Obituary: Sir William van Straubenzee

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The Independent Culture
WILLIAM VAN STRAUBENZEE was a prominent figure in Conservative educational circles and in the Church of England.

However, shortly after joining Edward Heath's shadow cabinet in March 1974, his avowed support of comprehensive education brought him into sharp conflict with a whole range of forces within the Conservative Party, not least Norman St John Stevas, who was advocating greater parental choice. After what one historian has called a "power struggle" between the two, van Straubenzee was moved in June to become an official spokesman on defence and St John Stevas took his place. Although van Straubenzee remained in the Commons until 1987 and chaired the Conservative backbench Education Committee in the 1979 parliament, his political career never recovered and he was sacked from the front bench team by Margaret Thatcher when she became leader.

Deprived of any prospect of office, van Straubenzee devoted much of his time to the Church of England. He had served already as a member of the House of Laity from 1965 to 1970, and he was elected to the General Synod in 1975, serving until 1985. He chaired the Synod's Dioceses Commission from 1978 to 1986 and was appointed by Margaret Thatcher to be the Second Church Estates Commissioner in 1979, a post he held until he stood down from Parliament in 1987.

Although his main responsibility was to answer for the Church in the Commons, he was able to address wider Church concerns with knowledge and feeling. Always progressive, he opposed Lord Cranborne's private bill in 1981, which was designed to ensure that congregations could continue to use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; he felt that this was an attempt to sabotage the newly-introduced Alternative Service Book.

As relationships between his party and the bishops worsened, he was an increasingly outspoken defender of the bishops' stance and he clashed publicly with the chairman of the party, John Gummer, over the latter's criticisms of the episcopal bench. The bishops, van Straubenzee said, were not to be bullied.

Ironically, he was later to be angered by senior members of the episcopate when in 1992 they dismissed out of hand the results of a Synod inquiry which he had chaired, and which recommended that the Prime Minister should lose his right to advise the Queen on senior Church appointments, and that vacancies for bishoprics should be advertised.

William Radcliffe van Straubenzee was born in London in 1924, the only son of Brigadier A.B. van Straubenzee DSO MC and Margaret Radcliffe. The van Straubenzees were of Dutch descent and Bill van Straubenzee would tell of an ancestor who came over with Bonnie Prince Charlie and stayed to marry a wealthy Yorkshirewoman. Many of his relatives and forebears had distinguished military careers.

He thought his name had been something of a handicap in his political career, but there is no evidence of that. What is true is that he was frequently complimented on his excellent English and that at one stage he tried to drop the "van" in his name, only to be mistaken for a German.

He was educated at Westminster School and under the influence of his close friend, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, briefly became a socialist. He spent the war years in the Royal Artillery, latterly on staff duties, and served two years in the Far East. He ended the war a Major. Although he qualified as a solicitor in 1952 and became a partner in a firm of solicitors, he was already active in the Young Conservatives - the war, in his opinion, had "matured" his political views - and had set his eyes on a career in politics.

He served as National Chairman of the YCs from 1951 to 1953, joined the Executive Committee of the National Union in 1949 and was made a member of the Conservative Advisory Committee on Policy in 1953. He was appointed MBE for political services a year later. In 1955 he contested a London marginal, Clapham, and was 226 votes short of taking it from the sitting member. From 1955-58 he served on the Richmond Borough Council and in 1959 he was elected to Parliament for Wokingham, a rock-solid Conservative seat, which he held until his retirement from the House in 1987.

He had already established a reputation as one of the more thoughtful younger Conservatives with two Conservative Political Centre publications, one making the case for trade union reform, which was fast becoming fashionable in every quarter of the Conservative party but the front bench. More prescient still, Every Man a Capitalist argued the case for wider share ownership, although after 1979, paradoxically, van Straubenzee was to be one of the leading "wets" on the Conservative backbenches.

David Eccles appointed him as his Parliamentary Private Secretary 1960- 62 and after his dismissal from Government, van Straubenzee acted as secretary to the Conservative backbench sub-committee on New Towns. When the party went into opposition in 1964 he served first as a spokesman on labour and social services and then as an education spokesman. His views on education were heavily influenced by Sir Edward Boyle. During these years he acted also as secretary of the all-party committee on Church Affairs and as honorary secretary of the Federation of Conservative students (FUCUA). Affable, if slightly pompous, he got on particularly well with his young charges.

The Conservative victory in 1979 brought him ministerial charge of higher education in the Department of Education and Science, but his relationship with the Secretary of State, Margaret Thatcher, was not altogether happy, not least when she determined that student contributions to student unions should no longer be compulsory. Heath, by now a close friend, promoted van Straubenzee to be Minister of State in the new Northern Ireland Office, where he won the respect of the Roman Catholics. His dislike of the Ulster Unionists was increasingly apparent and he was one of those who argued strongly against offering them the whip in the aftermath of the Conservative defeat in February 1974.

A short period in the Shadow team brought his front bench career to an end, but he continued to be an active backbencher and his flat in the Lollard's tower of Lambeth Palace was a meeting place for a dissident Conservative grouping (the Lollards), who contested elections to Conservative backbench committees. He chaired House of Commons select committees on assistance to private members (1975-77) and on education and the arts (1984-87) and also served as member of the National Council for Drama Training (1976-81), but it was his membership of the executive committee of the 1922 Committee from 1979 until 1987 and of the Conservative Backbench Education Committee from 1979 to 1983 that made him a leading member of the Conservative "wets" and afforded him a platform to oppose education voucher and students loans. That did not prevent Margaret Thatcher from recommending him for a knighthood in 1981.

Plump, short, balding, with a rather plummy voice and a mildly pompous manner, he was given to elaborate suits, and was known by his colleagues somewhat irreverently as "the Bishop". Although in general benign, he could be tetchy and this may have prevented him from achieving quite the level of influence he aspired to amongst those who opposed Thatcher's policies. He was more influential and quietly successful as one of the earliest parliamentary lobbyists.

John Barnes

William Radcliffe van Straubenzee, politician: born London 27 January 1924; MBE 1954; MP (Conservative) for Wokingham 1959-87; PPS to the Minister of Education 1960-62; Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Education and Science 1970-72; Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 1972-74; Member of the General Synod 1975-85; Second Church Estates Commissioner 1979-87; Kt 1981; died 2 November 1999.