Lord Whaddon

MP for King's Lynn who brought business experience to the Labour Party
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It is a thousand pities that a few Members of Parliament are only in the House of Commons for half a dozen years. On account of his truncated career, in 1970 Parliament lost in Derek Page one of the valuable and unusual members in the Labour Party at the time, in that he had business experience of actually running things. It was cruel that Page should have been beaten by Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler, who was later to squander his parliamentary career, by 23,822 votes to Page's 23,789. Democracy can deprive the House of Commons of some of its most valuable children. However, eight years later, James Callaghan nominated Page as a member of the House of Lords, and in 1978 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Whaddon.

The son of a railwayman, Derek Page was born in 1927 in Sale, Cheshire, where the family lived in accommodation where the electric light had to be on all day, for the simply reason that all natural daylight was excluded by the towering gasworks opposite the house. He won a scholarship to St Bede's College in Manchester, well known for its rigorous Roman Catholic education, and then studied Sociology at London University.

His first job was at the agrochemical company Fison's, and in 1955, he was chosen as the Labour candidate in Northwich in Cheshire, losing to the well-known lawyer Sir John Foster. Page had the habit of retaining the friendship of those who had defeated him and later, at a time when Foster had a great deal to do with the Minister of Housing Richard Crossman, whose PPS I was, he told me that he thought Page would be a rising star in a Labour Party short of managerial experience.

A good opinion of Page was held by his next opponent in the Isle of Ely in 1959, the future chairman of the 1922 Committee Sir Harry Legge-Bourke, when Page lost with 19,705 to Legge-Bourke's 26,173. When we were both members of the first Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, Bourke told me that the Labour government was silly in not making use of Page's experience in a department such as the Board of Trade.

I remember Page's maiden speech on 11 November 1964 during the Budget debate. After references to local industry in north Norfolk, he raised in detail the problems of purchasing computer equipment from the United States and the need for the British manufacture of high technology, rather than simply relying on US technology. This came convincingly from a man who had been sales manager of Carnegies of Welwyn and, from 1962, a director of the Cambridge Chemical Company.

On 29 November, Page made a memorable speech during the debate on temporary import charges, where he not only backed government policy, but was one of those who persuaded Treasury and Trade ministers to impose a temporary import charge:

The true gap which we are likely to have to face will probably be between £450m and £500m, rather than £300m. I cannot see the surcharge alone, or the increase in industrial output and exports, covering this extra gap, which is bound to arise as the result of increased industrial activity. I should therefore like the Chancellor to gaze into the crystal ball and tell us whether he believes that the surcharge alone will be adequate. I have my doubts. At the risk of being out of order, I should like to add my voice to those of my honourable friends who have spoken of the need to consider urgently a system of quantitative controls.

On account of his wafer-thin majority, Page raised many local issues and was afforded time when possible to return to his constituency, which he nursed with tremendous energy. In 1964 he had won King's Lynn by 21,460 to Denys Bullard's 21,356, a majority of 104, or 0.2 per cent. Bullard was a popular local farmer and broadcaster on agricultural matters who had been the Conservative MP for South West Norfolk between 1951 and 1955 and King's Lynn between 1959 and 1964. So it was no mean feat that in 1966 Page should hold onto his seat with 23,324 to Bullard's 21,305. It says a lot for both Bullard and Page that they remained good friends in a situation where such tight results and a Box and Cox fight would normally lead to personal acrimony.

During his time in the Commons, Derek Page was one of the most doughty critics of the Vietnam war. A couple of months old as an MP, on 14 December 1964, he asked the Minister of the Foreign Office George Thompson "if, in view of the torture of prisoners in Vietnam, he will seek co-operation of the other co-chairmen of the Geneva Conference in order to make joint representations to the Control Commission to investigate the circumstances". As one of an amorphous group of Labour MPs, loyal to the government but deeply unhappy about the prospect of British involvement in Vietnam, I remember that Page was one of the most active members, albeit careful not to become one of the "usual suspects" of the day. He really did agonise over the possibility of British involvement in Vietnam and supported Michael Foot, Jack Mendelson and other critics of American action, in a discreet way. To my certain knowledge, he made appointments with Harold Wilson to talk to the Prime Minister in private.

At the general election of 1970, the result in King's Lynn was again extremely tight and a recount began on the Thursday evening. Page honoured a longstanding engagement to draw the raffle for a local charity; the winning ticket he picked out was blue, number 33. The following morning, he discovered that he had been defeated by the Conservative Brocklebank-Fowler, by 33 votes.

I was delighted when, in 1978, eight years after he had ceased to be a member of the Commons, Page was nominated to be a member of the House of Lords. I would see him down the corridor from time to time and chat to my old friend about his work on the most valuable of committees, the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. As a director of Micro Automatics and chairman of Daltrade and Skorimpex- Rind, he was in a position to bring day-to-day experience to the work of the Select Committee, where he earned the high regard of discerning colleagues such as the late David Phillips, Lord Phillips of Ellesmere.

Page's company traded with Poland over many years and in 1989 he was awarded the Golden Insignia of the Polish Order of Merit. He was a man of many interests and held a private pilot's licence.

Tam Dalyell