Sir Charles Kerruish

Dominant force in Manx politics

Henry Charles Kerruish, politician: born Maughold, Isle of Man 23 July 1917; member, House of Keys 1946-90, Speaker 1962-90; OBE 1964; Kt 1979; president, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association 1983-84; President of Tynwald and of the Legislative Council of the Isle of Man 1990-2000; married 1944 Margaret Gell (one son, three daughters), 1975 Kay Warriner; died Braddon, Isle of Man 23 July 2003.

For more than 40 years, Charles Kerruish was the dominant influence in the Isle of Man's political affairs, holding the most influential elected posts in government and bending policy to his formidable will. At his funeral service the congregation sang the words of the Manx national anthem:

O land of our birth,

O gem of God's earth,

O Island so strong and so fair

Built firm as Barrule

Thy throne of home rule

Makes us free as thy sweet mountain

air.

The problem for Charlie Kerruish was that the notion of Manx "home rule" was to some extent a myth and that the Manx people were not as free as their anthem so piously declared. His political career was a successful crusade to bring about major constitutional change.

Henry Charles Kerruish (pronounced "Kerroosh") was born in 1917 at Ballafayle, a farm near Maughold which had been in his family since the early 18th century. An only child, he was educated locally at the excellent Ramsey Grammar School and left at the age of 16 in order to work with his parents on the farm. When his father died only three years later, Kerruish stepped into his shoes and soon showed his natural drive by raising a loan and buying an adjoining farm. He remained a working farmer until the day of his death, by which time the 80 acres he had inherited had grown to several thousand.

Farming was a reserved occupation and he did not fight in the Second World War, though he was the leading light in the Maughold "Dad's Army". He also joined the Young Farmers' Club and discovered, in their debating contests, that he had a natural talent for public speaking. In 1943 he decided to stand in a by-election for the House of Keys in his local constituency of Garff and came second - the only election he lost in a political career spanning 54 years.

In 1946 he became the youngest member of the Keys and in 1955 Chairman of the Health Services Board and a member of the Executive Council (a sort of Cabinet). In political debates he was so obviously the complete master of his brief, and so eloquent and forceful in his presentation of a case, that he was soon recognised by the other 23 members of the Keys as an outstanding personality. In 1962 they elected him their Speaker, the youngest on record.

Tynwald claims to be over 1,000 years old, with the longest unbroken parliamentary history in the world. It consists of the Legislative Council, a small group acting as the "Upper House", and the House of Keys, the "Lower House". Unlike the Westminster parliament the two houses meet both separately and together. In the latter case the Speaker of the Keys does not preside and may take part in debate like any other member. This explains why Kerruish was so influential from 1962 to 1990, his years as Speaker.

Moreover, in the 1960s he worked very closely with the Lieutenant Governor, Sir Ronald Garvey, who had up to a point "gone native" and was very keen to bring greater prosperity to the island. Garvey and Kerruish were behind the drive to increase tourism, set up a casino and encourage wealthy UK residents to move to the island, attracted by a favourable tax regime. Garvey appointed Kerruish Chairman of the Executive Council, a position he held in addition to being Speaker and Chairman of the Health Services Board.

For his political opponents this was "overmightiness" and it made it difficult, they felt, for him to carry out the Speaker's duties impartially. After a long battle Kerruish was forced to retire from the Executive Council in 1968, but by then he was directing most of his energies into a contest with Harold Wilson's government which had refused to allow Tynwald to run a commercial radio station that could compete with Radio Luxembourg, or, for that matter, with the pirate ship "Radio Caroline" anchored a few miles off Maughold Head.

To Kerruish this was a prime example of UK interference in the affairs of what should have been a self-governing Crown dependency. For two decades, he was at the forefront of negotiations with the UK, which gradually agreed to successive reductions in the executive powers of the Lieutenant Governor and the influence of the UK.

In 1976, Kerruish travelled to Washington to present a replica of the Manx Sword of State to the Speaker of the House of Representatives to mark the bicentenary of American Independence, and in 1979 he was at the heart of the elaborate celebrations which marked the centenary of Tynwald, attended that year by the Queen, as Lord of Man. Having been appointed OBE in 1964 Kerruish was knighted in Millennium Year, an honour, he insisted, that belonged to the Keys rather than to himself.

In 1990 the gradual reduction in the powers of the Lieutenant Governor culminated in his ceasing to be the presiding officer of the two houses of Tynwald and Kerruish was elected to the new post of President of Tynwald, designing an impressive blue and silver gown for ceremonial use.

He retired in 2000, having therefore served as a presiding officer for 38 years, almost certainly a record within the Commonwealth. This community of nations fascinated Kerruish, in particular the way it encouraged smaller states to work towards democracy. He attended his first Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) conference in Delhi in 1957, and after that he was hooked, working his way gradually up the ranks of the organisation. By 1984 he had been elected president, an honoured guest of heads of state in many parts of the world. The CPA conference of that year was very successfully held in Douglas, and opened by the Queen Mother, his favourite member of the royal family.

Despite a frantically busy programme during these years he still gave due attention to his farming and vital support to the Royal Manx Agricultural Show, not least as a breeder of heavy horses, for which he was famous. Above all he was a family man who often said that he owed everything to the support of his wives and children. In 1942 he married Margaret Gell, with whom he had a son and four daughters. She died in 1970 and in 1975 he married Kay Warriner. The Kerruish political line carries on because his eldest daughter Clare is currently Minister for Health and Social Security and his youngest daughter Anne was elected MHK for Ramsey earlier this year.

Derek Winterbottom

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