| A committed 'wet'
My father died last week. He was a Conservative member of parliament from 1963 until 1992 and was once described as 'the last gentleman in England'. One of his former colleagues, a member of a recent Labour cabinet, wrote, 'To me he epitomised that gentle, caring, unifying Conservatism which used to be so appealing. He was civilised, that was his great appeal in parliament. He never sought the limelight, but he was a man who influenced tone and quality and made people feel trusting and comfortable. You can't say that about many people these days.' The ceremonial opening of parliament this week, with a dull enough Queen's Speech, delivered by Her Majesty in standard deadpan style, has created little political news since the election; so I hope that readers of The Telegraph will forgive a piece about past times and mostly about my father, Charlie, of whom I am immensely proud.
Charlie was born in 1932 with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. My grandmother's family had made their fortune in the stationery business; my grandfather's by cornering the market in black cr'pe in time for the state mourning for Queen Adelaide, wife of William IV, Queen Victoria's uncle. Judicious marriages conspired with great wealth to promote both families from trade to aristocracy, although neither was ashamed of more humble ancestors. At the time of Charlie's birth, my grandfather was one of the richest men in England with estates both there and in Scotland. Service to their country as members of parliament became part of the lives of the first affluent members of the family, and my grandfather was still in parliament when Charlie entered after a closely fought by-election in 1964.
Few MPs today would consider 28 years in parliament without ministerial office a successful or even a possible career. Charlie's hopes of advancement were inevitably destroyed by the inexorable rise of Margaret Thatcher, with whose right-wing diktats he was wholly antipathetic. He was a committed 'wet', on the extreme left of the Conservative party, and a genuine moderate and liberal in the old-fashioned sense. Starting as he meant to go on, he voted, in 1964, for the abolition of the death penalty and backed the moderate Edward Heath in his 1965 campaign to become leader of the party. He remained a close friend and ally of Ted's but was increasingly marked by right-wing Tories as an alarming 'pinko'.
Mrs Thatcher's ascent to the leadership probably finished any real chance of promotion as Charlie was never prepared to subjugate principles for the sake of preferment. Even my grandfather, one of the most influential Conservative MPs of his generation, who nevertheless avoided making speeches in the House at all costs, despaired of his second son. His youngest, Peter, was, in contrast, Mrs Thatcher's parliamentary private secretary, and he and Charlie consistently voted on opposing sides throughout their parallel time in parliament.
Diametrically opposite political views never stopped the brothers being friends in private. Charlie's fascination with people of all kinds and persuasions, and his delight in the company of equally diverse friends, are the triumphs of his life. Parliamentarians today are, in the main, too fearful of their perceived image and too short of the time to spend with others than their immediate colleagues.
Charlie's time in parliament was relatively recent ' but heavens, how things have changed! In his day, MPs spent much more time in the Palace of Westminster; friendships and alliances were forged, even across party boundaries. Late night sittings; chats in bars and tea-rooms were all part of the business and the life of a parliamentarian. Now Westminster is a drearier and quieter place. Forbidding external and internal security, and the determination of young and thrusting MPs to hurry on, have left little space for the camaraderie and easy friendships of those following what was once more of a vocation than a career. Contemporary puritanism has also reduced the possibilities for any easing of paths with a shared drink or two in the early morning hours. General delight in the maverick individual or the intelligent rebel with a worthwhile cause has passed. Of course people have to live, and earlier political gentlemen may have had alternative means, but a constant eye upon ministerial appointment at all costs and the requirement to tow a party line, regardless of personal principle or, apparently, the views of constituents, have reduced parliament to a grey rubber-stamping mechanism for Downing Street policies.
One of the few remaining MPs to speak for the importance of parliament as opposed to government is a left-wing Labour member called Chris Mullin. He is another such as Charlie, someone who is extremely able but considers right and truth more important than personal advancement. I imagine a collective shudder amongst good young Labour enthusiasts when he speaks out.
When Charlie won his by-election against the odds to enter parliament at the then early age of 32, he must have appeared a fairly typical Conservative figure. Education at Eton and Cambridge, national service in the Lifeguards, nothing unusual then in any of that; most Conservative prime-ministers and ministers of the time had followed a similar path. His victory was in part due to his and his wife's service on the local county council throughout their twenties, and both of their families' roots in the constituency. Support from Ian Fleming, a distant relation and author of the James Bond books, who wrote an article entitled, 'To Westminster with Love', describing the new candidate as 'Licensed to Kill', may have helped.
I do not know what Charlie's ambitions were for the future. I suspect they involved ministerial office at some level and there seemed every likelihood that such hopes would be realised. He was deeply unlucky in the direction which the Conservative party took under Thatcher. Undoubtedly that bitter harvest is still being reaped as the party continues to entrench along quasi-Thatcherite and the more liberal lines of the likes of Ken Clarke. Thatcher created the image of a Conservative party that cares less about those who fall through the economic and social net, and the suspicion that this continues today has allowed a Labour administration, perceived as dishonest, its continued overwhelming supremacy in parliament.
Charlie did not succeed in the way he and many of his friends and contemporaries would have expected, because he was too good a man, determined to do good things, regardless of self. This has been echoed by his obituaries in the English newspapers, which appear to consider his character a triumph of nature over nurture. Actually they are wrong. Charlie's background, as with others of his ilk, cast him perfectly for his role in relatively selfless public service. He appears different today only because there are very few men like him still in public life, who consider personal privilege a good reason for working for the advancement of those less blessed.
Charlie was a convinced European; pro the Arab cause; a campaigner for electoral reform; chairman of the parliamentary group on population and development, which allowed him to travel with delight to India; he described potential cuts in unemployment benefit as 'shaming'; voted against the dreaded poll tax and urged negotiations with the Argentinians at the outbreak of the Falklands crisis. All in all he was a disaster in Thatcher's eyes. His other appointments to numerous and diverse organisations and committees reflected both his political and personal interests.
He was, at heart a real countryman; a farmer; a brilliant gardener, a fisherman and a lover of rural England and Scotland. If asked, like the former prime minister, Lord Home, what his worst times had been, he might very well have answered, and equally unexpectedly: 'Every time I lost a fish.' He died too young to see the full fruits of his latest garden and for a peaceful old age doing all the country things he most enjoyed. So far as I am concerned, he was my adored Dad, and that is why I will miss him after the public eulogies are long forgotten.