Obituary: Simon Wingfield Digby

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The Independent Online
IN February 1974 Simon Wingfield Digby decided, a general election having been called, not to stand for the West Dorset seat in the House of Commons which he had represented for a quarter of a century. It was assumed by his friends - and by many of the beneficiaries of his hard work and financial benevolence in the West Country - that he would be rewarded with a peerage. But the outgoing Prime Minister, Edward Heath, declined to recommend him.

Heath had, perhaps, no great rapport with somebody like Wingfield Digby. Heath is, and Wingfield Digby was - as one former colleague put it to me - a "remote" man. It is not common in politics for men to succeed, either at a local or a national level, if they lack obvious ability to charm constituents. Yet, to the end, Wingfield Digby commanded the loyalty of his Conservative supporters in his constituency, as Edward Heath commands support in his own constituency of Old Bexley and Sidcup.

Heath always wanted to lead his country, and did so, albeit briefly. Wingfield Digby wanted to serve, not merely the nation, but Dorset. He was a local man, above all else. Although he held - briefly - a government position as a junior whip, and as Civil Lord at the Admiralty (essentially the junior minister charged with the supervision of his department's budget), he never aspired to senior office. He was, simply, content to be the member for West Dorset.

He was born in 1910 and educated at Harrow, and Trinity College, Cambridge. His father, a soldier, had already added to a substantial family fortune through business activities in Canada. Thus it was that Wingfield Digby never had to care for matters monetary. Nonetheless, he took it that his wealth brought with it responsibility; and he spent a considerable part of his great income in supporting small charities in the county which he loved.

He was thus following the family tradition. The Digbys of Dorset hailed back to Tudor times. Their substantial estates in the West Country came from preferment by Queen Elizabeth I, who was wont to reward loyalty with wealth. The family sank their roots deep into Dorset, and proved to be better stewards of their patrimony than did many other recipients of Elizabeth's favours.

In the 1930s young Simon manifested an interest in politics and, at the age of 27, was adopted as a parliamentary candidate for the seat of West Dorset. Hereby hangs a curious piece of British political history. For, though he was, in essence, picked and backed by the local Conservative association, he stood at a by-election in 1941 as a Liberal Unionist.

Liberal Unionism derived from the 19th-century when Joseph Chamberlain brought down a Gladstone government solely in the cause of union with Ireland. More recently - in 1931 - when the Labour and Liberal parties split on the question of whether or not to support a National Government headed by the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, but, in effect, dominated by the Conservative Party, some Liberals decided to support MacDonald and the Tory leader, Stanley Baldwin. Not wanting to discard their own heritage, they declared themselves to be Unionists, or Liberal Unionists. That strand in British politics is now dead; but there was still a Liberal Unionist in Margaret Thatcher's government: John Nott, Secretary of State for Defence during the war for the Falklands.

Wingfield Digby was selected for West Dorset in 1937. When war broke out in 1939, however, he was already in the Territorial Army, and was immediately inspanned into military service: he served in a number of staff jobs. In 1941, the Conservative MP for West Dorset resigned. It was the wartime convention that the Labour and Conservative parties would not contest seats one against another. So Wingfield Digby was elected, unopposed.

For more than 20 years he served his county with honour and probity. He bent his mind also to the restoration and development of Sherborne Castle, built by Sir Walter Raleigh and inhabited by the Digbys since 1617. From 1952 horse trials took place in the grounds (Wingfield Digby himself was a successful bloodstock breeder) and the castle was opened to the public in 1969. He lived in a small house in the grounds from his retirement from Parliament until his death. Most of his charitable donations were anonymously given, and nearly all of his good work was done by stealth.

He was an energetic delegate to the Western European Union, and from 1972 to 1974 chairman of the Conservative delegation to that admirable but now virtually moribund European institution - and that should have commended him to Edward Heath. However, it did not. I do not suppose that lack of preferment mattered a whit to Simon Wingfield Digby.

Kenelm Simon Digby Wingfield Digby, politician: born 13 February 1910; MP (Unionist) for West Dorset 1941-74; Conservative Whip 1948-51; Civil Lord of the Admiralty 1951-57; President, Society of Dorset Men 1972-85; married 1936 Kathleen Kingstone (one son, one daughter); died Gillingham, Dorset 22 March 1998.