Sir Carol Mather

Conservative MP and whip who had served on Montgomery's staff and in David Stirling's SAS
Click to follow
The Independent Online

David Carol Macdonell Mather: soldier and politician: born Adlington, Cheshire 3 January 1919; MC 1944; MP (Conservative) for Esher 1970-87; an Opposition Whip 1975-79; a Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury 1979-81; Vice-Chamberlain of HM Household 1981-83, Comptroller 1983-86; Kt 1987; married 1951 The Hon Philippa Bewicke-Copley (one son, three daughters); died Lower Oddington, Gloucestershire 3 July 2006.

Although Carol Mather spent a quarter of a century in politics, first as a desk officer in the Conservative Research Department, then as the MP for Esher and a senior whip, some believed that, as with so many who fought in the Second World War, he felt his wartime career the most interesting, if not the best time of his life. He wrote an account of it, When the Grass Stops Growing, in 1997, and it was certainly a remarkable war.

He had joined the Welsh Guards in 1939 and was sent to Sandhurst. He did not complete the course, choosing as a keen skier to volunteer for the 5th Special Reserve Battalion of the Scots Guards who were due to be sent to Finland to help the Finns resist the Russian onslaught in 1940. Before the battalion could sail, an armistice was agreed and Mather returned to the Training Battalion of the Welsh Guards. He was commissioned in 1940.

Volunteering in October 1940 for the commandos, after training at the Irregular Warfare Training Centre at Lochailort in the Western Highlands, he was posted to 8 Commando and embarked for the Middle East in January 1941. Among those on board were Randolph Churchill, Evelyn Waugh and David Stirling, who was to become one of Mather's heroes. In August 1941 he was posted to GHQ Liaison Squadron, which had taken heavy casualties in Crete, and spent six months patrolling with them, before joining Stirling's Long Range Desert Group. As a member of the nascent SAS, then known as L Detachment, he took part in their first raid, a successful attack on German airfields between Daba and Mersa Matruh. At Fuka 30 enemy aircraft were destroyed in a single night.

Mather's parents were close friends in Lancashire of Betty Montgomery, the wife of the future field marshal, and the Mather boys had met Bernard Montgomery skiing at Gstaad. William Mather was running Montgomery's TAC HQ and in October 1942 his younger brother Carol joined Montgomery's staff as one of the liaison officers who kept the general in close touch with events in the front line.

However, Mather could not resist the temptation to take part in another operation with Stirling, who was planning to penetrate deep into Tripolitania and strafe enemy vehicles along the 500-mile road between the British front line at El Agheila and Tripoli. Mather, with three jeeps, was to tackle a 15-mile stretch east of Tripoli. On 20 December they were taken prisoner by the Italians and Mather was transferred by submarine to a POW camp in northern Italy.

After nine months in captivity, he made his escape at the time of the Italian armistice and, with some 600 others, walked through the Apennines to rejoin the Allied forces at Campobasso, north-east of Naples. By November 1943 he was back in England, where he joined the 2nd (Armoured) Battalion of his regiment. Montgomery invited him to rejoin his staff as GSO III (Liaison) and in that capacity he landed in Normandy on D Day plus 1 and carried out his daily task of reporting on operations throughout the Normandy campaign, the break-out and the drive north. He won an immediate MC for a particularly dangerous piece of reconnaissance in Nijmegen the day after Operation Market Garden was launched. The town was still in German occupation and Mather came under fire, but completed his task successfully.

Mather came very close to death on 9 January 1945 when taking part in an aerial reconnaissance of the forward area over Grave in an Auster. Attacked by a Focke-Wulf 190, his aircraft did not take evasive action. The pilot had been killed at the controls. Major Dick Harden took over the joystick, while Mather, badly wounded, operated the flaps and they engineered a crash landing in marshy ground. In all, as Montgomery discovered when visiting him in hospital, Mather had 13 separate wounds. "Thirteen, thirteen. Excellent, excellent" was the field marshal's breezy comment, but his concern was shown by the care he took in letting Mather's parents know the news. As he wrote to a friend,

Carol has had an operation and one kidney has been removed. His left forearm is badly shattered and there is a possibility that some of the nerve has been shot away; if this proves to be so then he might not have full use of his left arm. In any case he will be over 2 months in hospital, and then a long period of convalescence will follow.

It was the end of Mather's war, although not of his friendship with Montgomery, of whom he told many stories, none odder than the way he despatched Mather after the war to recover his skiing boots that were on display in a hotel in Gstaad.

By July Mather had returned to Montgomery's staff, but he subsequently took a permanent commission, joining the 1st Welsh Guards in Palestine, where he remained until the end of the Mandate in 1948. Mather served as Assistant Military Attaché in Athens from 1953 to 1956, before moving to the War Office as GSO1 Military Intelligence, 1956-61. His final posting in the Army was as Military Secretary to GOC-in-C Eastern Command.

In 1962 he resigned his commission as a lieutenant-colonel to take a desk officer's position in the Conservative Research Department. Eight years of solid work was enlivened by his chairmanship of the Horton branch of the South Buckinghamshire Conservative Association, a brief foray into local politics on the Eton RDC, and an unsuccessful campaign against Sir Barnett Janner in Leicester North West in the 1966 general election.

His search for a winnable constituency was rewarded in the spring of 1969 when he emerged from 250 applicants to beat his fellow desk officer Sir Anthony Meyer to secure the Conservative nomination for Esher. In many ways the constituency and he were well matched, affluent, traditionally and uncompromisingly Conservative, but loyal to a fault. He fought hard on behalf of his constituents, whether against the destruction wrought by the decision to run the M25 through it or for the British Aircraft Corporation at Weybridge.

He loathed much about modern Britain, the "violence, mugging, the effect of permissive legislation introduced by the Labour government, abortion, relaxation of censorship, the homosexual Bill, all that lot". He campaigned strongly for the reintroduction of capital punishment and for stiffer penalties for criminals and was a vigorous opponent of both the IRA and industrial militants. Although very much a new boy in the Commons, he voted against membership of the EEC in October 1971 and remained deeply unhappy about British membership.

Briefly he became notorious when in the summer of 1974 he was one of a group of eight MPs who recommended to then shadow Home Secretary, Sir Keith Joseph, that he should create a Citizen Volunteer Force to deter crime and preserve public order. Mather bitterly resented the way in which this was portrayed as an attempt to set up a right-wing vigilante squad, but it did not prevent him from lending his backing to David Stirling's efforts to organise volunteers to run essential services in the event of industrial militancy in the autumn of 1974.

Although he refused to criticise his leader, he had called for "new blood" after the party's defeat in February 1974 and it was no great surprise that, when Margaret Thatcher took over, he was recruited into the Whips Office to look after the South-East. He had held office simultaneously on three key backbench committees, becoming Secretary of the Northern Ireland Committee in 1972, and its Vice-Chairman, 1974-76, Joint Secretary of the Foreign Affairs Committee, 1971-74, and chairman of its United States sub-committee in 1974, and Secretary of the Home Affairs Committee, 1974-76.

For his remaining 12 years in the Commons he was one of Thatcher's most loyal supporters, playing a key role in bringing down the Callaghan government, and his seniority in the Whips Office was recognised with his appointment as Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household in 1981 and Comptroller from 1983, senior positions in the hierarchy of whips. He thought that his military service had been ideal preparation for the Whips Office, and observed, when panic overtook the party in the wake of the Crosby by-election in 1982, "The trouble with these young men is that they have never been under fire."

He was knighted for his services in 1987 and somewhat unexpectedly stood down from the Commons at the 1987 election.

David Carol Macdonell Mather was the grandson of a Conservative MP and the son of Loris Mather, who chaired the family engineering firm, Mather and Platt. After Amesbury prep, he was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, and became an apprentice in the family firm. He might have returned to it after the war, but chose to stay on in the Army, leaving the running of the firm to his brother.

He had a wide range of sporting interests. A good horseman and a crack shot, he had hunted and played polo in his earlier days. He skied and he fished, and also sketched in pen and wash and was an accomplished water-colourist.

In addition to his wartime memoir, he published in 1992 a trenchant defence of Harold Macmillan against the charges made by Nikolai Tolstoy, Aftermath of War: everyone must go home. The loyalty that was a marked feature of his character was displayed also in the tribute he paid to David Stirling when he was under attack for his political activities in 1975, describing him as "the most unorthodox of a long line of brilliant and unorthodox British military leaders, to be rated alongside Lawrence and Wingate".

His own courage, moral and physical, was unquestionable, his loyalty and sense of duty impeccable.

John Barnes

As a parliamentary colleague, who had many dealings with Carol Mather, over 17 years, I would not dissent one iota from John Barnes's illuminating obituary, writes Tam Dalyell. Allow one addition. Mather, stern, unbending Tory that he was, was liked by many Labour MPs. He was an unusual government whip, in that he actually listened to what opponents said. Quite often, in Standing Committee, he would say at the end of the session, in something of a whisper, "You have a valid argument; I will bring it to the minister's and the department's notice." And he did.

I got to know him well during the devolution arguments of 1976-79. Like his friend Enoch Powell, Mather, outwardly a simple soldier, but inwardly ex-Trinity College, Cambridge, grasped what is now dubbed "the West Lothian Question". His reasons for concern went far beyond the fact that he regularly fly-fished on Scottish lochs.

The Labour MP with whom he had most to deal was Walter Harrison, Deputy Chief Whip in the Wilson-Callaghan government. Harrison recalls him as

a first-class man, irrespective of our being political opponents. In fact, he gave me a copy of his book Aftermath of War: everyone must go home [1992] with the inscription, "To Walter. Combatants in politics; combatants together in arms. I have respect for you."

Before he was sent to the Whips Office Mather was one of the first MPs to speak and think seriously about terrorism. I remember his powerful speech on 19 May 1975 during the consideration of the Prevention of Terrorism legislation:

Some have spoken as though we were living in normal times. Unfortunately we are not. To experience terrible terrorist attacks, as we have done in this country in the past two or three years, cannot by the wildest stretch of the imagination be called normal. Therefore, when we talk about the deprivation of liberty, we must remember that this is not a normal situation, in which normal rules can operate.

Comments