Obituaries: Sir David Lane

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DAVID LANE was, in manner, the mildest, most unassuming, and charming of men; but he was unbending in his attachment to the principles in which he believed and this attachment led him - quite against his will - to become a central figure in some of the most bitter political controversies of his time. His parliamentary career was not a long one - he served as Conservative MP for Cambridge from 1967 to 1976 - but he seemed effortlessly to attract controversy wherever he turned.

The problems which he encountered in public were encapsulated quite early on in his time as Cambridge's Conservative parliamentary candidate. The party in that great university town has always been divided by the mutual suspicion between town and gown, the shopkeepers and industrialists of the constituency being resentful of what they see as the superciliousness of the dons, the dons being inclined to regard their fellow citizens as somewhat plebeian. When choosing a parliamentary candidate for - in normal times - a relatively safe Tory seat, it is necessary, therefore, to seek a candidate who can appeal to both strands of opinion and taste.

On the face of it Lane, when selected as the candidate in 1965, seemed ideally suited to appeal to both sides of this unending conflict. He had been to Eton, and he had taken a double First in Classics from Trinity College, Cambridge, despite the fact that his academic career had been interrupted by a year's wartime service in the Royal Navy.

He had seen the sharp end of politics in north London. He had observed the strife which attended the 1958 race relations riots in Notting Hill, and had fought a gallant, if losing, battle as Conservative candidate in the Lambeth Vauxhall constituency in the general election of 1964. He had, after his undergraduate career, been to the Yale School of Business Studies. He had been successful in business, having been secretary of the British Iron and Steel Federation and - at the time of his selection for Cambridge - was a senior executive at Shell.

As the general election of 1966 approached, however, Lane faced one serious local difficulty. A Cambridge businessman prominent in local government, Alderman Richard King, irritated at being passed over for Lane, decided to stand in the election as an Independent Conservative. He garnered just more than a thousand votes, but it was enough to deny Lane victory, and the Labour candidate, Robert Davies, duly became MP for Cambridge.

Moves immediately began - in today's parlance - to deselect Lane. An unlikely alliance was formed between right-wing academics, who disliked his liberal attitudes on immigration, race relations and other social policy matters, and hard-nosed local businessmen, who had wanted King as their candidate. Matters had come to a crisis when Mark Bradford, a hotelier and a man with a formidable record in Cambridge politics, came to Lane's rescue.

The popularity of Bradford, and that of his wife, Sam, was immense. Bradford took the view that, having selected Lane, Cambridge should not ditch him simply because he had lost an election in a year which had seen a strong national swing to Labour, and at a time when there were particularly debilitating local circumstances. At a special general meeting of the constituency association, held at his own hotel, the University Arms, Bradford's view prevailed. Less than a year later Robert Davies died, and Lane was returned at the consequent by-election.

In 1970 the Conservatives won a general election, and the new Prime Minister, Edward Heath, appointed Lane as Parliamentary Under- Secretary at the Home Office, with immigration and race relations as his particular remit. Central to Lane's view of politics was that benevolent legislation and resolute administrative action by government could produce amelioration of relations between different races in Britain. He advocated his view strongly, and this advocacy led to increasing hostility towards him, both in his constituency and among many of his parliamentary colleagues. Despite the hopes his friends had that he would reach high office, he never rose above his lowly position.

Matters became worse when the Conservatives lost two general elections in 1974. Margaret Thatcher supplanted Heath as party leader in 1975, and Lane found himself increasingly out of tune with the right-wing policies introduced by the new order. I recall, indeed, a particularly frosty encounter between him and Thatcher when, on her way to a speaking engagement at my old college, she paid a so-called courtesy call on him at his home in Great Shelford.

Lane had been deeply involved in the settlement of East African Asian immigrants in Britain in the early 1970s, and he was an outspoken supporter of Labour's Race Relations Act of 1976. His efforts in this area won him no Tory friends, but they did earn him the respectful attention of the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins.

Jenkins decided to amalgamate the old Race Relations Board and the old Community Relations Commission into one body, the Commission for Racial Equality. Lane, seeing little opportunity for parliamentary advancement, accepted with alacrity the Home Secretary's invitation to become chairman of the new body.

His brief was a wide one, and he intended to be a particularly active chairman. A host of investigations was set in train, a multitude of awards bestowed. However, in 1983 a House of Commons inquiry produced a damning indictment of his stewardship, in particular complaining that the majority of the investigations he had commissioned had not been concluded, and that he had shown little aptitude for taking the kind of affirmative action in race relations which the scope of the 1976 act allowed him.

Moreover, he began to lose the hitherto steadfast respect of ethnic minorities, whom he had assiduously wooed in the early years of the decade. Conservative criticism he could easily shrug off, but attacks from his natural supporters were less easy to ignore. He suffered a particularly heavy blow in 1981, when one of his senior officials, Charles Boxer, resigned, stating publicly that Lane often did not read the reports and, when he did, failed to understand them. This criticism was unfairly harsh, but it left Lane dispirited and, the following year, he made his own departure.

Though he was, from time to time, consulted about specific race relations problems by successive Home Secretaries, Lane never again played any important role in public life. His record will stand as that of a decent and honourable man who was, simply, out of tune with the temper of his times, and lost in a world of increasing political polarisation.David William Stennis Stuart Lane, politician: born London 24 September 1922; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1955; MP (Conservative) for Cambridge 1967-76; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office 1972-74; Chairman, Commission for Racial Equality 1977-82; Chairman, National Association of Youth Clubs 1982-87; Kt 1983; married 1955 Lesley Anne Clauson (two sons); died Cambridge 16 November 1998.