Obituary: Major Sir Patrick Wall
Wednesday 20 May 1998
When I joined the Conservative Research Department in 1969, I was given responsibility for acting as secretary to the party's backbench Home Office Affairs Committee. The department's director, Brendon Sewill, told me, in the course of his briefing: "It is a British tradition, sanctioned by our history, to make young men responsible for subjects they know nothing about. You will have to learn about immigration and Commonwealth policy, and you will have, from time to time, to deal with Enoch Powell, Ronnie Bell, and Major Patrick Wall. And they are a formidable trio."
Powell and Bell I already knew, albeit slightly. Wall I knew from his ferociously right-wing reputation. He was an ardent anti-Communist, a proponent of mining the approaches to the Baltic Sea in order to restrict the movements of the Soviet Navy, a pillar of the apartheid-based government of South Africa, an enthusiast for the cause of the Portuguese empire in Africa, and a friend of Chiang Kai-shek, the ruler of what he called the "Republic of China" and what most people called Taiwan. He was also, Sewill warned me, no cardboard man of the right, but a fiercely intelligent and learned man, and only too willing to confound the arguments of any tyro such as myself.
It was not, therefore, without trepidation that I accepted an invitation to lunch with Wall. I found a most genial and humorous host, most firm in his opinions, not at all evidently docrinaire, and certainly having about him nothing of the wild-eyed ideologue I had feared.
Wall held staunchly to many beliefs throughout his life, but he was above all staunch in his religious beliefs. Educated in Switzerland and at the famous Roman Catholic public school Downside, he rose in later life to become chairman of Pro Fide, the well-known international Catholic organisation. The son of a well-to-do engineer, he had demonstrated an early bent for matters technical: he was only seven when he built his first model ship, and he had a collection of thousands by the time of his death. It was no great surprise to his family when he enlisted in the Royal Marines in 1935.
It was Wall's settled early decision to make his career in the armed services. It was not until after the Labour Party's triumph at the general election of 1945 that he evinced any serious interest in politics, and not until 1950 that he left the Marines to seek a Conservative parliamentary nomination. He fought Cleveland twice, in 1951 and 1953, before winning Haltemprice (later Beverley) in 1954: this constituency he served until his retirement in 1987.
It is important to remember Wall's distinguished record as a fighting man. He served in several ships including the (for him) appropriately named Iron Duke, Valiant, and Vanguard. He won the Military Cross in 1945 and the same year was made a Member of the American Legion of Merit in recognition of his vital role with American supply ships at Omaha beach during the Normandy landings.
Nor was he simply a gallant warrior: in the Marines he learned to fly, became an expert in the theory of long-range gunnery, and rose to become second-in-command of 48 RM Commando. The Conservative parliamentary party thus gained, in 1954, an astute, educated and experienced MP who was over the years to lend lustre to many debates on defence and foreign policy.
Early on, however, Wall learned that he was unlikely ever to gain serious political office: he was too opinionated for that and, in the two brief periods in which he held the most junior of jobs - as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture (1955-57) and the Chancellor of the Exchequer (1958-59) - he found the diplomatic practice of discretion imposed on him irksome. He was, after all, a man who relished political combat. In one of his books, Student Power (1968), he regaled one set of readers while aggravating another with the acerbic nature of his commentary.
Meanwhile, he busied himself with a whole host of activities. He maintained contact with his old service through the RMFVR (Royal Marine Forces Volunteer Reserve), was secretary to or chairman of a bewildering variety of international committees all of which expressed aspects of his interests in European defence, Anglo-American relations, and Africa. All the while he wrote voluminously and elegantly, inspiring his supporters and (greatly to his pleasure), angering all who opposed him. Publications included the Royal Marine Pocket Book (1944), Defence Policy (1969), The Indian Ocean and the Threat to the West (1975) and Southern Oceans and the Security of the Free World (1977). When he was knighted in 1981, he felt that his political career was coming to an end, and in 1987 he retired from the House of Commons.
Patrick Wall was a man of the right, but never of the unthinking right - indeed in 1970 he resigned from the Monday Club on the grounds that its members were incapable of the serious thought their policies required. For myself, I never read anything by him, nor had any conversation with him, from which I did not learn a great deal. There are, I know, many on all sides of the political divide who would attest to the same.
In British politics, people are all too often assigned to boxes with labels, writes Tam Dalyell. Extreme right-winger. Ferocious anti-Communist. Generally anti-immigration. Fervently for capital punishment. Stalwart of the Monday Club.
None of these assignations was exactly inaccurate about Patrick Wall. But somehow they do not cumulatively present an accurate picture of a parliamentary colleague I knew well for 25 years and who, from the opposite end of the spectrum, participated with me in every defence debate and services estimate debate from 1962 to 1987. His contributions, always lengthy, were not resented on that account, because they were serious and full of informed constructive content.
Brickbats across the floor can sometimes boomerang. Shortly after the election of the Labour government in 1964, one of my new colleagues, a left-winger, chided the previous speaker as being "the honourable member for Haltemprice and the Royal Marines". My colleague thought that he had wounded Patrick Wall. Afterwards, I hadn't the heart to explain to Wall, chuffed at what he took to be an extreme compliment, that it had not been so intended. Indeed, championing the Royal Marines was the top priority of Wall's parliamentary existence.
Time and again he returned to the problems of recruiting in the Marines. He saw it as a vicious circle which worked as follows. The teeth to tail figures of the Royal Marines were better than those of the Navy as a whole. This meant that a greater proportion of the men were employed on operational tasks and fewer at home in barracks, training establishments and other administrative tasks. This was largely due to the fact that the Marines had adopted the functional system, as opposed to the old home port system of the Royal Navy.
It was very satisfactory to have more men in the operational teeth than in the administrative tail but that led to increased disturbance and no assurance that when a man had finished his foreign service and come home he would be stationed near his home port, where probably his wife had established a home. So we had the vicious circle: more on operational tasks, more disturbance, less home service and inevitably fewer recruits.
The Marines were the Navy's handymen who, at short notice, could be turned into soldiers, sailors or parachute troops. But for Wall it had to be borne in mind that if so small a corps accept too many commitments it meant more foreign service, more disturbance and strain all round, which in turn would reflect on recruiting figures. Wall believed that the contented man was his service's best recruiter, and therefore detained the Commons at length as to how the lot of the marine could be improved.
His great friend Sir Patrick Duffy, the former Labour MP for Sheffield Attercliffe, like Wall a brave war hero, described to me their joint visit to the Marines in the Arctic during training: "I take my hat off to any man over the age of 60 who could go through the Arctic rigours in a way that Patrick Wall would subject himself, to be with his beloved Marines."
Patrick Henry Bligh Wall, politician and Marine officer: born 19 October 1916; commissioned in the Royal Marines 1935, Acting Major 1943, Major 1949; MC 1945; MP (Conservative) for Haltemprice Division of Hull 1954- 55, for Haltemprice Division of East Yorkshire 1955-83, for Beverley 1983- 87; Chairman, Monday Club 1978-80; Kt 1981; married 1953 Sheila Putnam (died 1983; one daughter); died Chichester, West Sussex 15 May 1998.
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