Lord Gibson-Watt

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The Independent Online

James David Gibson-Watt, farmer and politician: born 11 September 1918; MC 1943; MP (Conservative) for Hereford 1956-74; a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury 1959-61; Minister of State, Welsh Office 1970-74; PC 1974; created 1979 Baron Gibson-Watt; married 1942 Diana Hambro (died 2000; two sons, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Llandrindod Wells, Powys 7 February 2002.

James David Gibson-Watt was a slightly surprising omission from Edward Heath's Cabinet in 1970 since he had successfully shadowed both Cledwyn Hughes and George Thomas at the Welsh Office. Instead Heath gave the Secretaryship of State for Wales to Peter Thomas, who had just returned to the Commons and had been appointed also to the party chairmanship.

Gibson-Watt had to be content with appointment as Minister of State for Wales and remained there for the lifetime of the Heath government. With the party relegated to opposition in 1974, Gibson-Watt decided to call it a day and did not contest the October 1974 general election. He was made a Privy Councillor and in 1979 was elevated to the House of Lords.

Gibson-Watt was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. During the Second World War he fought with the Welsh Guards in North Africa and Italy, rising to the rank of Major and winning the MC in 1943, to which he was to add two bars. He finished the war as an Instructor at Sandhurst. After the war he farmed in Radnorshire, bred Welsh black cattle and was elected to the County Council.

He fought the highly marginal Brecon and Radnor seat twice, in 1950 and 1951, and was a natural choice to fight the Hereford by-election in February 1956 when J.P.L. Thomas went to the Lords. He narrowly defeated the Liberal candidate, Robin Day, and held the seat for the next 18 years.

Just under a year later he was picked by Heath to become a member of the Whips Office, and was promoted to be a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury in October 1959, a position that he relinquished in 1961. His next appointment was as PPS to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Reggie Maudling, but his activities were not confined to the House. He chaired the Livestock Export Council and was a member of the BBC's General Advisory Council.

Promotion to the opposition front bench followed, first as a spokesman on the Post Office and broadcasting and then as the party spokesman on Wales. However he was not included in the Leader's Consultative Committee. He served on the Machinery of Government Policy Group, but his enthusiasm for the group's concept of "giant" departments was tempered by a feeling that, with devolution in the air, an incoming Conservative government could not be seen to drop the newly created Welsh Office.

A Fellow of the Royal Agricultural Societies of England and Wales, after his retirement from the Commons in September 1974 Gibson-Watt became a member of the Forestry Commission, 1976-86, and the Welsh Historic Buildings Council, 1975-79. He was then appointed by Lord Hailsham to the Chair of the Council on Tribunals, a post that he held until 1986. In 1976 he had been elected President of the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society and he chaired its Council from 1976 until 1994. He also chaired the UK Timber Growers from 1987 until 1990 and later served as their President, 1993-98.

David Gibson-Watt was proud of his descent from the engineer James Watt and took pleasure in having organised the British Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow in 1964. A man of courage, charm and good-humour, he may have been disappointed that his abilities had not brought more success in politics. If so, he never showed it, but concentrated on the kind of public service from which Britain richly benefits. It was best typified perhaps by his continued service as a Justice of the Peace in Rhyader until his retirement at the age of 70.

John Barnes