Obituary: Baroness Macleod of Borve

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EVE MACLEOD spent 29 years of her life as one of the most successful practitioners in a largely unsung profession, that of playing wife to a front-rank politician, and when Iain Macleod died tragically early in July 1970, she moved into public life in her own right as a member of the House of Lords, member and chairman of a number of public bodies and a leading figure in the voluntary sector, which had always been close to her heart.

Although crippled in her late thirties by polio, she never let it interfere with an extraordinarily active life. She would always recall her father's dictum, "There's no such word as can't." Even when confined to a wheelchair, she remained an active participant in the House well into her eighties.

Evelyn Hester Blois was born in Worcestershire in 1915. Her father, the Rev Gervase Blois, could trace his descent from Adele, sister of William the Conqueror; her mother, Hester Pakington, was the younger daughter of the third Lord Hampton. Her upbringing was that thought suitable for a girl of her background. She was educated at Lawnside, Great Malvern, and then took her place in county society. She was presented at Court. Her social life centred on country-house tennis and hunt balls, but she became a notable horsewoman and all-round athlete. She played tennis for Worcestershire.

Strikingly attractive, with china-blue eyes, she married her first husband, Mervyn Mason, in 1937. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she did not believe that Munich had put an end to the chance of war and she volunteered to serve in the London Ambulance Service.

When war broke out, she was posted to its headquarters in London and it was there, in September 1939, that she interviewed a young man called Iain Macleod who had volunteered to drive ambulances while waiting to join the Army. Twenty-five years later, after a marriage that had had its ups and downs, Iain told Patsy Fisher, "Every man has many dream loves, but only one true love." Eve was that love. As Iain Macleod's biographer noted of their marriage, the "climate was one of sunshine and showers", and Iain was not always faithful. But the marriage seemed founded on rock.

Mervyn Mason had been drowned early in 1940 when his ship was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland. Recovering from this tragedy, Eve was in touch again with Iain. He had been injured during the retreat to Dunkirk and evacuated from St Nazaire. After coming out of hospital he had been posted to Halifax and Eve arranged to be transferred to the Bradford Ambulance Service.

They were married in 1941. Their son Torquil was born just over a year later and a daughter, Diana, followed in October 1944. They were often apart during the war, but at its end were spending Iain's leave on holiday at Scalisbro when the general election was announced. Iain and his father decided that he would be the Conservative candidate for the Western Isles. He was subsequently recruited into the party's Research Department and almost immediately found a parliamentary seat and a house at Enfield.

As the candidate's wife and still more when Iain became the Member in 1950, Eve was an enormous asset. She was not only an able speaker in her own right but she gave her support to all the worthwhile causes in the locality and took a genuine interest in the activities of the Conservative Association. For more than 30 years she served as a local magistrate.

After Iain Macleod became Minister of Health in 1952, Eve had to take on the lion's share of the constituency work and did so despite being crippled only weeks after his appointment with first meningitis and then polio. It would not be untrue to say that she virtually carried the constituency for him.

At first her recovery from a life-threatening illness was slow. For many months she was paralysed from the waist down. Her courage and determination in the face of this crippling blow were remarkable. By November, she was fit enough to go on a six-week cruise to South America, but one leg remained paralysed. Although able to walk, she could do so only with the aid of sticks. That did not prevent her from driving Iain around at great speed in a specially modified car. His diseased spine made it difficult for him to drive and, after 1957, impossible.

One of Macleod's great concerns was the voluntary side of hospital work and his interest in it owed a great deal to Eve, who was already active in the League of Hospital Friends, a body of which she subsequently became deputy chairman. Subsequently she was to chair the National Association of Hospital Friends from 1973 to 1985 and she remained its President until 1990. A direct result of Eve's illness was the interest Iain took in improving the design of leg callipers and artificial limbs.

Eve's role was even more important when Iain became Colonial Secretary in 1959 and embarked on the task of bringing independence more speedily to Britain's colonies. He had learnt from his predecessor the importance of informal contacts and discussions with the various politicians with whom he had to deal. Whereas his predecessor had had an elegant London home and staff with which to entertain, the Macleods had only a London flat in Sloane Court West.

Eve would spend hours over the stove before turning her attention to entertaining Iain's visitors. Sometimes the impromptu discussions spilled over into the kitchen where Eve was making an endless supply of coffee or cooking bacon and eggs. On more formal occasions the Government would afford her the services of a waiter, but Eve would still buy and cook the food herself. Both the flow of visitors and the discussion seemed endless: during the Kenya Conference in particular, "It almost became a question of latchkeys for some of them."

Recalling that Clarissa Eden had said at the time of Suez that she had felt that the canal was flowing through her drawing room, Eve observed, "I feel as if I've had all Africa walking through mine." Some African statesmen, Hastings Banda and Julius Nyerere in particular, became personal friends. Occasionally Eve would go on tour with her husband and, on the earliest of such trips, she broke her leg in Kingston, Jamaica. It did not deter her from accompanying her husband shortly afterwards on a visit to the UN in New York, although she had to sleep in a specially converted room in the Embassy downstairs.

During the Conservative leadership crisis of 1963, Iain Macleod, by now party chairman, was distracted by a harrowing family crisis. His daughter Diana's life hung in the balance for most of October and there are many who feel that the absence of Eve from his side and his inability to draw on her sources of intelligence caused him to misplay the political cards. As a result he was never in a position to contest the leadership, but in 1970 he realised his ambition of becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, only to be struck down by a heart attack less than a month after entering No 11.

Briefly, Eve considered letting her name go forward to contest the by- election, but other counsels prevailed and she determined instead to help complete a biography of her husband. The task was entrusted to an old friend and fellow MP, Nigel Fisher, but Macleod had kept no diary, few papers and only a handful of letters, including only three from his wife. Eve Macleod interviewed many key figures and contributed substantially to the final work.

In 1971 she accepted a life peerage, taking as her title that which Iain had chosen for himself, Macleod of Borve, and she became a regular attender, furthering the social causes for which Iain had stood. She had turned herself into a compelling speaker and her words carried authority since they derived from personal experience. Her work as a magistrate and as an appointee to the Parole Board gave her a particular interest in penal policy and in one memorable speech she advocated the greater use of suspended sentences.

It was her view that the shock of being on remand when coupled with the prospect of returning to gaol was sufficient in a great many cases to deter the offender from committing further offences. She was critical of the numbers being held on remand for long periods, believing rightly that the overcrowded remand centres were "schools for crime", and she campaigned in vain for the mental hospitals which were being made redundant to be brought into use as additional remand centres.

As late as last year she spoke out against Labour's assault on the widow's pension, claiming that it was another attack on the family: "Perhaps it's old-fashioned to believe that a nation has an obligation to widows and orphans. It's not the world Iain and I and so many others were trying to build." Although she refused to take a front-bench position in the 1980s, she nevertheless came to admire greatly the way in which Margaret Thatcher had transformed Britain and recalled that Iain had spotted her early as a future prime minister.

In 1967, when Iain was in Opposition, he and Eve were persuaded to found Crisis at Christmas - the name was suggested by Eve - since at that time nothing was being done for the homeless over the festive season. Almost her first task during her long widowhood was to transform what had been an annual appeal into a charity of which she became a trustee and to expand its work. But she was soon to add considerable public work to her activities in the voluntary sector.

She was appointed to the Independent Broadcasting Authority in November 1971 for a four-year term and in the following year became the first Chairman of the National Gas Consumers' Council, an organisation that she started from scratch. Her forthright reports rightly attracted high praise and there was a major political storm when Roy Hattersley refused to renew her appointment in 1977. She complained subsequently that the work of the council was being "perverted by would-be philosophers and politicians". However, the Labour government did appoint her to the Energy Commission 1977-78 and to the Metrication Board.

The shock of her unexpected bereavement and consciousness of the problems widows faced - her own husband had left only a modest estate - led her to launch the National Association of Widows in 1976. Its purpose was to provide advice to widows struggling to cope and to help them with financial and other advice. Within a decade the association had 22 advice centres and the number of branches was fast approaching a hundred.

Intensely loyal to her husband, her party and her friends, Eve Macleod had unselfishly furthered her husband's cause while he was alive, shared his triumphs and upheld him in times of adversity. They shared a social conscience and a practical approach to putting it to work. After his death she wasted little time in carving out her own role in public life and her contribution was considerable, constructive and wide-ranging.

It cannot be said that she was an altogether easy person with whom to deal; her mind was too clear and her views too forthright for that. But with friends, both while Iain was alive and afterwards, she could relax and enjoy a thoroughly good gossip. Her immense courage and fortitude in the face of crippling injury and the way in which she met each challenge by driving herself even harder than before are testimony to a formidable will and a Christian upbringing that left a lifelong mark.

Evelyn Hester Blois, public servant: born 19 February 1915; JP 1955; co-founder, Crisis at Christmas 1967; created 1971 Baroness Macleod of Borve; Chairman, National Gas Consumers' Council 1972-77; Chairman, National Association of the Leagues of Hospital Friends 1973-85, President 1985- 90; President, National Association of Widows 1976-99; married 1937 Mervyn Mason (died 1940), 1941 Iain Macleod (died 1970; one son, one daughter); died 17 November 1999.

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