Obituary: Lord Alport

Click to follow
AT HEART "Cub" Alport was a Tory romantic (though he would dispute the use of the last word) of a particular school. Although he was the most genial of men, he was fixed in his opinions about the equality of people - and rigorous in his judgement that the proper business of British government in the dying stages of empire was to ensure the progress of colonies, and, especially African colonies, to democracy and majority rule. He had a certain unfortunate hauteur which did not help him in his relations with white settlers in what was, at the major period of his political career, Rhodesia.

Alport was generally thought of as one of the most intellectually brilliant of Conservative Members of Parliament who came to the force in politics in the 1950s. Yet, to his own chagrin, he never achieved the high office for which he felt he was destined and, to the end, felt that he had been unfairly surpassed by such contemporaries as Edward Heath, Enoch Powell and Iain Macleod.

Born in 1912, Alport was educated at Haileybury and Pembroke College, Cambridge (from which university he graduated with a good degree in History). He moved on to become a barrister and, thence, to be one of the brightest young stars of the Tory party's parliamentary intake of 1950, when he was elected as MP for Colchester.

He had a good war. Having enlisted in 1934 in the Artists' Rifles - a curious outfit which was a halfway house between the Territorials and the regular army - he then served in the King's African Rifles, where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, which did nothing to damage his self-esteem and which, certainly, created a lifelong concern with the affairs of the African continent, and particularly of the emancipation of its black inhabitants.

His ministerial career, once he had entered Parliament, did not, however, advance at the speed which he thought was owed to his merit. After serving in various junior offices he was, in 1961, the Minister of State at the Commonwealth Relations Office. This job served his ambitions and interests well. He had a particular concern for the education of the black subjects of the Empire, and this fitted readily with the extensive and detailed work on education he had done under the supervision of R.A. Butler in the immediate post-war years at the Conservative Research Department.

He manifested, in every sense, the ameliorative spirit of Butler's politics, the central aim of which was to produce ideas and legislation which would enable the disadvantaged of the world to rise above their social origins.

Alport was very much a Butler protege. In 1961 Butler was responsible for dissolving the unworkable Central African Federation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now, respectively, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi). Acting on Butler's advice, the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, offered Alport the job of High Commissioner in Salisbury, the most recalcitrant of capitals in the most recalcitrant of colonies. His job, it was explained, would be to justify to white Rhodesians the policy of decolonisation, and the advance to black majority rule.

The acceptance of this post would, of course, require Alport to resign his seat in the House of Commons. In recompense, Macmillan offered him a peerage, and the promise of serious political advancement when he had finished his Rhodesian stint. Against the advice of many of his friends, Alport accepted what - given the intransigence of white Rhodesians - was a thankless burden. But he bravely embarked on a major undertaking with high hopes.

Instead of distinction, however, he achieved only oblivion. Years later, he told me he had fully expected to return to British politics as Lord Chancellor. By the time of his return, however, the proposed settlement of Rhodesian affairs was in ruins, and Macmillan and Butler had both departed from the centre of the British political stage.

Alport had a brief period of pseudo-eminence when Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister elected in 1964, invited him to advise the government of the day on negotiations with that most immovable of Rhodesian prime ministers, Ian Smith. It was all to no avail and, on his last visit to Salisbury, Alport was denied even the courtesy of a meeting with Smith, who had dubbed him "Rhodesia's worst enemy".

Years of disenchantment with politics followed: they culminated in his having the Tory whip in the House of Lords withdrawn after repeated dissension from the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, whom he despised.

However, there were some consolations. He became a force in the affairs of the City University, and played a major part in setting up Essex University. He had always been a graceful writer. He published a number of distinguished pamphlets under the aegis of the Conservative Political Centre (presided over by Rab Butler) and a few books, the most affecting - if somewhat self-serving - of which is The Sudden Assignment (1965), his account of his time in Rhodesia.

He was, to the end, a man true to his ideas and ideals, but unfortunate and unlucky in the way his cards were dealt in his political life.

Cuthbert James McCall Alport, politician: born 22 March 1912; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1944; MP (Conservative) for Colchester 1950- 61; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Commonwealth Relations Office 1957-59, Minister of State 1959-61; PC 1960; created 1961 Baron Alport; British High Commissioner in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland 1961-63; a Deputy Speaker, House of Lords 1971-82, 1983-94; Adviser to the Home Secretary 1974-82; married 1945 Rachel Bingham (died 1983; one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died 28 October 1998.