Lord Bruce of Donington

Fiery Labour left-winger who railed against European Community corruption

There were two political Bruces, with a highly successful chartered accountant for a quarter of a century in between. First there was Donald Bruce, MP for Portsmouth North from 1945, and Aneurin Bevan's Parliamentary Private Secretary, a fiery left-winger, who was swept out of the Commons, not unexpectedly, when the pendulum swung to the Conservatives in 1950. Secondly, there was Lord Bruce of Donington, who had justifiably been created a baron by his old friend Harold Wilson in 1974.

Donald William Trevor Bruce, chartered accountant and politician: born Norbury, Surrey 3 October 1912; MP (Labour) for North Portsmouth 1945-50; Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Health 1945-50; created 1974 Baron Bruce of Donington; MEP 1975-79; married 1939 Joan Butcher (one son, two daughters, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1980), 1981 Cyrena Heard (née Shaw); died London 18 April 2005.

There were two political Bruces, with a highly successful chartered accountant for a quarter of a century in between. First there was Donald Bruce, MP for Portsmouth North from 1945, and Aneurin Bevan's Parliamentary Private Secretary, a fiery left-winger, who was swept out of the Commons, not unexpectedly, when the pendulum swung to the Conservatives in 1950. Secondly, there was Lord Bruce of Donington, who had justifiably been created a baron by his old friend Harold Wilson in 1974.

Bruce continued to be anti-marketeer and selectively left-wing for the next 30 years. He was not exactly the most clubbable member of "their Lordships' House", the sobriquet that Bruce used for the institution at which he was a most regular attender.

I can pinpoint the precise afternoon when Bruce "took a scunner" - again his language - to the European Community and all its works. In the late Seventies, he was the rapporteur for the socialist group in the European Parliament for the Community Budget. As his fellow Labour MP on the budget committee, I saw the enormous amount of midnight oil that he burnt poring over Community statistics. He was very competent and well-qualified, however anti-Community his point of view.

In 1977, when the grapevine suggested that Bruce's report would be uncomfortable for both the European Commission and member governments, he received an invitation to lunch across the river from Strasbourg in Germany from none other than Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Klaus von Dohnanyi, the ministers of state in the German Federal Foreign Office. Within minutes it was clear to Bruce that the object of the lunch was to twist his arm into altering the tenor of his budget report. The blandishments of these great personages fell on Bruce's deaf ears. Genscher and Dohnanyi were told in blustering terms - and Bruce blustered as few others blustered - that it would be improper.

However, lo and behold, for the first time in the history of the parliament the president - it was the genial rugby-playing Gascon Georges Spénale - decided to short-circuit Bruce and move the budget resolutions himself to please member states. Bruce was incandescent with anger and over the years lost no opportunity to fulminate against the Community and ask anyone within hearing distance if they too were not outraged by the corruption.

Donald William Trevor Bruce was born in 1912 into a well-to-do professional family who moved to Donington in Lincolnshire from Surrey when he was young. After a good education at the grammar school in Donington and local training to be a chartered accountant, he left his family home in 1930 and became articled to a London firm of chartered accountants. He took digs in Paddington and became involved in politics.

All his relations were Conservatives, and he became associated with the North Paddington branch of the Junior Imperial League, and an active supporter of its sitting Conservative MP, in the lead-up to the 1931 general election. He once showed me a letter from Brendan Bracken, Churchill's lieutenant, thanking him for his services. It was typical of Bruce's humour that he should show this letter to Bracken when later he was elected Labour MP for Portsmouth North.

Bruce had a distinguished record in the Second World War, in which he was commissioned in the Royal Signals in November 1939, reached the rank of major in 1942, and was mentioned in dispatches for his work on the General Staff in France after the Allied landing.

On election in the Labour landslide in 1945, so forceful was this erstwhile Conservative that Aneurin Bevan appointed him his Parliamentary Private Secretary after happening to hear his maiden speech on 7 November that year. "Since the dropping of the atomic bomb," Bruce said,

we have all been living in a greater or less degree under its shadow. The very circumstances of the dropping of the first atomic bomb were attended by consequences so disastrous that I cannot help feeling that those who were responsible for the decision, as to the manner in which it should be dropped, may yet have to review the rectitude of their decision.

I think I speak in common with many other Members here when I say that the peace for which we have all worked or fought so hard has not brought the promised relief for which we had so devoutly hoped.

Honourable Members here participated in a series of ceremonials and celebrations in the vicinity of this house. Many of us went down to our constituencies to VJ parties and various other functions of that kind, but one could not help detecting a far greater restraint in celebrating the end of the war, than would possibly have been anticipated six months before its actual end. The war ended, and a new peace arrived, well under the shadow of the manner of its ending.

The tone and the thought appealed to Nye Bevan and thus was enhanced Bruce's 65-year march on the left of the Labour movement.

Living in London before the war had given him a different perspective than he would have had from the Lincolnshire countryside. After long-drawn-out thinking, he had joined the Independent Labour Party in 1933 but in 1935 enlisted in the North Paddington party. I was present at fascinating conversations over leisurely meals at Strasbourg and Luxembourg between Bob Edwards, who had fought against Franco, and Donald Bruce, on the effect of the Spanish Civil War. Bruce became an enthusiastic supporter of the Popular Front and reacted violently against Labour's official support for non-intervention. He was a founder member of the Paddington Left Book Club. He was taken under the wing of George Shepherd, then the national agent of the Labour Party and father of one of Harold Wilson's key ministers, Malcolm Shepherd (later Lord Shepherd).

Bruce would always remind us that both Bevan and Shepherd believed that action should not be taken by leaders at the top and conveyed downwards by the party machine to the rank and file. Both as member for Portsmouth North, and ever after, he fought against a restrictive philosophy. At the end of his life he regretted the tendency for policy to be determined at No 10 without, as he saw it, any opportunity for being reasonably tempered through conversation with colleagues of considerable knowledge and experience.

In the 1945-50 parliament, Bruce was a regular in the Members' Smoking Room, a tradition that has long since vanished, whereby colleagues of different opinions, and Tories too, often would have serious post-prandial discussion about the issues of the day. He was against politicians who had little experience of life outside parliament, having had many useful conversations with his colleagues in the accounting firm of Halpern & Woolf (later absorbed into Casson Beckman). He was utterly shocked by MPs asking flattering questions at the request of government whips.

Bruce brought a breath of fresh air to the Lords. In his maiden speech on 18 February 1975, he spoke for the poor:

These people, however many millions they may be, are people who in the majority of instances are living in bad housing; they are people, in quite a large number of instances, who are living without hope; they are people who, in quite a number of instances - particularly the people who are very old - are living without that degree of personal serenity which one would hope for everyone towards the end of their natural life; they are people, the people to whom I am referring, without hope and without purpose.

They are people for whom the mere provision of money does not bring happiness. They are the people for whom, like so many others, money merely makes unhappiness more comfortable.

Donald Bruce was an unashamed socialist and brought a vigorous and irreverent mind, even up to his last months, in great old age, to the service of the body politic.

Tam Dalyell

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