In 1970, when I was working at the Conservative Research Department, I was detailed to act as secretary to an outfit of which I had never heard. The outfit was the Conservative Outside Organisations Womens Committee, and its matron was Unity Lister. Somewhat to my surprise I found her to be a woman possessed both of steely intelligence and immense charm.
The immediate purpose of the committee was to encourage Tory women to join non-party organisations with charitable purposes and to express the party's view on all matters connected with social welfare. It was the brainchild of Joan Varley, then a senior functionary at Conservative Central Office, who had noted that Labour activists - and Labour views - seemed over-influential in non-political organisations.
Joan Varley and I were paid party officials. But the public faces of the committee - and the two who exercised its real muscle - were Unity Lister and Sarah Morrison. They had the inestimable advantage of enjoying the complete trust of the party leader, Edward Heath, Lister because of her marked Europhilia, Morrison because of her extensive knowledge of matters concerned with the operation of the Welfare State.
With the influence of these formidable women behind it, the committee's remit was steadily extended, and included the drafting of the Tory response to Barbara (now Lady) Castle's Equal Opportunities Bill and the preparation of the party's argument for entry into the (then) European Economic Community.
Unity Webley was born at Woolwich in 1913, the daughter of a doctor. Her mother was a fervent Quaker, and she thus grew up imbued with the ideals of public service. Her wider consciousness was expanded by attendance at a French finishing school and, later at the Sorbonne. She had a particular facility for foreign languages, and this earned her an important post in the Military Censor's office during the Second World War.
In 1940 she married an old school friend, Sam Lister, a mechanical engineer who ran a small family firm of manufacturers. Her husband had a keenly developed interest in local government, and became a Woolwich councillor. When it was suggested that he stand for the LCC, however, he demurred, and proposed his wife instead. She was duly elected in 1949 and served as an exceptionally effective deputy chairman between 1963 and 1964.
This apprenticeship served her well when she came to face her greatest opportunity in political life, which was also her greatest trial. She had, over the years, risen effortlessly through the voluntary ranks of her party and, in 1971, was chairman of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, and thus had the duty of taking the chair at the party conference that year.
The job of conference chairman in 1971 was a peculiarly difficult one. On the one hand, the exhilaration born of an unexpected general election victory in 1970 had not worn off. On the other, the party was riven by doubts about the wisdom of the leadership's policy for entry into the EEC, doubts fuelled by the passionate rhetoric of the foremost political orator of the day, Enoch Powell.
Lister presided over the fervent and turbulent debate on European policy - there were 125 amendments to the substantive motion - with humour and aplomb, but also with the strict sense of control which marked all her public appearances. Not least because of her efficacy the policy of the Government was carried by a resounding majority. She was rewarded the follow-ing year by being appointed DBE.
One of the first things I - and many others - found in working with Unity Lister was her utter lack of pomposity. She exercised great authority, but she never pulled rank. She could - and did - use great charm, but she never cajoled. She had a marked force of personality, but she never used it to browbeat an opponent. However, if one left her company having disagreed with her, one was left with a feeling of sadness that one had disappointed her.
Unity Viola Lister, politician: born London 9 June 1913; Member, LCC 1949-65, GLC 1965-83, Deputy Chairman 1963-64; OBE 1958, DBE 1972; Chairman, Women's National Advisory Committee 1966-69; Chairman, National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations 1970-71; married 1940 Samuel Lister (died 1995); died 15 December 1998.Reuse content