Obituary: Sir Edgar Keatinge

A pugnacious and sagacious scion of an imperial civil service family - but quite unprepared for his new role
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The Independent Culture
EDGAR KEATINGE had a brief and, perhaps, reluctant role as a pivotal political figure towards the end of the Second World War.

At the beginning of the war, it had been clear that all the main British political parties would support the war effort, at least in general terms. But it was not until May 1940 that a new prime minister, Winston Churchill, was able to form a coalition government.

As Churchill makes clear in his war memoirs, his appointment was in no sense dependent on his ability to negotiate the terms of a coalition. However, as during all his political career, Churchill favoured coalition, and he was prepared to go to considerable lengths to placate the sentiments of the Labour and Liberal parties in order to ensure the participation of the opposition in his 1940 administration.

One of the features of the coalition deal was that, should a by- election become necessary because of the death or resignation of a sitting MP, there would be no challenge for the succession from any of the main parties to the chosen candidate of the party which held the seat. This agreement had serious consequences for, in particular, the Conservative Party, which, under Churchill's leadership, allowed its local system of organisation to decay. Nor, indeed, did the agreement meet with universal acclaim: sections of the Labour and Liberal parties disliked the abandonment of competition: and new - short- lived - groups such as Sir Richard Acland's Commonwealth Party emerged to mount local electoral challenges to the wartime consensus.

Such challenges were discomfiting enough when the balance of advantage in the war was in doubt; but they were particularly so by 1944, when it was abundantly clear that victory for the Allied powers was in sight. By then opponents of Churchill and Clement Attlee were beginning seriously to chafe at the bit of coalition discipline.

This was the situation when the Conservative member for Bury St Edmunds died. A Tory champion, Edgar Keatinge, a serving officer on leave, with a long history of involvement in local govermemt, was ready to hand. What was unexpected, however, was the emergence as a serious challenger of the highly experienced, if somewhat maverick, Liberal politician Margery Corbett Ashby. To be sure, Mrs Ashby resigned all her Liberal Party positions, in order to evade the wrath of her party leader, Sir Archibald Sinclair. But there was a strong, and quirkish, Liberal tradition in Bury; and the support of the Commonwealth Party was readily proffered to her.

Churchill chose to take the battle as a serious challenge to the Government, and Keatinge therefore found himself in the unexpected - and somewhat unwelcome - position of being a national political figure. At issue, it was widely deemed, was the credibility of the Government; and called to defend that credibility was a pugnacious and sagacious scion of an imperial civil service family, who was also a farmer, but quite unprepared for his new role.

Keatinge was born in Bombay in 1905, sent home to school at Rugby, and thereafter to Natal to study agriculture. After five years' service with the South African Department of Agriculture he returned finally to England, where he set about farming the substantial family estate, and plunged into the affairs of local government and the Territorial Army. When war came he was sent back to Africa, where he served as a Royal Artillery officer, reached the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and became the first commander of the West African Artillery School. He was particularly adept at the business of military organisation.

And, in 1944, organisational skills were sorely needed in Bury St Edmunds. It was - and remains - an unwieldy constituency. Wartime pressures and restrictions (especially petrol rationing) meant that exceptional efforts had to be made to rouse the energies and commitment of a complacent local party against the enthusiasm and dedication of a doughty and seasoned campaigner, who could readily mobilise the somewhat inchoate sentiments of rural communities, by that time free of the fears which had sustained the national effort during the critical years of struggle, but beginning to think of what peace would - or could - bring. These feelings, which brought Mrs Ashby the substantial support of 9,000 voters, were to be expressed on a national scale the following year when, for the first time, Britain returned a Labour government with a substantial majority.

Keatinge, who had held Bury St. Edmunds with a greatly reduced Tory majority of 2,500, was not a candidate in the 1945 general election. He had bought a new home in Wiltshire and, with typical conscientiousness, decided that he could not combine his new responsibilities with a parliamentary job. He passed, therefore, from public life, with the single exception of a brief and unedifying - but ultimately successful - dispute with the war ministry over an attempt by the department in 1954 to repossess some land of his which had been requisitioned by the Government during the war.

For the rest of his long life he pursued happily his avocations of farming, shooting and local government. He was, in short, a simple and loyal man who had, for a brief period, endured a significant role in national life; and discharged his duty with honour.

Edgar Mayne Keatinge, politician: born Bombay 3 February 1905; County Councillor for West Suffolk 1933-45; parliamentary candidate, Isle of Ely 1938-44; MP (Conservative) for Bury St Edmunds 1944-45; director, St Madeleine Sugar Co 1944-62; CBE 1954; Kt 1960; director, Caromi Ltd 1962-66; married 1930 Katharine Burrell (died 1990; one son, one daughter); died Salisbury, Wiltshire 7 August 1998.