Derek joined the Liberal Party in 1936 when he became an active member of the Cambridge University Liberal Club. The highlight of his Liberal activities at Cambridge was a visit from Sir Archibald Sinclair, then Leader of the Party. In 1938 he headed a delegation organised by the Liberal Club, to Paris to meet leading French politicians including M. Paul Reynard, later wartime Prime Minister.
From 1939 to 1947 he served in the Army and worked for a time with the redoubtable Solly Zuckerman (subsequently Lord Zuckerman) on bombing strategy. On coming out of the Army he was offered a job in the Marketing Department of the newly-formed National Coal Board, although as coal was then in short supply and rationed there was little marketing to do! He remained in the coal industry for 35 years, during the last 11 of which he was Chairman of the NCB in succession to Lord Robens who played an historic role in the post-war coal industry.
In 1949 he represented the coal industry in discussions about the Schuman Plan which proposed bringing together the coal and steel industries of western Europe and was the first step in what is today the European Union. He spent four years in Luxembourg from 1952 to 1956 a member of the UK delegation to the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community. The then Labour Government had decided, (unwisely in his opinion) not to join the other countries in this ambitious venture but to keep in close touch; a typically British compromise! However, it gave the opportunity of seeing the early stages of the European Union at close quarters, and in particular to have personal contact with that remarkable genius, Jean Monnet.
At the outset of his period as Chairman of the NCB we suffered two strikes, in 1973 and 1974, because of the extent to which miners' wages had fallen behind. In spite of these early difficulties, the Board developed a close relationship with the Union leaders and particularly Joe Gormley. They set up the Joint Policy Advisory Committee as a vehicle for discussing all our policies with the Union leaders. This form of worker participation was in advance of the thinking of the time. As a result, they were able to introduce many measures which were beneficial both to the industry and the mineworkers.
While in the army and at the NCB, Derek was unable to take an active part in politics, but proceeded to do so again in 1982 when he ceased to be connected with public enterprise. He also took up positions with a number of industrial and financial concerns, both in the UK and on the continent, including France, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Austria. This gave him a continuing insight into the affairs of industry both at home and abroad.
In 1983 David Steel recommended Derek for a peerage in order to introduce industrial experience onto the Liberal benches in the House of Lords. In a debate on overseas trade which he initiated in 1984 he recommended that a Select Committee be formed to look into the UK's weakening trade position. This was duly formed under the Chairmanship of Lord Aldington, and Lucius Falkland and Derek were the party's representatives on it. The report of the Select Committee was hard hitting and created a sensation at the time, having been rebutted by the then Conservative government even before it was published! This of course made it a best seller. For a number of years he was Chairman of Sub-Committee F of the European Select Committee and during that time issued a number of reports on energy policy. The most important was probably on energy and the environment which drew attention to many issues which are still current today.
Derek worked closely with Nancy Seear in the period when she led the Liberal Democrats in the Lords and was pleased to support her in many debates on the economy and on Europe. When Roy Jenkins became leader in 1988 he asked Derek to speak for the party on economic affairs generally. This meant taking part in a wide range of Treasury and industrial debates. The main theme which he sought to hammer home was the need for more investment in industry and infrastructure and in a series of debates he drew attention to the plight of the manufacturing sector. A particular issue he repeatedly spoke on was the wholly inadequate and variable investment policy in the London Underground.
When Bill Rodgers took over from Roy Jenkins in 1997 Derek suggested to him that in view of the large number of new and very able Liberal Democrat Peers he should give up my wide portfolio and restrict myself to the subject of energy. He is now concentrating on what he considers to be one of the overriding issues of our time, namely how to deal with the impact of energy on the environment. In this he have not forgotten my old association with the coal industry which I believe would have an important role in the future as long as more effort was put into the development of clean coal technology. He is also very keen on finding solutions to the problem of fuel poverty. There are over four million households in Britain living in badly insulated homes with inadequate heating and limited means. He has for many years been associated with NEA, which is the leading charity for insulating the homes of people on low income, particularly the elderly.
Derek has recently formed a new company under the name of Micropower for the promotion of small-scale electricity generation. This can have many environmental advantages. He is supported in this endeavour by five large companies who are developing equipment for this purpose. Derek hopes that one day soon people will have the opportunity of acquiring an electricity generator which will fit into a cupboard and produce all the electricity and heat they require with minimal environmental impact.
This company has subsequently been transformed into the Micropower Council, a non-profit making body, with the objective of promoting all forms of microgeneration. He was elected the first President, followed by Baroness Maddock.