Obituary: Sir Nigel Fisher

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The Independent Online
Nigel Fisher was one of the most disarming and agreeable of men: yet he possessed political convictions of steel, and a stubborn will to match. Harold Macmillan was a hero to him (he published a biography of him in 1982), but he was totally lacking in Macmillan's subtlety and deviousness. In short, he lacked all of the supposed characteristics of the successful politician, except charm; and this, perhaps, is why he never held more than junior office.

Iain Macleod, of whom Fisher also wrote a biography (in 1973; a much better piece of work than his Harold Macmillan), was also a hero, but also a very close friend. Indeed, Macleod was, in one of the most romantic episodes in modern political history, instrumental in saving Fisher's political career.

Fisher, like Macleod, was an ardent believer in the Commonwealth. He worked tirelessly for the independence of Commonwealth nations (especially African ones, and above all Uganda). He was not a latter-day imperialist, like the then Marquess of Salisbury, but one of a once influential branch of the Conservative Party which has now dwindled to almost nothing: these were men and women who believed that the Commonwealth offered a way of proceeding down a hopeful path to a bright future of international and interracial co-operation, of brotherly love. He was intensely, and increasingly, uneasy about the steadily tightening restrictions on immigration from the Commonwealth put forward by governments of both parties.

His constituents in Surbiton, however, took a view diametrically opposed to that of their Member, and serious moves were undertaken to deselect him: he told his wife and various friends in the press (including myself) that his political career was over.

Then a letter arrived from Macleod, the Shadow Chancellor. It was short and abrupt, and read, "Dear Nigel, I have told Ted that, if you go, I go too." Fisher was immediately on the telephone, explaining to Macleod that the departure of the Shadow Chancellor would put in peril all his arduous work in framing a new Conservative economic policy. It was to no avail: Macleod was adamant. However, the party leader, Edward Heath - who cared little for Fisher - had no intention of losing Macleod. The whole weight of Conservative Central Office was brought to bear on the rebels of the Surbiton Conservative Association, and Fisher survived as an MP until his retirement in 1983.

Nigel Fisher was born in 1913, the son of a commander in the Royal Navy who was knighted for his work as an attache during the First World War (and who then stood as a Liberal candidate in the 1924 election). The martial theme was to persist throughout the son's life, for both his wives were the daughters of soldiers, and he himself was to win distinction in the Second World War. He went to school at Eton, and to university at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was judged to be a good, if not outstanding, student. In 1935 he married the daughter of the seventh Earl of Lisburne, and thus began a passionate involvement (on the Unionist side) in Northern Irish politics which survived even after his marriage was dissolved in 1952 (his son by that marriage is Mark Fisher, the Labour MP). This involvement was encouraged by the fact that his second wife, Patricia Smiles (whom he married in 1956), was also an Ulsterwoman, and, indeed, a Westminster MP, in the Ulster Unionist interest, from 1953 to 1956.

In 1939 Fisher enlisted in the Welsh Guards, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He rose to the rank of captain in 1940, and ended his military career as a major. He fought in the Hook of Holland and in Boulogne in 1940, and was mentioned in dispatches. In 1945 he was part of the Allied invasion of Western Europe, was wounded, and was awarded the Military Cross.

Like so many servicemen of his generation, he was determined to enter politics once the war was over. He fought a hopeless fight in the 1945 general election, but won Hitchin in 1950. He transferred to Surbiton in 1955, and continued when it became Kingston-upon-Thames and Surbiton in 1974. For all that his liberal views on national affairs excited hostility in the constituency, he was an assiduous and well-liked Member, though his heart lay elsewhere than within the narrow boundaries of the community he represented.

He threw all his energies into the Conservative Party itself, and served two terms on its National Executive (1945-47 and 1973-83). Those who did not like him thought him arrogant: Reginald Maudling once described him as "a jumped up little sod". It is certain that he had no small opinion of his own abilities, and that he thought that he deserved a major role on the national stage. But I, who differed from him on pretty well everything except his admiration for Iain Macleod, never found him arrogant, nor unwilling to engage in civilised debate from those whose views differed from his own. He could be prickly, certainly, but a great deal less so than many of his colleagues.

Though he served on a parliamentary delegation to Scandinavia in 1950, his attention was really focused on Africa and the West Indies, with a passing concern for Canada. He took part in countless Commonwealth Parliamentary Association missions to, and deputations for the interests of, Commonwealth countries.

Having served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Food and the Home Secretary, he became Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Colonial Office in 1962 and, when it was merged into the Commonwealth Office the following year, he went along too; and he continued his duties in opposition after the general election defeat of 1964.

It took Fisher a long time to accept the fact that ministerial preferment was not again going to come his way. His only chance, probably, would have been to advance under the protection and patronage of Macleod, but Macleod died within days of the Conservative victory in the general election of 1970, the only Chancellor since Lord Randolph Churchill never to deliver a Budget speech.

Nigel Fisher was a man of the highest principles, blessed with elfin humour and a warm heart. If he never achieved the glittering prizes he thought were rightfully his, he did achieve goodness.

Nigel Thomas Loveridge Fisher, politician: born London 14 July 1913; MC 1945; MP (Conservative) for Herts, Hitchin 1950-55, Surbiton 1955-74, Kingston-upon-Thames, Surbiton 1974-83; PPS to the Minister of Food 1951- 54, to the Home Secretary 1954-57; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies 1962-63, for Commonwealth Relations and for the Colonies 1963-64; opposition spokesman for Commonwealth affairs 1964-66; Kt 1974; married 1935 Lady Gloria Vaughan (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1952), 1956 Patricia Smiles (died 1995); died Chilton, Buckinghamshire 9 October 1996.