Denzil Freeth: Politician celebrated for his charm and oratory and rated highly by the scientific community
Tuesday 04 May 2010
It is over 45 years since Denzil Freeth retired from the House of Commons and 55 years since he was first elected as an MP for Basingstoke. For those of us in the 1959-64 parliament, Freeth was the most sparkling orator and debater, Enoch Powell included. Had I been asked to place a bet in 1962 as to who would lead the Conservative Party in 1982, my money would have been on Freeth. The exact reasons why he abruptly halted a dazzling political career, resigning from office on 23 October 1963, were unclear to his contemporaries; but those were days when neither parliamentary colleagues nor lobby and political journalists wanted to pry into the private lives of those in public life accused of no crime. But it was the febrile atmosphere which followed the Vassal and Profumo cases, and Freeth indicated to friends that he did not want to pursue the hazards of public life.
Born into a prosperous business family, Freeth won a scholarship to the public school of Sherborne. As an 18-year-old he volunteered for the RAF, became a flying officer and saw service over Germany. He was very hesitant in ever endorsing parliamentary decisions to go to war, though becoming MP the year before Suez, he didn't want to rebel against the party whips as a new boy.
In 1946 he gained a scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Sydney Elwood (Obituaries, Independent, 19 October 2001) for 40 years clerk of the students union, told me shortly before he retired that he had known many extremely talented undergraduates who had become president of the union, naming Giles Shaw and Douglas Hogg among them. "But if you pressed me as to the wittiest and quickest in all my time I would have to choose Denzil Freeth," he said. Freeth was a legendary speaker and was invited back on many occasions. The late and lamented Nicholas Tomalin, the journalist who was tragically murdered in the Middle East, as president invited his Trinity Hall predecessor to speak at a major debate. Those of us who were there will never forget the spontaneity and charm which Freeth displayed.
Chosen as their candidate in Basingstoke by the Conservative Association, Freeth quickly made his mark in the Commons as a member of the Select Committee on Procedure. Only a year after arriving he was made a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Board of Trade until 1959, and after a short period as PPS to that powerful and discerning Cabinet minister Sir David Eccles as Minister of Education, he was promoted to be a Parliamentary Secretary. Parliamentary Secretaries are not normally of great importance or prominence, but in Freeth's case it was different. The Cabinet minister whom Macmillan made responsible for science was Quintin Hogg, Viscount Hailsham, who was, of course, a member of the House of Lords. This meant that the spokesman for Hailsham's considerable and important responsibilities in the Commons was Freeth.
On 15 July 1963 Freeth opened the debate for the government on science. For the opposition I will never forget Richard Crossman in full flow: "If the Committee does not believe me I should like to read the passage in question from this pamphlet – I am sorry, I have lost the passage." Hansard recalls, and I recall: "The Parliamentary Secretary for Science, Mr Denzil Freeth, says it is page 5." Then Mr Crossman: "the Parliamentary Secretary is a chivalrous and generous man. That is a handsome gesture considering what is coming." And Crossman read out a critical passage. Freeth – in days when ministers could be so – was indeed an extremely chivalrous and generous man. He never indulged in cheap yah-boo.
Freeth's view encapsulated in a long speech was: "in this field my noble friend the Minister for Science has always adhered to one principle. It is a principle which we on our side of the Committee are certain is right. It is that in basic research one has to try to find the best men with the best ideas to support them. This is a philosophy which underlines the research-council concept which we have had in this country for a very large number of years. Of course, it is only the scientist who can advise the minister on what are the best ideas, and only the scientist in the same field as the person who is seeking public money to support its researchers.'
At the end of the debate, during which Freeth, unlike ministers nowadays, had listened to every word, I had a letter from his office. Would I go and see him? He was interested in two issues: my account of my visit to BP's research station at Sunbury-on Thames, and the work of Professor E. S. Sellers in heading a departmental team researching the microbiology of turning straight-chain hydrocarbons into protein. The letter also said that I had referred to myself and my colleagues "being the guest of Drs Perutz, Sanger, Crick and Brenner at the molecular biology unit at Cambridge – it was the almost unanimous opinion that their work combining physics, chemistry and medicine might not have been possible within the framework of an existing university department".
When a few days later I went to his office I found that he was genuinely interested and well-briefed. I also know that he asked other participants in the debate – Austen Albu, Aubrey Jones, Judith Hart, Airey Neave, John Osborn, Sir Harry Legge-Bourke and Dr Jeremy Bray – to see him about points in their speeches. Ministers nowadays do not listen to what is said in parliament; Freeth not only listened but was genuinely concerned to try to do something.
He was also held in high regard by the scientific community heavyweights. In 1965 I was invited to lunch at the Athenaeum by Sir Howard Florey, the Nobel Prize winner, and his friend Sir Lindor Brown, Waynflete Professor of Physiology in Oxford. They said to me, memorably: "for all that your Harold Wilson talks about the white heat of the technological revolution, frankly we found Freeth excellent to deal with and understanding of our complexities, and much, much better than that ridiculous minister which your government appointed, 'Lord' C.P. Snow, whom we found lazy compared to Hailsham and Freeth."
His concern for his brief lasted long after he had departed the House of Commons. In the 1970s, when I was a columnist for New Scientist, I would receive the occasional rather sad letter from him saying what he would have done if he had been in a position to.
A great talent was lost to stockbroking, where he was held in high regard by the Stock Exchange. But for him it was not the same as public life. He was extremely active in church affairs, not only as long-time warden of St Margaret's, London W1, but also as Chairman of the Finance Committee of the London Diocesan Fund.
Denzil Kingson Freeth, politician and stockbroker: born London 10 July 1924; educated Highfield School, Liphook, Sherborne (scholar), Trinity Hall, Cambridge; RAF Flying officer 1943-46; debating tour of America 1949; MP for Basingstoke 1955-64; PPS to Minister of State, Board of Trade 1956, to President, Board of Trade 1957-59, to Minister of Education 1959-60; Parliamentary Secretary for Science 1961-63; Member, Select Committee on Procedure 1956-59; stockbroker 1956-61, 1964-89; Chairman, Finance Committee, London Diocesan Fund 1986-94; Church warden, All Saints' Church, Margaret St, W1 1977-96; MBE 1997; died London 26 April 2010.
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