Lord Merlyn-Rees

Loyal and courageous minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments
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The Independent Online

Merlyn Rees, politician: born Cilfynydd, Glamorgan 18 December 1920; Lecturer in Economics, Luton College of Technology 1962-63; MP (Labour) for South Leeds 1963-83, for Morley and Leeds South 1983-92; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Army 1965-66, for the RAF 1966-68, Home Office 1968-70; Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1974-76; PC 1974; Home Secretary 1976-79; changed surname to Merlyn-Rees by deed poll 1992; created 1992 Baron Merlyn-Rees; Chancellor, University of Glamorgan 1994-2001; married 1949 Colleen Cleveley (three sons); died London 5 January 2006.

In these days when great resentments are caused by special advisers, over-mighty press secretaries, political chiefs of staff and their ilk, it may seem odd to say that Merlyn Rees's pinnacle of influence came when he was special adviser-in-chief to the Prime Minister from 1976 to 1979.

He was also James Callaghan's totally trusted Home Secretary, and a person elected in his own right who had been at the very heart of the Labour movement since he was personally chosen by Hugh Gaitskell to be organiser of the Festival of Labour in Battersea Park in 1962 - a task he undertook with gusto and success. It never occurred to any of us, albeit that we might have disagreed with his policy and that of the Government, in any way to resent his influence on the Prime Minister. It was wholly proper.

However, Merlyn Rees will go into the history books as the first Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, for the years 1974-76. Many ministers display little interest in their portfolio after they have demitted the office over which they preside and with which they have been temporarily identified. Rees was to remain intensely and passionately involved in the problems of Ulster and the island of Ireland for the rest of his life. He would visit Ulster or Eire three or four times a year every year. And his book Northern Ireland: a personal perspective (1985) is and will be required reading for any serious historian of the province in the latter part of the 20th century.

His father was a founder member of the Labour Party, and like his father and grandfather was a coalminer. He was born in the pit village of Cilfynydd, which in the Welsh language means "between the mountains". When Rees was only six his father walked to London after the General Strike, got a job and brought his family to the capital. However because they could only afford the most unsatisfactory lodgings the young Merlyn went back to stay with his grandmother for his primary education in Cilfynydd.

As they were Welsh immigrants in a large Welsh community, although Rees went to Harrow Weald Grammar School he still thought of himself as Welsh. On the outbreak of the Second World War he went to Goldsmiths' College to train as a teacher but was evacuated to Nottinghamshire and joined the RAF. He applied himself to such effect that he ended up as a squadron leader and was even offered a permanent commission - which he declined in favour of going to the London School of Economics to read Economics and History under the wing of Professor Harold Laski.

After a good degree he stayed on to do research, took a master's degree and was invited back to his old school of Harrow Weald to run the sixth form. He married a girl who had left the school three years previously, Colleen Cleveley, who was to remain his marvellously supportive wife for more than half a century.

In 1955, and again in 1959, he was invited to contest Harrow East against Ian Harvey. He contested a by-election in March 1959 caused by Harvey's homosexual scandal and resignation and fought the same seat in the October general election. At the invitation of another Welshman, Morgan Phillips, the formidable General Secretary of the Labour Party, who had been impressed by Rees's performance as a candidate, he left teaching to become organiser of the Festival of Labour.

In the aftermath of the Battersea Park success, it was mooted that Rees should succeed as General Secretary of the party, an idea on which he poured cold water. Gaitskell interviewed him and asked him what he proposed to do. Rees said that he would like to become a Member of Parliament, whereupon Gaitskell pulled a list of seats out of his office drawer but explained that no seat could be fixed. Neither of them could possibly guess that shortly he would be elected - in June 1963 - to Gaitskell's own seat of South Leeds with a majority of 11,000.

As soon as he got into the House of Commons Rees was chosen as Parliamentary Private Secretary to James Callaghan - then the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. I was parliamentary aide to Richard Crossman in the same period and saw how loyally and effectively Rees served Callaghan in the most difficult job in British politics. On the election of the Labour government in October 1964 Rees went to the Treasury as Callaghan's PPS and learnt his way around the very centre of Whitehall. Within a year Callaghan saw that he was promoted as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Army and in the following year as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Royal Air Force. In 1968 he went to the Home Office, where he was given the responsibility for the poisoned chalice of immigration and the Fire Service.

Rees had always had a particular interest in Ireland - sparked initially by his father, who had been stationed there during the First World War, and by one of the dedicated schoolteachers at Harrow Weald. In 1974, with the unexpected return of the Labour government, Rees went to Northern Ireland.

His first parliamentary obligation was the dismal statement about the deaths of two soldiers of the 14th/20th King's Hussars on 21 March 1974. Rees was genuinely pained because he was not only a minister but a very sensitive, caring human being on the whole succession of such statements arising from the troubles. He saw himself as a cross between a governor-general, a secretary of state and a security chief. He would tell us that it was quite different from any other job in government.

His wife Colleen went over to Ireland for four or five days each week and the pair of them established a reputation for decency and concern as good as anybody from the other side of the water could possibly establish. The object of his being there was to end internment and in that object he succeeded. But he came to believe and believed until his dying day that London and Dublin were never going to solve anything and that the eventual solution could only be found in the province. He believed that the changed nature of the violence which had started with Bloody Sunday meant that terrorism was institutionalised.

When Labour was defeated in 1979, within days Rees had gone to the Cabinet Office and the Northern Ireland Office to look at his papers, as ministers were entitled to do, and go through his diaries for the purpose of writing his book. He had wanted to give it the title "No Solution". The publishers didn't find that title appealing but Rees thought that it summed the situation up and that only by patient, hard, day-to-day slog would anything ever be achieved.

In 1976, when James Callaghan, whose election organiser Rees had been in a contest against Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Tony Crosland, became party leader and Prime Minister, Rees was given the job of Home Secretary, the bed of nails which probably more than any other ministry determines the reputation of the Government. He chaired many cabinet committees and thought that the difference between the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office was like the difference between commanding a battalion and commanding an army group. He was the first one to tell me that his Permanent Secretary on his first day had said: "The trouble is that you think there is a blue sky, and then you get a bolt from the blue, a huge political thunderstorm."

Merlyn Rees will be remembered as the Home Secretary who had Mark Hosenball deported with the ex-CIA agent Philip Agee and who set up the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure after police abuse of safeguards in questioning suspects had been demonstrated in the Maxwell Confait convictions and who set up the "Countryman" investigation into City of London Police and Metropolitan Police corruption.

He wanted to reform the Official Secrets Act. He had been a member of the Franks Committee which examined the operation of Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act in 1971. He was also a member of a later Franks Committee in 1982, an inquiry into the background of the Falklands War. I appeared for an hour and 35 minutes before the committee and left fulminating that Merlyn Rees had asked me so many long-winded and largely irrelevant questions. I was not alone in impatience at what some of us called "Merlynating" - a code-word at that period for spouting hot air and circling round and round awkward points.

In his earlier days, however, Rees had been very sharp and wrote an excellent textbook on economics, The Public Sector in the Mixed Economy (1973), which was much used in sixth-form colleges. In his preface he says,

The pretence that the Labour Party is only for the public sector and the Conservative Party against it and working for a return to some mythical free-market economy just does not in practice stand up to examination.

Merlyn Rees was endowed with considerable political courage. It would never have occurred to him to go to the SDP or the Liberals; he was one of those members of the Labour tribe, concerned with the interests of the workers through and through, who held the Labour Party together in the 1980s when it might well have disintegrated.

His gift for friendship and his importance to the Callaghan praetorian guard of MPs such as Jack Cunningham, Gregor MacKenzie, Roger Stott and Roland Moyle cannot be exaggerated. He was a politician of significance, integrity and genuine compassion.

In great old age, and in unselfpitying infirmity, flanked by Colleen, Merlyn Rees attended the House of Lords on a regular basis (he was ennobled in 1992 as Lord Merlyn-Rees) and insisted on being present at the funerals of his friends and contemporaries. Contrary to general belief, the personal behaviour of many politicians is estimable. Rees's personal behaviour and thoughtfulness for others, even at periods of intensive disagreement with people like me on Ireland, was exemplary.

Like Jim and Audrey Callaghan, Denis and Edna Healey, Merlyn and Colleen Rees were one of the great political partnerships in the Labour Party.

Tam Dalyell

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