Assheton, Ralph, second baronet, and first Baron Clitheroe 1901-1984, politician and businessman, was born at Downham 24 February 1901, the second of four children and only son of Sir Ralph Cockayne Assheton, first baronet, of Downham Hall, Clitheroe, and his wife, Mildred Estelle Sybella, daughter of John Henry Master, JP, of Montrose House, Petersham, Surrey. His family could trace its descent for more than a thousand years and had sent more than twenty of its members to the House of Commons since 1324. They were British landowners who, though never entering the highest ranks of nobility, had survived the Wars of the Roses and the English civil war, retaining and enlarging their estates. Assheton was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, where he obtained a second class in modern history in 1923. He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple (1925). He soon, however, felt the pull of the City and became a member of a firm of stockbrokers in 1927. Assheton was also a devout Anglican and represented the diocese of Blackburn in the Church Assembly from 1930 to 1950. He was also high steward of Westminster from 1962 to his death.
He had been an active Conservative at university and at a by-election in 1934 entered the House of Commons as member for Rushcliffe, Nottinghamshire. He soon made his mark by his knowledge of economics and finance. He was appointed parliamentary private secretary to W. D. Ormsby-Gore (later Lord Harlech) [qv.], then minister of works and later at the Colonial Office (1936-8). This led to his being appointed a member of the royal commission on the West Indies (1938-9). On the outbreak of war Assheton was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service, a post which he held until 1942, despite Sir Winston Churchill succeeding Neville Chamberlain as premier. In 1942 he was first promoted to parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Supply and, from December, to financial secretary to the Treasury, the mounting block to the cabinet. Assheton proved his worth dealing with the immense problems connected with wartime finance. He was sworn of the Privy Council in 1944.
In 1944, with a general election looming, Churchill asked him to become chairman of the Conservative and Unionist Party organization. During the war years the Conservative Party had declined in strength; there had been 400 agents in 1939, but by the time Assheton took over there were only 100. He fought hard touring the constituencies to revive Conservative philosophy very largely on a private enterprise and orthodox financial basis. None the less the Conservatives were defeated in 1945 and Assheton lost his own seat. He was, however, elected in the same year as Conservative member for the City of London and returned to the House of Commons as a front-bench speaker on financial and economic affairs. He also became chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (1948-50). When the City of London was disfranchised in 1950 he won back the Labour-held seat of Blackburn West for the Conservatives. He held the seat in 1951 and was generally expected to be included in the cabinet. In fact he was only offered the junior post of postmaster-general which he declined. He accordingly returned to the back-benches where he was chairman of the select committee on nationalized industries. Assheton was a strong supporter of the Suez group and in 1954 voted against the decision to withdraw from the Suez canal zone. In 1955 he retired from Parliament and accepted a hereditary peerage as first Baron Clitheroe. He succeeded to a baronetcy in the same year.
After this he devoted his career to business and held a large number of directorships, the most important of which were Borax Consolidated, the Mercantile Investment Trust, and a joint deputy chairmanship of the National Westminster Bank. He was a council member of the Duchy of Lancaster (1956-77) and was appointed KCVO in 1977. He continued to take a considerable interest in international affairs and more particularly those of Central Africa. He was a director of Tanganyika Consolidated and made a strong speech in the House of Lords urging support for Moise Tshombe's Katanga administration which the United Nations was seeking to integrate into the new Congo Republic (later Zaire). He showed himself a diligent landlord in Lancashire and took a keen interest in local affairs. He was lord lieutenant for Lancashire in 1971-6.
Assheton was very much what Sir Winston Churchill once described as an English worthy. He had a keen intellect and great experience of financial and economic matters but he lacked the more theatrical gifts of politicians. His economic opinions were of an orthodoxy unfashionable until Margaret Thatcher's administration in 1979. He has been well described as the right man in the right place at the wrong time.
In 1924 Assheton married Sylvia Benita Frances, daughter of Frederick William Hotham, sixth Baron Hotham. They had two sons and two daughters; one daughter died at birth. Assheton died 18 September 1984 at Downham Hall, and was succeeded in the baronetcy and the barony by his elder son, Ralph John (born 1929).
Contributor: Julian Amery