Obituary: Sir Rupert Speir

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The Independent Culture
MOST (NOT all, but most) of the people I have met who were assiduously concerned about the environment - pollution, noise, litter, and manifold other such subjects - have been humourless bores, whose characters border on the fanatical. Not so, however, Rupert Spier. He was a man possessed of a most genial and outgoing spirit, ever concerned for the well-being and happiness of his fellow human beings, a founder of two major organisations dedicated to make life on the planet healthier and more agreeable, and a significant promoter of legislation towards that end.

He looked always to the future; and the numerous godchildren for whom he acted with conscientious affection can testify to the care and devotion with which he looked after their interests, for he was, as a lawyer, often a trustee of their estates, as well as a purveyor of presents and wise counsel. I once saw him at a dinner given by the Noise Abatement Society, chaired by Sir Derek (now Lord) Ezra where the radiance of his temperament shone out, and where he lifted the spirits of all who attended; without being over-pious, or in any way a moraliser, he could make people feel good about themselves, and part from him with a feeling that they could be even better citizens.

Rupert Malise Speir was born the scion of a Scottish family distinguished both in military and political affairs, his father, Lt-Col Guy Speir, being both a good soldier and an important adjutant to Arthur Balfour, the last Conservative prime minister before the Liberal landslide general election victory of 1906. He was to become, all his adult life, an adornment to Conservative, and to national, politics; but he was never overtly partisan, seeing political life as essentially a matter of public service.

He was born at Saltoun in 1910, and educated at Eton and Pembroke College, Cambridge. He had an orderly and efficient mind and after graduation, he set his mind to the practice of the law. After a brief period as honorary secretary to Sir Samuel Hoare - then Secretary of State for India - he became a solicitor in 1936. By then, of course, war was looming. In 1939 he joined up. His analytical mind commended him to the Intelligence Corps. He served with the Corps throughout the Second World War and emerged in 1945 with, to his especial pleasure, the same rank as his father. But his heart was set on combining a political with a legal career.

Given his political background - he had been chairman of the (student) Cambridge University Conservative Association - he had a slow start, losing the seats of Linlithgow in 1945, and Leek in 1950. However, he triumphed at Hexham in the general election which returned his party to power in 1951. Hexham was a particularly appropriate seat for him, since he had spent a large part of his childhood and youth in Northumberland, where his father had leased land from the Duke.

In Parliament Speir never held the serious ministerial office which, many felt, his talents merited. But, then, he was never particularly desirous of holding office, his attention being concentrated on using what influence and eloquence he possessed in a way rather different from the ministerial. His general attitude to public life was symbolised by, on his election, volunteering to take a cut in his parliamentary salary from pounds 1,000 a year to pounds 900.

He did, however, serve, uncomplainingly and efficiently, in the humble role of Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Foreign Office, the Commonwealth Relations Office, and the Admiralty. The last of these (unpaid) posts he relinquished in 1956 in order the better to concentrate on a burgeoning business and legal career, and the better to advance political causes close to his heart.

With his advocacy of these causes he carved out for himself a significant political monument. Three important pieces of legislation were sponsored by him as a backbench MP. In 1958 there was the Litter Act, in 1960 the Noise Abatement Act and, in 1963 the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act. All the time he kept up a ceaseless barrage of letters, other writings and speeches advocating improvements in public transport and the legalisation of minicabs in London. Though he was never entirely satisfied with what he achieved - once observing that the two front benches in the House of Commons were, in the casting of used paper about the floor of the House, an affront to tidiness - there can be no doubt that he left a considerable and beneficial mark on the quality of British life.

He found time also to give strenuous support to such organisations as the Keep Britain Tidy Group and the Institute for Public Cleansing. Withal, he found even more time for business. Starting as a merchant banker, he also became chairman of Crossley Building Products, of Unigate, of Common Brothers (a shipping company), of Matthew Hall, and of Smith's Potato Crisps.

In everything Speir turned his hand to, his acuity and energy were marked and appreciated. He displayed zest and application in everything he did, including his golf and shooting. He led a full and rounded life.

Rupert Malise Speir, politician: born Saltoun, East Lothian 10 September 1910; MP (Conservative) for Hexham 1951-66; PPS to the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary, Admiralty 1952-56, to the Civil Lord of Admiralty 1952-56, to the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, 1956-59, to the Parliamentary Secretary, Commonwealth Relations Office 1956-59; Kt 1964; died 16 September 1998.