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Obituary: Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

MINISTER of Arts in the Wilson and Callaghan governments, Jack Donaldson was one of their many, albeit unsung, successes. No man alive is in a better position to pass judgement than Sir Claus Moser, who said yesterday:

Jack was a passionate lover of the arts, especially music, especially opera. When he had a chance to do something to support them, he translated his passion into practical action with effective enthusiasm as well as enjoyment. He was a wonderful colleague.

As one of the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party Arts Group in the 1970s I can record at first hand that when my Commons colleagues and I made an appointment with Donaldson in his office to discuss issues of concern, we came away with the unanimous feeling that the minister was really listening, more than politely, to the points we were making; and that he really cared about the arts for which he was responsible.

It cannot be said of all ministers in all governments that they really, personally care about their ephemeral responsibilities. Donaldson cared, not for his own career, but passionately about advancing the interests of the arts and in particular the young men and women who were seeking a livelihood in the arts.

He was born John Donaldson in 1907, into the family of the Rev S.A. Donaldson, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and Lady Albinia, nee Hobart-Hampden, a scion of the Earls of Buckinghamshire. His early childhood was spent in the ambience of Eton, where 10 years later he himself was to go to school, and of Magdalene, where his father was, it was said, the first Master to pull that famous college out of the medieval doldrums.

Donaldson himself went not to his father's college but to Trinity, Cambridge, where he took first class honours in Part I of the Moral Sciences Tripos and subsequently in the Law Tripos. On graduation in 1935, prompted by experience of the Eton Mission Boys' Club in Hackney, east London, he went to work for three years at the Pioneer Health Centre at Peckham. I recollect a conversation in which I opined to him, as a fellow Old Etonian, that the Eton Mission had too much of a condescending element. Donaldson, normally the most equable of men, rounded on me and, almost vituperatively, told me that he owed a great deal to his experience in Peckham - an experience which, combined with working for a year as a truck driver, set the course of his life.

During the Second World War Donaldson served with the Sappers, and came into contact with the young Denis Healey, who was to be his lifelong friend. It was his friendship with Healey, Roy Jenkins and Dick Crossman, and - through farming - with Jim Callaghan, that commended Donaldson to the Labour leadership. In his diary entry for 24 November 1965 Crossman records:

In the evening after a meeting of the Liaison Committee, which is now running smoothly in the absence of George Wigg, I was off to Covent Garden. I got there too late for the overture to Figaro but we had an enormously enjoyable time with Jack and Frankie Donaldson, sitting in the Royal Box and having our dinner in the Royal Drawing Room behind the scenes. It was only marred by the fact that I had to go back to the House at 11 o clock to see the Rhodesia Orders in Council through until 1.30 in the morning.

As his Parliamentary Private Secretary I remember that Crossman's mind was far more on the marvellous night he had had with the Donaldsons than on Ian Smith.

On Wednesday 8 December 1965:

That night Anne and I gave the Donaldsons dinner in exchange for their splendid hospitality . . . at Covent Garden. There we were in the Strangers' Dining Room, with George Wigg sitting at the next table to us. The Donaldsons are old Gaitskellites but I think they found our company tolerable and certainly I found them extremely pleasant. She, Frankie, is the daughter of Freddy Lonsdale, the famous playwright, and is herself a remarkable writer. Her book on the Marconi Scandal, which is just out, is one of the best bits of political writing I know.

The most important decision Donaldson said he ever made was to marry Frances - the author of several books on farming, together with the life of her father, a memoir of Evelyn Waugh, a superb biography of Edward VIII and her study of the Marconi Scandal which so entranced Crossman.

Having had a good war and being appointed OBE in 1943, he returned to farming, first in Gloucestershire, then in Buckinghamshire. In 1961 he became Honorary Secretary of the National Association of Discharged Prisoners Aid Societies and from 1963 to 1969 he was chairman of the Board of Visitors for Grendon Prison (a psychiatric prison with accommodation for some 300 inmates). From 1966 to 1974 he was the chairman of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. As much as any man he transformed attitudes towards the obligations of society towards those who had been behind bars.

He was sent to the Lords by Harold Wilson in 1967, as Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge. In 1969 the Government made him chairman of the committee, which reported in 1970, on Boy Entrance and Young Servicemen in the Armed Forces. His colleagues included Jimmy Hill, then head of sport at London Weekend Television, Admiral Sir Desmond Dreyer and Alan Thompson, former MP for Dunfermline Boroughs, and now Professor Emeritus of Edinburgh University, who told me of Donaldson's considerable skill as a chairman.

He saw the system being at its least acceptable in the case of the young boy who joins up at 151/2 or 16, full of enthusiasm, unwilling to listen to the cautions which are honestly given to him by the recruiting officer, who signs on for nine or 12 years from the age of 18. Then, if later he falls out of love with his chosen profession, or perhaps into love with a girl who wants to have him with her, he finds that he cannot adjust to the new situation by giving reasonable notice and leaving, but is stuck with the result of his 16-year-old enthusiasm.

Donaldson took the view that there was nothing truly voluntary about such a situation. It was compulsion applied arbitrarily and selectively to those who have made the decision, before the law regards them as capable of entering into a responsible contract. Donaldson saw it as indefensible and the whole basis of recruitment improved as a result of his report.

From 1968 to 1974 he was Chairman of the National Committee of Family Service Units and from 1972 to 1974 of the Economical Development Committee for the Hotel and Catering Industry, to which he gave his experience as a director of the British Sugar Corporation from 1966 to 1974. In March 1974 Harold Wilson gave him ministerial responsbility in Northern Ireland. He embraced the concept of power sharing.

The ethos of the Labour Party as it was in the early 1980s was not congenial to Donaldson and in 1981 he joined the SDP, and, seven years later, the Liberal Democrats. On the last occasion when I talked to him he gave the impression that he would like to come home to the Labour Party.

From 1975 to 1980 Jack Donaldson was the enormously well-loved President of the Royal Society for Protection of Birds, having had four years' experience on the board of the British Federation of Zoos. Discussion of ornithology was a delight with someone who had an all-round knowledge of the world which is associated in folklore with Leonardo da Vinci.

John George Stuart Donaldson, farmer and politician: born Kingsbridge, Devon 9 October 1907; OBE 1943; director, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 1959-74; director, Sadlers Wells 1962-74; Chairman, National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders 1966-74; created 1967 Baron Donaldson of Kingsbridge; Chairman, Consumer Council 1968-71; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office 1974-76; President, RSPB 1975-80; Minister for the Arts 1976-79; married 1935 Frances Lonsdale (died 1994; one son, two daughters); died London 8 March 1998.