Lord Monro of Langholm

Tory DoE and sports minister


Hector Seymour Peter Monro, farmer and politician: born Edinburgh 4 October 1922; MP (Conservative) for Dumfries 1964-97; Scottish Conservative Whip 1967-70; a Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury 1970-71; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office 1971-74, 1992-95; Parliamentary Secretary of State (with responsibility for sport), Department of the Environment 1979-81; Kt 1981; PC 1995; created 1997 Baron Monro of Langholm; married 1949 Anne Welch (died 1994; two sons), 1994 Doris Kaestner; died Dumfries 30 August 2006.

For a third of a century Hector Monro, Conservative MP for Dumfries from 1964 to 1997, was my friend and parliamentary opponent. His opponents held Monro in the highest regard for a very good reason. We knew that he cared deeply about the subjects for which he had ministerial responsibility. Many ministers see office as a stepping stone to greater things. Monro was totally motivated by the job in hand.

There was no better example of this than his behaviour as a minister in the Department for the Environment responsible for the day-to-day piloting through the Commons committee stage of the 1980-81 Wildlife and Countryside Bill, creating a legal framework for wildlife protection in Britain. Led by Denis Howell, those of us in the Opposition team sensed that Hector - the name by which he was almost universally known throughout Parliament - would, if he thought it was justified, fight his corner with his ministerial colleagues and would often get his way. He had no thought for what his stubbornness might do to his career.

This favourable opinion is shared by a man who perhaps above all others now alive is in a position to know - Sir Martin Holdgate, who was the Chief Scientist at the Department of Environment at the time, and soon to become Deputy Secretary responsible for rural affairs. Supported by such distinguished civil servants as Peter Scott-Malden and Alan Levitt, Monro took on the prejudices of many in the government party and pushed through the "Sandford amendments" which created the concept of Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Holdgate recollects him as

a warm, sympathetic, concerned man who felt deeply about the environment. Monro made the 1981 Act far stronger than it otherwise would have been and at the same time he did not antagonise the feelings of the land-owning and sporting fraternity from which he came. Monro was responsible above all others for persuading core Tory supporters that his measure, which went far beyond what had appeared in the first draft of the Bill, was not inimical to their interests. This was a huge if unsung achievement.

Tom King, then the Environment minister in overall charge of the Bill, says:

I could not have asked for a better or more loyal and likeable colleague than Hector. We worked together on the Commons Bill that became the Wildlife and Countryside Act. But it is no secret that it was Hector who carried the major burden of piloting this important Act. He brought to it his lifelong interest and great knowledge of nature conservation and the countryside and was liked and respected by all the different groups whose varied interests he had to consider.

It is my belief that it was Monro who persuaded King, and other members of the Government less sympathetic to the environment, that they should not use the dreaded guillotine procedure. One result was that, after endless speechifying by Peter Hardy, Andrew Bennett, Ted Graham and myself on subjects ranging from Halvergate Marshes in Norfolk to the difficulties the constabulary would have to face in identifying the differences between the bar-tailed and black-tailed godwit, Monro persuaded the Government for parliamentary time reasons to concede what we were really after - the establishment of marine nature reserves. Any other minister would have taken the easy way out and that would have been to the long-term disadvantage of the Isles of Scilly, Lundy and other areas of marine conservation.

Fiona Reynolds, Director-General of the National Trust, but then a young public affairs officer for the Council for the Protection of Rural England and one of the ever-present briefers of the Opposition team, recalls:

Hector Monro was a minister and above all a countryman who could out-talk the lot of you on the habits of the redshank and the bar-tailed godwit. But what he really did was to shift the whole system away from a narrow regulatory regime towards the provision of incentives for doing the ecologically correct thing.

Another environmental achievement that belongs to Monro is the first systematic approach to dealing with alien species of flora and fauna. Holdgate concurs with the view that he was among the first to take pest control seriously.

Hector Monro was born in 1922 into a military family. He lost his father, Captain Alastair Monro of the Cameron Highlanders, in 1943, but his real mentor was his maternal grandfather, Lt-Gen Sir Spencer Ewart, who could claim to be the first head of what became MI5 and MI6, and whose own father, General Sir John Ewart, had been a lieutenant-colonel in the 93rd Highlanders at the Siege of Lucknow in the Indian Mutiny. Hector was also proud of being a direct descendant of General Sir Thomas Brisbane, not only a distinguished military man but the first astronomer who mapped the southern heavens; he gave his name to the city of Brisbane when he became Governor of Queensland.

After Canford, the Dorset public school, Monro went to King's College, Cambridge, but he spent only a year as a student, leaving the university air squadron for a commission flying in RAF Coastal Command. Monro, a very modest man who never flaunted his achievement, later told both Tom King and me that Coastal Command had involved hazardous patrols far out into the Atlantic searching for U-boats in Catalinas for up to 24 hours at a time. In 1964 I was told by Brigadier Sir John Smyth VC MP that Monro, the new MP for Dumfries, had been unlucky not to be decorated for his work as a pilot both in the Battle of the Atlantic and subsequently in the Far East.

Monro had a lifelong concern for the RAF and was an honorary air commodore of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force from 1982 to 2000 and its Honorary Inspector General from 1990 to 2000. When he was on the back benches before being made a whip and after leaving ministerial office he spoke in virtually every debate involving the RAF.

Returning to civilian life, he farmed at Williamwood, Kirtlebridge, in Dumfriesshire and became Chairman of the Dumfriesshire Unionist Association in 1958. He was the obvious choice as Conservative candidate for Dumfries in the general election of 1964. A man of great charm, he had no difficulty in holding his seat when those in the Conservative interest were tumbling all round Scotland.

In 1967 he was appointed Scottish Whip and worked closely with his talented contemporaries George Younger, Alick Buchanan Smith, Ian Lang and Teddy Taylor, under the general direction of Gordon Campbell, who was to become Ted Heath's Secretary of State for Scotland. Progressing from being a senior government whip, Monro was the natural choice to take over responsibility for agriculture in the Scottish Office. He worked hard on the enormously knotty problem of agricultural holdings, and years after he left the department he had the satisfaction on 21 April 1983 of saying:

Honourable members would not wish the Bill to leave the House without congratulating the Government on introducing it. For a long time change has been desired in the structure of farm tenancies in Scotland . . . This Bill will be welcomed throughout agriculture in Scotland.

What he did not say was that he had done more work than anyone else over the years to reach a satisfactory compromise.

In 1974 Margaret Thatcher gave him responsibility for sport. He had been a formidable rugby player and was very prominent in the Scottish Rugby Union for 20 years between 1958 and 1977. He was also President of the Auto-cycle Union (1983-90) but his main contribution was his concern, alas only semi-effective, to prevent the destruction of school playing fields.

It was a huge blow to Monro that in 1994 his ever-supportive wife, Anne, died. I attended the funeral and saw for myself the outpouring of sympathy from a huge number of constituents, some of them friends of mine in the Dumfriesshire Labour Party. His popularity as a local MP straddled party politics. And even when people were angry with him (as I was over his attitude to the PanAm 103 destruction over Lockerbie in his constituency) he was disarming.

His family and friends were very pleased that he should marry Anne's friend Mrs Doris Kaestner, a widow from Baltimore, with whom he was to have 12 happy years. He took great pride in the army career of his son General Seymour Monro.

Until a recent short illness he played a constructive role in the House of Lords, where his knowledge and experience was valued - because he only, as always, opened his mouth on things that he really knew about.

Tam Dalyell

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