Brian Parkyn

'White heat' Labour MP


Brian Stewart Parkyn, chemical engineer and politician: born Stanford-le-Hope, Essex 28 April 1923; MP (Labour) for Bedford 1966-70; Principal, Glacier Institute of Management 1976-80; general manager, Training Services, British Caledonian Airways 1981-88; married 1951 Janet Stormer (one son, one daughter); died Coventry 22 March 2006.

The most spectacular high-profile result of the general election in 1966, when the Wilson government confirmed its authority with a majority of 100, was in the Bedford constituency. Brian Parkyn with 22,257 votes defeated the Conservative heavyweight, and Winston Churchill's favoured son-in-law, Christopher Soames with 21,879 votes, the Liberal, John Burrell gaining 5,080.

The wafer-thin majority of 378 brought to an end the distinguished parliamentary career of Soames, who had been Secretary of State for War, 1958-60, and Minister of Agriculture, 1960-64, but who had been at the very centre of government when he was his father-in-law's Parliamentary Private Secretary from 1953 to 1955, during a period of Churchill's indisposition through illness. Soames, most generous of politicians, told me, when he had become European Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, how highly he had always regarded Parkyn as an opponent, not least when he had beaten Parkyn in October 1964 by 21,404 votes to Parkyn's 18,256 with 7,712 going to the Liberals.

Soames's widow, Mary, remembers:

Brian Parkyn was local and we weren't and by 1964 an MP having roots in the constituency had begun to matter. We were on very good terms with him.

I know at first hand from friends in the numerous and concentrated Italian community in Bedford what an excellent MP Parkyn proved to be in raising local issues and getting results. Ever courteous as he was himself, Parkyn's work received considerable appreciation from Sir Trevor Skeet, who, as Conservative candidate in the Ted Heath victory, vanquished Parkyn.

Sometimes, it is a platitude to say that a defeated candidate was a loss to the House of Commons. In Parkyn's case, as his close colleague on the Select Committee on Science and Technology I mean it when I say that Parkyn was a loss. Apart from anything else, he was one of the very few engineers or chemical engineers who had both achieved industrial expertise and had experience of running a company. He was an ideal member at the time of the "white heat of the technological revolution".

Brian Parkyn was born in 1923, the son of a nurseryman in rural Essex, and went to stay with an uncle when his parents split up. After school and a rigorous education at King Edward VI School in Chelmsford, and technical colleges, Parkyn decided in 1941 to become a conscientious objector, as his father had been in the First World War. Many years later when we both opposed the Vietnam War, Parkyn told me that he regretted not having volunteered to fight in the Second World War, as by then he had a different perspective on Nazi aggression.

Joining his uncle, who was building up the firm of Scott Bader, Parkyn developed considerable expertise in the use of glass fibres and reinforced plastics. Enormously energetic, he travelled as an exporter with impeccable personal knowledge of carbon fibres to North and South America, Africa, Australia, India, Japan, the Soviet Union and China. In his maiden speech in the House of Commons on 11 July 1966 he said, presciently of pre-Cultural Revolution China:

What is apparent for all to see is the speed, enthusiasm and single-minded dynamism of the people as they transform their nation from a medieval feudal economy to a modern sophisticated, industrial super-state.

Within a year of being elected Parkyn was an obvious choice for the government whips for the first Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, chaired by the electrical engineer Arthur Palmer. The sitting Labour members were David Ginsberg (former research officer of the Labour Party), Professor Nicholas Davies (physicist at Manchester University), Dr David Owen and myself; the Liberals were represented by Eric Lubbock, now Lord Avebury, and the Conservatives by Sir Harry Legge-Bourke, Sir David Price and Airey Neave.

Sitting next to Parkyn at endless meetings, particularly on our exhaustive inquiry into nuclear power, I can vouch for the value of his contribution, and the personal nature of his questions, most of which were his own, as he was not content to be spoon-fed by the excellent committee clerks. Price remembers him as "most conscientious and effective - with the advantage that he spoke from 30 years' experience in the chemical industry".

It was absolutely sensible after the committee heard evidence from the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough about the importance of carbon fibres that Parkyn should be chosen as the chairman of our sub-committee in 1969. He produced a succinct and pertinent report, typically urging solutions rather than simply stating the problem.

After leaving Parliament Parkyn led a hugely useful life, becoming Principal of the Glacier Institute of Management and pursuing his interests at senior level in the British Plastics Federation and the Rubber and Plastics Institute. For a quarter of a century he was on the court of the Institute of Technology which became Cranfield University. He became a recognised authority on polyester resins and reinforced plastics.

On a personal note, in 1968 I got into huge trouble with the Privileges Committee of the House of Commons in what turned out to be a cause célèbre as a result of the Select Committee's visit to Porton Down and subsequent disclosures on the front page of the Observer newspaper. I was very nearly ejected from the House of Commons. Parkyn as a member of the Select Committee thought I had been reckless but stuck out his neck in arguing on my behalf with the whips and House authorities.

He had no need to do so, because it was not to his advantage. He did it because he was deeply a politician of principle and a human being who fretted about what was right and what was wrong.

Tam Dalyell

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