Obituary: Lord Harry Renwick – a parliamentary pioneer for IT interests
Lord Harry Renwick, once a key influencer for technology policy in Parliament, and a long-standing friend of Computer Weekly, passed away this month
The death earlier this month of Lord Harry Renwick following Covid-19-related complications marks the loss of a long-standing and stalwart supporter of Computer Weekly.
Harry Renwick, pictured above, was born into the aristocracy – his father was one of the last to be created a hereditary peer. As head of London’s electricity and power network his father had literally kept the lights on during World War Two, and as controller of communications for the Air Ministry had helped keep planes in the air.
Harry went to Eton, followed by a spell in the Grenadier Guards, became a stockbroker, and then, on the death of his father in 1973, took up his seat in the House of Lords as the second Baron Renwick of Coombe, Surrey.
Harry stood out far and away from most other peers in his active embrace and understanding of emerging information technologies, recognising early on their potential for the future economy.
He was one of a tiny group of hereditary peers who had a long and close association with Computer Weekly, especially from the 1990s when Computer Weekly shifted its core editorial focus from the IT supply industry to that of its customers, the corporate IT user community.
Harry’s agenda – to ensure the UK remained competitive as e-business took off and to enhance UK IT skills and jobs – dovetailed with that of Computer Weekly. He tried to galvanise reluctant and technology disinterested policy-makers into proactive action.
In 1997, Computer Weekly gave front-page prominence to his warnings in a House of Lords debate, that he had initiated, on e-commerce. He was concerned to ensure that the UK and the rest of the world did not become swamped by the US in the brave new world being opened up by e-commerce and the explosion of web technology. He urged the UK government to work actively and positively through the European Union (EU) to reduce the risk generated by the digital revolution of growing international conflicts relating to issues such as legal jurisdiction, encryption policy, data protection and intellectual property rights.
In the debate, he warned of future US dominance in these areas: “We hear much talk of the global information society of the future, but most of those planning that future appear to assume that the language will be American, the values those of Hollywood and the legal framework that of Perry Mason.”
How prescient his views seem today. Successive UK governments dragged their feet when it came to tech and IT-related policy leadership within Europe in the UK – there were never any political brownie points to be gained there.
Many senior Computer Weekly readers will have met Harry and remember him with affection through its CW500 Club of senior IT directors (established in 1993) and its close links with Eurim. Also in 1993, Harry played a key role in relaunching Eurim, an all-party parliamentary organisation set up to examine the IT implications of upcoming UK and EU legislation and to look for and alert policy-makers to potential unintended consequences before it became set in concrete.
Harry was a regular attendee at CW500 Club meetings for over two decades and hosted the annual CW500/Eurim reception in the House of Lords where we brought together IT directors with IT policy-makers.
Eurim members included Computer Weekly, as well as parliamentarians, IT suppliers, corporate IT users and key civil servants. Much of its work was behind the scenes, with off-the-record discussion and consensus-building. It offered Computer Weekly unique insights into the workings of government and widened contacts for our journalists and for CW500 Club members and contributed to our overall competitive advantage at that time. Following the 2012 relaunch of Eurim as the Digital Policy Alliance, Harry remained its president until his death.
Harry Renwick was universally well liked. He was a modest man, always full of good humour and was warmly esteemed by all who knew him. People in all positions found it hard to say “no” to him.
He excelled in recognising what was needed to nurture progress and was always ready to provide encouragement or to facilitate the right introductions to move things forward.
With Harry, one always felt only a short distance from the real power brokers – he was astute, had his finger on the pulse and could drop words in the right ears. His connections were both deep and wide – if there were senior politicians who he did not personally know, he often knew their parents.
Harry was dyslexic and a strong champion of the key qualities that dyslexia brings to any organisation, such as lateral thinking, out-of-the-box originality, creativity and perspicacity. As chairman of the British Dyslexia Association, he campaigned to encourage business leaders to regard people with dyslexia as an asset.
Harry was extraordinarily perceptive and enthusiastic – he could read people exceptionally well. He was very approachable, enjoyed meeting people of all ages and levels, and would always spend time chatting and joking with all, including Computer Weekly’s junior staff who greatly liked and respected him.
His technology interests were wide and he understood the potential of digital technology from the outset. As well as IT, he was particularly passionate about telecoms and also space technology. He initiated two debates in these areas in the House of Lords, one in 1997 proposing measures to combat telecommunications fraud – which has since matured into internet-related crime – and one in 1999 on measures to overcome major shortcomings of UK space policy.
He would have gone on to make a strong mark in the House of Lords, but with the passing of the House of Lords Act 1999 he lost his seat following a reduction in the number of hereditary peers from more than 700 to 92.
Despite this personal setback, he maintained a strong profile within the IT and parliamentary community, and also with Computer Weekly through Eurim and the CW500 Club. He was always keen to promote an understanding of science and technology, and was active in encouraging its use more widely for the environment. He also took a serious interest in health-related concerns about wireless technology.
Always supportive of the effective use of IT and of innovation, Harry, in his later years, also had spells as an advisor to enterprise software provider SAP and then later to IT security startup Wave Systems.
Above all, Harry was a remarkable human being and a true gentleman. His death marks the end of an era.