Obituaries: Alf Robens

OFTEN IN the 1960s Alf Robens invited Labour MPs representing mining areas to a working lunch at Hobart House, writes Tam Dalyell [further to the obituary by Lord Glenamara and Terry Pattinson, 29 June]. On one occasion I arrived early, and took the opportunity to say that, at the time of Hugh Gaitskell's death in February 1963, many of the more recently elected MPs (I had been one for six months) would have voted for him as Hugh's successor, had he remained in the Commons.

And indeed we would have done so, given reservations at that moment about Harold Wilson, George Brown and Jim Callaghan who were the candidates. Probably, he would have won. (Though whether under Robens's leadership Labour would have won the 1964 general election is another matter.) Why had he succumbed to Harold Macmillan's offer of the Coal Board?

Robens, never one to underestimate his own worth, said he was aware that Macmillan had identified him as the most electorally formidable potential leader of the Labour Party. But he added that he saw no prospect of a Labour government in his putative ministerial lifetime. And there was the matter of Suez! His relationship with Gaitskell was no longer the close trusting experience of their shared time at the Ministry of Fuel and Power, and before Gaitskell had become leader of the Labour Party.

Philip Williams's scholarly editing of the Gaitskell diaries confirms Robens's assessment of his own position. In the entry for 9 October 1956, they confirm that Gaitskell knew that the PLP took a poor view of Robens's performance over the Egypt crisis. It was pinpointed by a cruel attack by William Connor, Cassandra of the Daily Mirror, in one of the most cutting diatribes ever written about a politician. Robens told me that that one article had had more effect on his decision to get out of politics than any other individual consideration.

Whatever the criticisms of Aberfan and his later handling of the Coal Board, I shall always remember a man who was deeply and genuinely concerned about the fate of mining communities such as that of West Lothian after closures and who did his effective best to soften hardship. He was not one of those who believed that the mining industry was a sacred cow - what he did believe was that, once you had put a padlock on a pit, it could not be reopened.

In a sense he was a Green concerned about world resources, recognising at the same time that those in the mining industry were paying the price of emphysema, chronic bronchitis and pneunoconiosis and too often, in mining accidents, of life itself.

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