James Allason, soldier, MP and sportsman, has died in his 99th year, a rare relic from the early Georgian era. Margaret Thatcher, in her foreword to his autobiography Ringside Seat, summed him up as follows: "The title of this book is not exactly right. Rather than occupying a ringside seat James Allason has more often than not been at the centre of the action. Fighting the Japanese, arguing with Mountbatten and Wingate and serving Churchill in the Cabinet War Rooms, James was rarely a spectator. From Parliament he knew and observed seven Prime Ministers at close quarters and shaped critical areas of policy behind the scenes. But for his championship of the right to buy their houses, millions of council house tenants might never have had the opportunity to do so. Many of the decisive episodes in the history of Britain in the 20th century found James at the centre of the action, as a soldier, military planner and later as a politician with a singular grasp of the issues that mattered to ordinary people."
Allason was also an outstanding sportsman – a brilliant polo player, a competitive skier at Davos, an intrepid motor racer in his Bentleys at Brooklands, a fine yachtsman, a powerful swimmer and a profit-making bridge player in the clubs of St James's. He represented Parliament at these six sports– and for a long time after he lost his seat. The Sunday Express called him "a Chelsea playboy dressed in his immaculate tweeds". But he took his parliamentary duties very seriously.
Nor was he a Philistine: he acquired Dutch Old Masters representing scenes from the sports he loved, except for motor racing. He toured the galleries of Europe and chased opera productions in Europe, Covent Garden, Glyndebourne and Holland Park – but also Hackney and Wimbledon, to see some obscure Russian opera produced by touring Moravians.
James Harry Allason was born in 1912 to Brigadier-General Walter Allason and Katherine Poland, daughter of a Vice-Admiral. When he was a baby his mother slipped on the stairs and fell to her death while saving the infant. His distraught father immersed himself in preparations for the Great War, from which he emerged with distinction and two DSOs.
Allason was brought up by a great-aunt and a succession of nannies. He enjoyed his prep school but his early years at Haileybury were a shock: beating was the order of the day. However he grew tall, which helped to stop the beatings. He passed second into Sandhurst but preferred to the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. Commissioned into the Royal Artillery, he embarked on the gilded life of a pre-war subaltern. After morning parade, a little drill and a few manoeuvres, he would hunt with the Bicester and the Grafton, shoot, learn polo, race his Bentley, sail at Cowes – and get his skiing at Davos. In 1937 he was transferred to India, to the 3rd Dragoon Guards – the famous Caribiniers. He lived in a bungalow on the cantonment at Sialkot with three other bachelor officers, each employing a bearer and a dogboy, sharing a gardener, water carrier, sweeper and nightwatchman. Grooms were retained, one for each pony. So four subalterns might employ and house 20 or more families on one acre. All the officers kept a dog and other pets: Allason had a mongoose, a baby panther and six ponies.
Behaviour in the officers' mess was boisterous: Allason was the champion debagger. "Take your man from behind" he would counsel, "and unbutton the back of his braces". But more serious duties intervened. Based on the Bagnold compass used in the Western Desert, Allason invented a sun compass for India, maintaining the accuracy of a magnetic compass inside a large ferrous object (e.g. a tank); this was adopted by the Indian Army.
In 1942 he was posted to GHQ in Delhi. On occasions this meant breakfast with the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, lunch with a few Maharajahs and tea with the Vicereine and her daughters, Faint Hope, Little Hope and No Hope. He developed a great friendship with the Maharajah of Jaipur and was frequently invited to spend weekends at the Palace. "In the morning we would drive for tiger mounted on elephants, after lunch shoot crocodile from electric canoes, and in the evening hyena-bashing, where you ride after the animal with a polo ball fixed on the end of a polo stick and play polo shots at it (it was a mistake to fall off)".
It was about this time that Allason became suspicious of a yellow-faced Lt Colonel of the Royal Warwicks taking too close an interest in the maps and plans of the 14th Army. Allason had him arrested as a Japanese spy. It turned out to be the future Brigadier Enoch Powell, his yellow face the result of jaundice.
In 1944 Allason was posted as a military planner to the South East Asia Command in Kandy, Ceylon, where Mountbatten was Supreme Commander. Allason could not stand him, regarding him as a brave destroyer captain over-promoted, with no understanding of strategy, planning or man-management, only interested in dressing up and self-aggrandisement.
He managed to slip away to see what was happening on the Arakan front. In a confused situation he found himself commandeering a squadron of tanks with a troop of South African scout cars and a bloodthirsty company of Gharwalis. They supported 7th Division and saw off the Japanese at the Battle of the Box, but not before a shell splinter had shattered Allason's right arm; he was evacuated to Calcutta but was soon back in Kandy.
Allason's planning expertise led him to the MO5 Branch of the War Office, in the Horse Guards Fortress, near the War Cabinet Rooms. There, he had great pleasure in getting Mountbatten overruled and letting the Dutch back into Indonesia. But was he right? It was in this job, too, that he claimed responsibility for the creation of Israel and for the US joining Nato.
Allason was promoted to Lt Colonel and appointed head of the army discipline branch, AG3. He was an old-fashioned "flogger and hanger", and two cases of capital punishment came his way. The first was a Royal Northumberland Fusilier sentry who, had allowed himself to be captured by the North Koreans, resulting in many of his comrades being killed. He was sentenced to death. The papers went to Churchill, back as Prime Minister. James was hauled out of bed to go over to No 10, where he found the papers wet with tears, the PM blubbing, "we cannot send a young man like this to his death". So he was reprieved.
The second case was more straightforward: a company sergeant major in Cairo had strangled his wife. Allason got hold of Albert Pierrepoint, the government executioner, agreed a fee and terms – first class return to Cairo, first class accommodation and the rope to be sent by diplomatic bag.
In 1953 Allason retired from the army, became a Kensington councillor and was elected MP for Hemel Hempstead in 1959, preferred over the young Thatcher. He proved a worthy and responsible constituency MP and was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo; he had a ringside seat for the Profumo affair.
In opposition from 1974-79 Allason ran the Conservative Environment Committee and developed the plan to allow council tenants to buy their houses – a policy adopted when Thatcher came to power. He regarded this as his greatest claim to fame, second only to getting Mountbatten overruled.
In 1946 Allason had married Nuala Eileen McArevey, a Dublin actress. There were two sons, Julian, a writer of exotic travels for the Financial Times, and Rupert, alias Nigel West, the spy writer and former MP. The marriage was happy for many years, but constituency duties killed it. He was still sailing in his 80s with the Commons Yacht Club, and up to 87 competed in the Anglo-Swiss Parliamentary Ski Races. In July he was to be Guest of Honour at the Commons Yacht Club dinner and Anglo-Swiss Parliamentary Ski Race dinner. He had arranged his 100th birthday in the Lords. But it was not to be. He was one of the last of the pre-Great War stalwarts. There are not many left. More's the pity.
Unlike many military officers who become MPs, James Allason specialised not in defence but in the bread-and-butter issues of housing and rates, writes Tam Dalyell. He was distinguished by his good manners; in 1966 he was John Boyd Carpenter's deputy on the opposition front bench responsible for Conservative policy on rating reform. I was PPS to RHS Crossman, the Housing Minister. On clause five of the contentious rating bill Allason, one of the most formidable debaters of the day, more than held his own. His weapon was civilised courtesy: "Would the right honourable gentleman mind taking the period of 13 years of Tory rule... the right honourable gentleman conveniently forgets revaluation... I sincerely hope that the minister will accept our new clause five". No wonder that not only was he well regarded by Tory colleagues, but also by Labour MPs.
James Harry Allason, soldier and politician: born 6 September 1912; MP, Hemel Hempstead 1959–1974, PPS to Secretary of State for War 1960–64; OBE 1953; married 1946 Nuala McArevey (divorced 1974, died 2008; two sons); died 16 June 2011.