, who saw him as a link back to the free enterprise Thatcher era.
Outside work, Young was closely involved in many Jewish charities including Jewish Care, where he was president from 1990 to 1997.
Yet above all else, Young was a family man. He was very close to his brother Stuart, who became chair of the BBC and died of cancer in 1986. His wife, Lita, and their daughters, Karen and Judith, who survive him, were at the heart of an extended family of which he was mentor and moral guide.