Iain Sproat: Affable but combative Tory MP who became sports minister under Margaret Thatcher
Wednesday 12 October 2011
Iain Sproat is remembered by many as the perpetrator of one of the most spectacular political boobs of all time. In 1983 he left his Aberdeen South seat for the supposedly safer new constituency of Roxburgh and Berwickshire. However, things did not go as planned: the Conservative candidate in Aberdeen South, Gerald Malone, polled 15,393 votes to the 11,812 of Labour's Bob Middleton, while in Roxburgh and Berwick Sproat lost the seat to the Liberal Archie Kirkwood, now Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, by 15,920 to 12,524. Westminster's reaction was that it served him right for going on the "chicken run".
I would acquit him of political opportunism. Years later he reflected to me, "I let my heart rule my head." It was a dreadful mistake and Sproat was out of parliament for nine years, which deprived him of the senior ministerial career to which his abilities would almost certainly have carried him.
Iain MacDonald Sproat was brought up in Melrose. From Winchester School he went to the University of Aix-en-Provence. Fluency in French later helped him to be a tough negotiator in European Community meetings.
He told me that he became interested in politics in an unusual way. One April day when he was about 20, he went to a small library in Melrose. He could find nothing new on the shelves that he wanted to read and was leaving in frustration, when for no reason he could explain he took down a book entitled FE with no idea what it was about. It turned out to be a biography of FE Smith, a buccaneering Tory MP and later Lord Chancellor, who was a close friend of Winston Churchill – indeed the only man whom Churchill was said to fear for his ferociously sharp mind.
"I took the book home, began reading and by 2 o'clock had decided that I wanted to be an MP. The next day, I joined the Conservative Party." At Magdalen College, Oxford, he was supervised by AJP Taylor and Bruce McFarlane. He got on well with them despite political differences and it was on the anvil of Taylor's interrogations that he honed his right-wing views.
The first seat to which he applied to become a candidate was Orkney and Shetland. He reached the last three but wasn't chosen. Disappointed, he had a stroke of luck. He was just about to leave Orkney when a tremendous storm arose, so fierce that neither aeroplane nor passenger ship could reach the island. It happened that on the next day Sir John Gilmore MP was due to address a public meeting in Orkney, and the local Conservative chairman suggested that the selected candidate and the two losing finalists should address the meeting. It was the first public speech he had ever made and it turned out to be fateful. In the audience, also trapped by the storm, was the chief executive of the Scottish Conservative Party. As a result of his speech Sproat was asked if he would stand in a by-election at Rutherglen, just outside Glasgow. "Although I lost the seat to Gregor MacKenzie, I was thwarted amidst a lot of publicity which kick-started my career."
Sproat then applied to be a candidate for Aberdeen South, but Scottish Central Office refused to forward his application because he worked in London. Aberdeen rejected the list of candidates and demanded a second list. Sproat's name was on it and he was duly elected.
As a new member of the Commons he was one of the few Conservatives to campaign strongly against Scottish devolution. Truth to tell, he could be counter-productive to a cause. One episode encapsulates how this able and witty man could be tone-deaf to audiences. On a cold winter evening in 1978, a debate was arranged about the referendum on Scottish devolution. Speakers for the "No" campaign were Sproat and myself. I was to speak first, but Sproat insisted on having first slot. He made a dreadful, take-it-or-leave-it speech and left. I endeavoured to undo the damage. I was not in the least surprised that the Aberdeen Tories wanted to shove him off elsewhere. In those days senior Tories were strongly in favour of separate parliaments for Scotland and Wales and Sproat's uncompromising attitude did not go down well.
In 1974 he held on to his seat. When Margaret Thatcher formed her first government Sproat was disappointed not to be asked to be a minister but had an unexpected supporter, the Speaker George Thomas, who, opposed to a Welsh parliament, suggested to Thatcher that she make Sproat a minister. Sproat became an Under-Secretary at the Department of Trade as Minister for Aviation and Shipping. He incurred considerable hostility from Labour due to what was seen as his unpleasant campaign against so-called scroungers and those abusing, or being thought to abuse, the social security system.
When Aberdeen suggested he seek another seat he was given the plum seat of Harwich and resumed his ministerial career in 1993 as Under-Secretary at the Department of National Heritage responsible for video, cinema and film, and for sport; he was suited for this as the founder of The Cricketers' Who's Who, which he edited from 1980-93; in 1983 he was Cricket Writer of the Year.
Sproat was also an expert on PG Wodehouse, and angered Edward Heath by pressing him to grant Wodehouse a knighthood. In 1981 he published a monograph on Wodehouse's activities during the war which AJP Taylor named as one of his three books of the year. After defeat in 1997, Sproat devoted himself to academic interests, in particular the archives of Churchill College, Cambridge. An authority on Pushkin, he was chairman of the editorial board of The Complete Works, and of the European Cultural Foundation-UK. He also contributed to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Iain MacDonald Sproat, politician and businessman: born Dollar, Clackmannanshire 8 November 1938; MP for Aberdeen South 1970-1983; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade 1981-83; MP for Harwich 1992-1997; Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Aviation and Shipping 1993-1995; Minister for Sport 1993-97; married 1979 Judith Mary Kernot (one stepson); died London 29 September 2011.
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