"He taught me one of the most important lessons of my political life – how best to handle Old Etonians!" So Edward Heath told me in 2001, referring to Anthony Kershaw, a fellow guest, when he invited three Labour MPs, Denis Healey, Tony Benn and myself, to join a select score of Tory MPs and ex-MPs at a dinner given on the occasion of his 50 years in the House of Commons. It has to be said, though, that Heath, when Prime Minister, did not reward Kershaw as he might have done.
Not only were Kershaw and Heath friends at Balliol College, Oxford, but Kershaw was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Heath in the years that he was leader of the opposition. Every morning when he was in London, Kershaw would go round to Ted Heath's flat in the Albany, off Piccadilly, make his breakfast for him and discuss the plans for the day and for the week. When Heath got to Downing Street in 1970, Kershaw was given the lowly post of Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works and only on account of vacancies caused by the unexpected death of Iain Macleod later that year was a place found for him as a junior minister in the Foreign Office. It is to Kershaw's great credit that he became a powerful figure in the House of Commons in his own right.
Born in 1915, John Anthony Kershaw was the son of Judge J.F. Kershaw, who was one of Viscount Milner's entourage in Egypt, and an American mother from the Kentucky grasslands. After a successful time at Eton he went to read Law at Balliol, where he became friends with the young organ scholar Ted Heath.
I doubt whether, if he had not been "good with old Etonians", Heath, a grammar school boy from Broadstairs in Kent, would ever had been elected leader of the Conservative Party and become Prime Minister. What I am quite certain about is that Anthony Eden would never in December 1955 have appointed Heath government chief whip if he could not handle the then many pronouncedly Etonian MPs. I am equally certain that had he not had this capacity he would not have been confirmed in this pivotal post by Harold Macmillan in the wake of the Suez Crisis. Heath owed Kershaw a huge debt.
In 1939, with war looming, Kershaw married Barbara Crookenden, daughter of the distinguished solicitor Harry Crookenden, a senior partner of the well-known solicitors Francis and Crookenden of Lincoln's Inn Fields. On the outbreak of war, given his mother's interest in horses, Kershaw joined the 16th/5th Lancers.
During his service in Tripolitania Kershaw was awarded the Military Cross, but did not go to Italy. Instead, being recognised as a very decisive and able officer, he was made a GSO1, landing in Normandy and fighting all the way to the Elbe.
As he had been called to the Bar in 1939 he was able to resume his legal career after the war and combine it with service as a member of London County Council, 1946-49, and Westminster City Council, 1947-48. In 1955 he was selected for the then safe constituency of Stroud in Gloucestershire. My first memory of Kershaw was of his challenge, during the air estimates on 18 March 1963, to the formidable George Wigg in full flow. Wigg wanted the official report, Hansard, to name "all honourable members who at public expense have had the privileged advantage of visiting the RAF during the previous financial year". Kershaw responded:
If there is any difficulty about honourable members going to see the service installations it is well known, I think, that they have only themselves to thank. Opportunities to visit service stations and other places concerning the services are open to honourable members on both sides of the House, as every honourable gentleman knows or should know.
Wigg exploded: "Not to me."
"Perhaps there are honourable members who do not take the trouble to read their party whip and do not ask to go on these trips to various installations," was Kershaw's reply:
If they wish to have a list of the names published so that members of the public see that those who interest themselves in military affairs nevertheless do not trouble to visit the units, the public will be able to draw the conclusion that those honourable members have no interest in the services and merely like to hear themselves talk in the chamber.
The next speaker was Wigg's friend Emanuel Shinwell: "We have just had a piece of gross impertinence from the honourable member for Stroud. That was all it was, and the honourable gentleman should be ashamed of himself." I remember Kershaw's broad grin at having provoked the ire of Wigg and Shinwell, to the satisfaction of Conservative MPs, and of more than a few Labour MPs who thought that he had made a fair point.
As junior minister at the Foreign Office, 1970-73, Kershaw had responsibility for consular affairs and many of the individual cases which came to MPs. He was a man of his word and once he said that he would help, he was effective in getting action in a way that many ministers are not. If he wasn't prepared to help (and on one occasion he told me bluntly that I had a bad case), one knew where one was with him.
Promoted in 1973 to be the minister responsible for the RAF, he could claim to have promoted the interests of the service in having a new generation of fighter aircraft. Senior RAF officers have told me they thought he was one of the best ministers they had had, albeit fleetingly on account of the unexpected Labour victory in February 1974. I am also told that, had Kershaw remained close to Heath, he would have warned him not to go down the path of taking on the miners which led to the three-day week.
If I dwell now on an incident in which I was centrally involved, it is because it illuminates a significant aspect of Kershaw's character. In 1979, he had become chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs since, on account of his association with Heath, he was not Margaret Thatcher's "one of us". In 1984, as an MP who had been criticising Thatcher's Falklands War and in particular the reasons for sinking the Argentine cruiser the Belgrano, I received information (which could only have come from an insider in the government machine) which made it clear that Parliament had been misled and the Foreign Affairs Committee deceived.
Clearly, the sender thought that I would tell journalists. I did no such thing. I considered it important to keep the information as a proceeding in Parliament and therefore sent the sensitive information to Kershaw, calculating that he would be angry at the self-evident deception of his committee. Far from making enquiries, he sent the information straight to the Ministry of Defence. This resulted in the identification and outing of the civil servant Clive Ponting as the sender and his subsequent trial at the Old Bailey.
In a crunch situation, between loyalty to Parliament and truth-seeking on the one hand, and on the other "patriotism" and the interests of the Conservative government, Kershaw opted for the latter. His anger was directed at the messenger, Ponting, rather than at those who were being exposed as misleading the House of Commons. He was incandescent with fury about the "disloyal" civil servant when Ponting was dramatically acquitted. For Kershaw, loyalty, sometimes misplaced, was the greatest of all virtues.
Kershaw stood down in Stroud at the general election of 1987. Most MPs retired for 20 years are forgotten, but when I went to Stanway in Gloucestershire last year for the opening of Lord Neidpath's conservation nature trail, Kershaw and his supportive wife Barbara were remembered as truly excellent local representatives.
John Anthony Kershaw, barrister and politician: born Cairo 14 December 1915; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1939; MC 1943; member, London County Council 1946-49; member, Westminster City Council 1947-48; MP (Conservative) for Stroud 1955-87; Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Public Building and Works 1970; Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign Office 1970-73; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (RAF) 1973-74; Chairman, House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs 1979-87; Kt 1981; married 1939 Barbara Crookenden (two sons, two daughters); died Didmarton, Gloucestershire 29 April 2008.Reuse content