Obituary: Roger Stott

Click to follow
A GENERATION of Labour MPs of potential ministerial material never got an opportunity for a constructive contribution in public office. Eighteen long years out of government were to elapse before their chance arrived, and by that time it was too late. One of that generation was Roger Stott, successively opposition frontbench spokesman on Transport, 1980-83 and 1984-86, on Information Technology, 1983-88, on Trade and Industry, 1988- 89, and on Northern Ireland, 1990-97.

Like three dozen other Labour MPs, he would have been far happier in government doing positive things other than criticising Conservative ministers and knocking together, by the sweat of his brow, opposition policies that were never going to be implemented. Scant though the compensation for a taste of office was, Stott had the satisfaction of knowing that he helped keep the Labour Party going as a serious political force in the lean years 1979-97.

Roger Stott was born in 1943 in Rochdale, where his father worked for the Turner Brothers Asbestos Company, eventually becoming manager. His mother worked in the textile industry. Stott recalled to me that his childhood was very happy, in a typical working-class family. They didn't have much money and only an outside loo but he had vivid memories of having a bath with his sister Susan in a zinc tub in front of the fire. His mother was a staunch Methodist, teetotal and non-smoking, not political in any sense. Stott, who was a candid man, told his friends towards the end of his life that he wished he had been a teetotaller like her.

He was educated at Green Bank primary school in Rochdale. He didn't pass the 11-plus exam and went to a secondary modern school. Because his birthday was in August, he actually left school when he was 14. He went off to the Merchant Navy as a young deck boy and got his first ship, a Temple Lane tramp ship, in Liverpool and set sail when he was only 15. They picked up cargo in Rotterdam to take out to Shanghai.

Stott didn't realise, he chuckled, that they were on a 12-month contract to the Chinese government, so, while most of his future colleagues in the parliamentary Labour Party were struggling at school to get into university, Stott's formative years were spent up and down the China coast, going as far as Haiphong in Vietnam. Many years later, James Fenton wrote in the New Statesman that one could easily imagine Stott as "Jolly Jack Tar with a pigtail and a black straw hat, bell-bottomed trousers and a parrot on his shoulder, dancing a hornpipe somewhere in the South China Sea". During the arguments between left and right in the Labour Party in the early 1980s Stott would point out - as one immersed in the politics of moderation - that he must have been one of the first Young Socialists to go to North Vietnam.

Then he contracted malaria in Africa and had a rough time. Faced with the problem of recurring bouts he decided to leave the sea and was lucky to be recruited by Post Office Telephones. He spent what he called the happiest 10 years of his life climbing telegraph poles and doing a public service. Each day was different. He became a member of the Post Office Engineering Union (POEU), and decided to join the Labour Party.

He was drafted to become chairman of the Young Socialists in Rochdale by the then Labour MP and whip Jack McCann. At the age of 23 he was elected to the council and a few years later became chairman of the housing committee, which led to "wonderful scraps" with Cyril Smith, later the considerable Liberal MP for Rochdale, and with David Trippier, later Conservative minister and MP for Rossendale, who were councillors at the same time.

Ted Heath, then prime minister, was "throwing money around, on the old Keynesian principle that if you give money to sensible people they will spend it sensibly to create work, housing and employment". Stott and his colleagues embarked on one of his most unenviable tasks, refurbishing completely the entire pre-war housing stock of Rochdale in 18 months. "It was a hell of a struggle," he said,

but we spent pounds 12m and we did it all. I've been in the House of Commons for many years now and I've been Parliamentary Private Secretary to a prime minister, but I've never had as much power as then. I could actually physically see what was happening as a result of decisions we had made.

Stott's story could be repeated by many MPs who came from positions of authority in local government.

At 27, he was selected to fight Cheadle but lost his deposit. However the veteran Labour MP for Westhoughton died three years later and on 24 May 1973 Stott was elected by 26,294 votes, over the Conservative candidate, Dr C.A. Unsworth, who got 19,511. My own memory is of a happy by-election with a candidate whose chirpiness, wit and good Lancashire humour endeared him to supporters, activists and electorate alike.

Stott's campaign manager was John Golding, later a prominent member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party and MP for Newcastle- under-Lyme. Stott described him with vintage humour and kindliness. "He wore a black mac and looked like an advertisement for Sandeman's port, but he's a brilliant guy and the best campaign manager I ever had."

Stott made his maiden speech on 18 July 1973 in a debate on inflation:

I know from personal experience prior to entering this House how difficult it is to balance the family budget when on the one hand my wife wanted more money for the weekly groceries and on the other my wage packet was not increasing. Indeed, many peoples' wage packets were actually frozen.

Unfortunately, inflation, and the failure to deal effectively with it, does not con- fine itself to food alone. I was profoundly saddened by the frustrations of many young people in my constituency who want to get married but cannot afford to buy a house. It seems that the splendid ideal of having a home of one's own is now beyond the bounds of possibility for most young people, because the speculation and obscene profiteering in housing and land has been allowed to continue without any effective legislation to prevent it.

In 1975, the year after Labour won two general elections, Eric Varley, then Secretary of State for Industry, asked Stott to be his PPS. Such was his enthusiasm and loyalty that the following year Jim Callaghan pinched him for Downing Street.

"The thing about being PPS to a prime minister," said Stott,

is that it is a unique position. It's the position you make of it; you mould it, there are no ground rules or manuals to say what

you should do. You are a heartbeat away from the decision-making. You've got the confidence of the guy you work for and yet you've got none of the awesome responsibilities. You travel the world, see how it works and yet you don't go to bed with red boxes every night. Anyone who tells you the prime minister's job is an easy one has never been close to it: it certainly isn't.

As Richard Crossman's sometime PPS I consider myself something of a connoisseur of PPSs and I assert that no minister was ever better or more loyally served than Jim Calla-ghan by Roger Stott. He was held in the highest esteem by the Callaghan in-group led by Merlyn Rees, and the outgoing prime minister recognised his worth by appointing him CBE in the dissolution honours. Lord Callaghan said yesterday: "When Roger Stott was my PPS, he showed himself to be a very acute interpreter of the political scene. I shall always remember him for the infectious enthusiasm with which he faced every problem, undertook every task, and for the absolute loyalty I could utterly depend upon." Jack Cunningham described how Stott's good humour "made him a very popular member of the close group of MPs who so strongly supported the Prime Minister".

For the next 15 years Stott devoted himself to the hard slog of the Opposition Front Bench. He spoke passionately in defence of his old employer, the Post Office:

I was proud of the public service that I performed. I know members of my union, including postmen and women, are very proud of the public service that they provide. They do not simply deliver letters, issue stamps at a Crown post office or pay social security benefits at a sub-post office: they are imbued with a sense of public service.

If milk bottles are on the doorstep of an old age pensioner's house three days after they should have been removed, it is the postman or woman who reports to the police or the local social services. They are much more than deliverers of letters: they are an essential part of the community. They take burgeoning pride in the fact that they are public servants - just as I did when I was a public servant working for the post office.

I remember connecting electricity late one night for a farmer whose sheep were lambing. I did not do that because I was being paid overtime; I did it because it was my job. Postmen and women do the same thing. What is wrong with the principle espoused by Roland Hill, the founder of the modern British Post Office - no matter where a person lives, be it in Land's End or the Shetland Islands, when he buys a second-class or first-class stamp he pays the same price as everyone else.

In his last years he devoted himself to the problems of Northern Ireland, and must be counted one of the driving forces behind the improved situation there. Merlyn Rees said he was "one of the few Englishmen who really bothered to understand the problems of Ireland". Speaking from the opposition front bench on 24 May 1994 Stott said that in a democracy it was the duty of government to protect the civil rights of their citizens. He accepted that there might be a need for emergency powers to counteract the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland. However he argued passionately that the powers in the Emergency Provisions Act weakened the core principles on which a civilised society is based. That in itself was of assistance to terrorists in their evil campaign on violence.

Throughout his political life, Stott championed the Arab cause, and the Council for British-Arab Understanding. However, he was not uncritical, and in December 1986 he raised the question of the sales of sensitive defence equipment to Iraq - long before those who now enter into condemnation had ever heard of the issue.

To the grief of his friends, Roger Stott's marriage to Irene Mills came to an end in the early 1980s when she complained publicly that he was married to his job. He was a man who had deep friendships in the House of Commons and his captaincy of the House of Commons cricket team meant that those friendships extended across parties. His parliamentary colleagues were deeply impressed during the last six months by the absence of self- pity and his cheerfulness in the face of the adversity of obvious cancer.

Roger Stott, post office engineer and politician: born Rochdale, Lancashire 7 August 1943; MP (Labour) for Westhoughton 1973-83, for Wigan 1983-99; PPS to Secretary of State for Industry 1975-76, to the Prime Minister 1976-79, to Leader of the Opposition 1979; CBE 1979; married 1969 Irene Mills (two sons; marriage dissolved 1982), 1985 Gillian Pye (one son, one daughter); died Wigan, Lancashire 8 August 1999.