Obituary: The Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham

CHRISTOPHER WINCHILSEA was an individualist, a promoter of unfashionable but distinctive and worthy causes, and a liberal to his core - a man of principle.

Born in 1936, Christopher Finch-Hatton was educated at Eton, which he loathed, and then at Gordonstoun, which he liked. At the age of 13, he inherited from his father the ancient titles of Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham. For much of his life he regarded this as a burden he could not justify or enjoy. After National Service in the Royal Navy, Winchilsea sought to distance himself from his title and his background, relations with his mother being particularly strained. He spent some years living and sometimes working in the United States when he was in his twenties and he retained a great love of people and things American all his life.

In 1962 he married Shirley Hatfield and the following year they returned to Britain. They took time to work out where to live and what to do. The issue of disclaiming the title was not addressed. Instead Chris and Shirley bought South Cadbury House in south-east Somerset and committed themselves to improving the house and grounds, and to sinking their roots deeply into the local rural community.

Winchilsea had no pretence about him, and he could be disarmingly naive, but his charm was as radiant as it was natural. He saw himself as a grass- roots Liberal, an ordinary party member, a leaflet deliverer, and a reluctant district council candidate. He was never so happy in political life as when out canvassing on the doorstep. He was a generous benefactor to the Liberal cause in Somerset.

Winchilsea was persuaded after many years that he should take his seat in the Lords to give Liberalism the extra political representation there which it had been ruthlessly denied in the Commons. The House of Lords gave him a platform which he proceeded to use with skill, despite his diffidence and his preference for doing good away from the limelight. He was a backbench Liberal (Democrat) peer for over 20 years. He was naturally delighted when his home constituency was won by the Liberal Democrats in 1997.

He identified with the grass-roots in other walks of life, in particular with two groups whose interests he sought to represent in the Lords - taxi-drivers and policemen. Winchilsea became known to licensed taxi-drivers all over Britain as he investigated the problems they faced from mini- cab competition, local councils and central government. In gratitude for his work he was presented in the 1980s with a London taxi-cab.

The Police Federation also approached Winchilsea to act as one of their spokespersons in the Lords. He took this on and spent a period on the beat in Hackney to see what the job really entailed and to inform his interventions in the Lords.

These two interests gave him a vast network of contacts which he was able to use extensively in support of his greatest passion, the promotion of the interests of the displaced Sahrawi people. Since 1975 these people have survived in refugee camps near Tindouf, in the Algerian part of the Sahara Desert, waiting for a resolution of the failure to achieve a proper decolonisation process in the Spanish Sahara. Spain had allowed the Moroccans to annex their ex-colony but most of the native population fled rather accept a fait accompli.

Winchilsea did more than anyone in the West to keep the plight of the Sahrawi people in the public eye. He publicly denounced the King of Morocco's state visit to Britain in 1987, and he went on to involve the ex-US President Jimmy Carter, and through him James Baker, former Secretary of State, in the process of reaching a settlement of the Western Sahara conflict under the auspices of the United Nations.

Winchilsea helped to found, to organise and to promote in the UK the Sahrawi Refugee Aid Trust. Its most spectacular results were the Rainbow Rover convoys, the most recent of which reached the camps at Tindouf last November. The convoys were made up of Land Rovers, painted in rainbow livery, and took vitally needed medical and food supplies to the camps. Winchilsea organised 10 such convoys over the years, the vehicles and the supplies all being gifts, many of which had been donated by contacts and sponsors. Taxi-drivers and the police were prominent convoy participants.

Winchilsea had many other interests. He achieved environmentally sensitive improvements to the Winchilsea estate in Northamptonshire. His passion for jazz led to the offer of his own series on Jazz FM. He became a patron of the Terrence Higgins Trust after a friend developed Aids. He was a devoted father to Daniel and Alice. He ensured they attended the local state schools, and he and Shirley were passionate advocates for more resources and enlightenment in the comprehensive schools - Shirley eventually being elected a local county councillor. Together the Winchilseas made a powerful and effective team, Shirley providing emotional and practical support which kept Chris on track.

In the early 1990s, Chris suffered his first heart attack and immediately gave up smoking, though no one could shift his love of Coca-Cola. His son, Daniel, succeeds to the title.Christopher Denys Stormont Finch-Hatton, campaigner: born 17 November 1936; styled Viscount Maidstone 1939-50; succeeded 1950 as 16th Earl of Winchilsea and 11th Earl of Nottingham; married 1962 Shirley Hatfield (one son, one daughter); died South Cadbury, Somerset 26 June 1999.

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