Francis Noel-Baker: Labour politician who clashed with the party over Cyprus and helped create Amnesty International

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The Independent Online

To his astonishment and consternation – because he was due in October 1945 to return to King's College, Cambridge, to complete the second and third year of his degree – Francis Noel-Baker found himself, at the age of 25, elected as Member of Parliament for Brentford and Chiswick in the unforeseen, Attlee-led Labour landslide.

The result was all the more unexpected because his opponent, Colonel Sir Harold Mitchell, who had occupied the seat since 1931 and had risen to vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, was known as a close friend of Winston Churchill and had the reputation of being a good constituency MP.

Noel-Baker was the "baby of the Parliamentary Labour Party", a slightly uncomfortable position, as I know, having been elected at the age of 29. He came to the House of Commons, as he told me in 1962, "too young for my own good". In my judgement, as MP for Swindon from 1955 to 1968 he would have had Cabinet office had Hugh Gaitskell survived, or had George Brown or Jim Callaghan and not Harold Wilson become leader of the Labour Party.

I attended a dinner in 1964 arranged by Noel-Baker so that the Prime Minister could spend the evening conversing with his young MPs. Wilson, normally the most genial of men, was nasty, unnecessarily so, to Noel-Baker, and one realised that as long as he led the party the "feud" between he and the Noel-Bakers, father and son, would put the kibosh on any chance of ministerial preferment.

I was the secretary of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Labour Party when Francis's father, Philip Noel-Baker, was chairman, and therefore in a position to know that he greatly irritated the Labour leadership in his opposition to the war in Vietnam. Part of the trouble which generated resentment against his son was that Philip was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and those at the top of the Labour Party were jealous at a time when they thought that they were doing their best to promote the cause of multilateral disarmament.

Francis Noel-Baker was born into a political dynasty. His grandfather, Joseph Allen Baker, was a Liberal member for Finsbury East, elected in 1906 and serving Campbell Bannerman and Asquith. His father Philip was an athlete of distinction at the 1920 Paris Olympic Games and subsequently a senior official of the United Nations in Geneva, whose virtues he preached, and Labour MP for Derby.

Leaving Westminster School, from which he had an exhibition in history, to go to King's College, Francis, an idealist, took himself off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. This was to endear him to a number of trade unionists, in particular Jack Jones, who had done the same thing. Arriving in Cambridge in 1939, he spent a year being taught by Sir John Clapham, John Saltmarsh and Arthur Pigou. He was awarded first class honours in the prelims but then volunteered for military service.

He joined the Royal Tank Regiment as a trooper in the 43rd Battalion, then changed to the Intelligence Corps. While he was serving in Egypt, friends such as Tom Fraser (MP for Hamilton) and John Parker (MP for Dagenham and secretary of the Fabian Society), persuaded him to contest Brentford and Chiswick in the 1945 election. He came home, did a bit of canvassing and was back in Cairo by the time his victory was announced three weeks after polling day (many results were delayed by the need to gather votes from servicemen overseas).

Inevitably, given the Conservative revival, Francis Noel-Baker lost his seat in 1950, and from then until 1954 he worked for the BBC's European Service. The friends who had persuaded him to stand for Parliament in 1945 then did so again, and he was elected to represent Swindon in 1955.

As Parliamentary Private Secretary to the team of defence ministers led by Emmanuel Shinwell, he became an excellent presenter of a case, and his talents were never more effectively deployed than in 1967, when he introduced private members' legislation to ban advertising of tobacco on television. Against all the odds, and passionate opposition from the smoking lobby, Noel-Baker won: it was the first step on the road to banning smoking in public places. As so often, he was before his time.

Perhaps his most significant achievement as an MP was to be a key participant in the founding of Amnesty International. He was instrumental in introducing to eachother at his London home his two friends, the Reverend Austin Williams, vicar of St Martin in the Fields, and Peter Benenson, a meeting which led to the organisation being set up in 1961.

My main parliamentary memory of Francis Noel-Baker is the cascade of speeches he made and questions he asked in relation to the burning issue of Cyprus. He was a close friend and champion of Archbishop Makarios, the leader of the Greek community there – a further source of discomfort to the Labour leadership. I heard him described as Makarios's chaperone when the Archbishop came to Britain. But Noel-Baker was resolute in his opposition to Colonel George Grivas and Eoka, the Cypriot nationalists. He was extremely angry at the actions of the Greek government, which provided an excuse for the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, and in my opinion he can be acquitted of the charge of undue adulation of the Greek military regime.

In 1968, at the annual dinner of the Swindon Labour Party, held at the Co-operative Restaurant in Fleet Street, Noel-Baker told his supporters that he wished to leave Parliament at the first convenient opportunity without causing embarrassment. The Labour chief whip John Silkin, who was not well disposed, was determined to try to avoid a by-election – which was won by the Conservatives.

I asked Francis why he had done this in my capacity as a candid friend. The answer was that he was fed up with the animosity of Wilson, and in particular that he had not been listened to when he had complained time and again about the Government's attitude to the railways, and to the railway workshops at Swindon. I remember being invited to a meeting of the Swindon Labour Party, which Noel-Baker did not attend, and finding an outburst of fury over the Labour government's treatment of the railway town. I am not surprised Noel-Baker felt uncomfortable.

After he left the House of Commons he toyed with the SDP, and finding them unsatisfactory joined the Ecology Party. This was understandable since he was a very active member of the Soil Association, one of the causes dear to himself and his wife Barbro, with whom he had a wonderfully happy marriage. She was the daughter of a Swedish businessman, an exporter of farm machinery from Sweden to Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, and had served in the Swedish diplomatic corps in China and Argentina in the 1950s.

For the last 40 years of his life Noel-Baker lived on the Greek island of Euboea, where he had inherited a huge estate from Frank Noel, his paternal grandfather. He set out to be a model landlord and forestry owner. George David, a leading Greek businessman and philanthropist to the University of Edinburgh, where he had been a student, recalled to me that in the late 1950s he had travelled to Euboea and asked why it was that some parts of the forest were in a much better state than the rest. He was told that the good part belonged to the Noel-Baker family, who – for the first time anywhere in Greece – had brought in professional management.

When I asked David about Noel-Baker's relations with the Greek Colonels, which caused so much criticism in the Parliamentary Labour Party, he said that anyone wishing to do anything constructive for people in Greece at that time had to keep their proverbial noses clean in relation to the military government: "It was all very well for 18- and 20-year-old students to demonstrate against them but it was rather a different matter for anybody with a family and a stake in the country."

When the All Party Heritage Group visited Greece under the leadership of Sir Patrick Cormack and Lord Craythorne (we paid for ourselves!), we were told by a diverse number of Greek politicians, academics and businesspeople that the Noel-Bakers had the same kind of reputation as Lord Byron – though not in their personal behaviour – as being English friends of Greece.

With Noel-Baker's passing – he was buried in Euboea according to the rites of the Greek Orthodox church – only Michael Foot and John Freeman remain with us of those elected to Parliament in the watershed election of 1945.

Francis Edward Noel-Baker, politician and landowner: born Kensington, London 7 January 1920; educated Westminster School and King's College Cambridge; War service in Royal Tank Regiment and Intelligence Corps; MP for Brentford and Chiswick 1945-50, MP for Swindon 1955–1969; married 1957 Barbro (Barbara) Sonander (died 2004; four sons, one daughter, one son deceased); died Euboea, Greece 25 September 2009.

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