Housing minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments who lost his seat to Ken Livingstone
Thursday 12 October 2006
Reginald Yarnitzy Freeson, environmental consultant, journalist and politician: born London 24 February 1926; MP (Labour) for Willesden East 1964-74, for Brent East 1974-87; PPS to Minister of Transport 1964-67; Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Power 1967-69; Minister for Housing and Local Government 1969-70; Minister for Housing and Construction and Urban Affairs 1974-79; PC 1976; Editor, Jewish Vanguard 1987-2006; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Salisbury, Wiltshire 9 October 2006.
A year ago, I had a letter from Reg Freeson, vehemently agreeing with public criticism I had made of Tony Blair, for making disparaging remarks about previous Labour governments. How dare the Prime Minister suggest that the Attlee and Wilson governments were failures, in contrast to the achievements of New Labour since 1997?
Reg Freeson was Old Labour and proud of it. He was prickly and difficult, but Harold Wilson had a soft spot for him - and so did I, in common with some but by no means all his contemporaries of the 1964 intake. Indeed, Dick Crossman, in his diary for 8 January 1967, writes:
More serious I think (certainly it's going to worry the Chief Whip) are the appointments from the back benches. Of the three young men appointed Roy Hattersley is a solid right-winger but Reg Freeson and Norman Buchan are notorious left-wingers and no whip has been promoted to help John Silkin keep up morale in the whips' office.
Though his early promotion aroused wry comment, and some jealousy, Freeson justified Wilson's choice and turned out to be a most effective minister both in the Wilson and Callaghan administrations.
Freeson told me that his maternal grandparents had come from a very strict Jewish community in Tsarist Russia and had fled to Britain during the pogroms. His paternal grandparents came from the borders of Poland and Russia (his grandfather was one of the craftsmen who worked on the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool) and, born in London in 1926, he considered himself by origin a Polish Jew. In his productive life after he was edged out of his parliamentary seat by Ken Livingstone he continued to work for the Jewish community, having been chairman of the Warsaw Memorial Committee from 1964 to 1971, and later chairman of Poale Zion, a Jewish organisation affiliated to the Labour Party.
The fate of his parents is unclear, but at the age of five he was accepted by the Jewish orphanage in West Norwood, where he stayed until he was 14. He was always grateful to the rabbis who, albeit they were strict, gave him a sound education. In 1941 the family with whom he was living having left the orphanage was bombed out in the Blitz and at 17 Freeson volunteered for the RAF.
For reasons he never quite understood he was posted to the Rifle Brigade for basic training and then from the Rifle Brigade to the Royal Engineers in Egypt, where he became involved in mine disposal. In every way, physically and politically, this wiry and lean man was brave and courageous.
After North Africa and a spell in Italy he was selected for an organisation called the Inter Services Publications Unit. He once showed me some rather moving articles that he had written describing how this Londoner had been absolutely shocked and appalled by the poverty of the Middle East. After the revelations about the concentration camps in 1945 he espoused the Zionist cause and became a devotee of Chaim Weizmann.
Freeson was rather an internal Israeli and I heard him in a long evening tell Dick Crossman that he had had great reservations about the extremists of Irgun Zwei Leumi. Subsequently he was to become highly esteemed by both David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir.
On demobilisation in 1948 he became a journalist, working for John Bull, Everybody's Weekly, Tribune, the News Chronicle and the Daily Mirror, and served for a time as an assistant press officer with the Ministry of Works and the British Railways Board. But his real interest was politics. He was elected to the Willesden Borough Council in 1952 and, still under 30, became an alderman in 1955. Such was his dedication and drive that he was made leader of the council in 1958 and chairman after local government reorganisation of the new London Borough of Brent. His interest in local affairs was lifelong and he was a Brent councillor until earlier this year, losing his seat in May.
In October 1964 he was the Labour standard-bearer in one of the crucial seats which was to provide Harold Wilson with a majority of five. By 20,543 votes to 18,755 he beat the sitting Conservative MP, the New Zealander Trevor Skeet. Freeson had a 4.6 per cent majority when five years previously Skeet's majority had been 5.1 per cent. Freeson had been particularly effective in sponsoring Willesden housing co-operatives and working hard to promote good community relations in the borough.
Tom Fraser, the Scottish MP for Hamilton, Wilson's first Minister of Transport and a family friend of my in-laws, asked me who would be a suitable Parliamentary Private Secretary for him out of the new intake from a southern English constituency. I (and doubtless others) told him that Reg Freeson had considerable knowledge and would be a real help to him. So it proved.
Promoted to Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power in 1967, he worked well with Dick Marsh. Lord Marsh recalls:
Reg could be scratchy and if any sensitive issue to do with race or human rights arose you could see the hackles rising. But in terms of loyalty and commitment he was an absolutely top-class minister. Our people in the Ministry of Power, once they got used to it, liked him and he made a very favourable impression on the Permanent Secretary, Sir David Pitblado [formerly Principal Private Secretary to Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden]. In the years 1966-69 a great deal was going on in the Ministry of Power - particularly in relation to North Sea gas policy, the persistent battles with Alf Robens [Chairman of the National Coal Board] and the nationalisation of steel. When Harold Wilson offered me Freeson (who another minister said he wouldn't touch with a barge pole) I accepted him and found that both of us, who had left school at 14 and grown up in poverty, understood each other. I really valued him.
In 1969, at the fag-end of the first Wilson government, he became Minister of State for Housing and Local Government. In opposition, he was extremely effective in shadowing the same brief - because he was immersed in the subject, he was able to give Conservative housing ministers a torrid time. Julian Amery, no mean frontbench performer, thought him a most formidable opponent.
When the Labour government was rather unexpectedly returned in 1974 Harold Wilson gave his protégé the very important task of Minister of Housing and Construction and Urban Affairs in the Department of the Environment responsible for New Towns, planning, land and local government. Jim Callaghan on becoming Prime Minister had no hesitation in allowing Freeson to continue in this slot.
Sir Gerald Kaufman, his Parliamentary Secretary in 1974-75, describes Freeson as was "an extremely loyal member of the Labour Party" and "a first-rate Minister of Housing [who] carried through important housing legislation which benefited millions of tenants" - in particular tenants with problems of furnished accommodation - and who repealed the Conservative Housing Finance Act and granted an amnesty to councillors surcharged under the provisions of that Act.
When the Labour government was defeated in 1979 there were all sorts of political internecine difficulties in the Borough of Brent and Freeson was under constant pressure from Ken Livingstone, who was eventually to oust him from his seat. In spite of his constituency troubles, Freeson proved to be an effective member of the Select Committee on the Environment, which he chaired from 1982 to 1983. He then devoted much of his energy to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly and the Western European Union.
David Winnick, a colleague on Willesden council and in the House of Commons, remembers Reg Freeson as "a man of unbending integrity":
Even those who quarrelled with him would concede this. An example is that, although he was a Zionist and a passionate supporter of the state of Israel, in 1982 he spoke out against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon - which he knew would make him very unpopular with many in Israel.
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