Sir Eldon Griffiths: Right-wing MP who was tipped as a future prime minister but whose early promise ended in backbench anti-climax

 

Click to follow
The Independent Online

An MP for 33 years, the last 21 on the back benches, Eldon Wylie Griffiths, who has died at the age of 89, could hardly avoid a name for anti-climax. The early career glittered. The son of a Wigan policeman, he took a double first at Emmanuel Cambridge and an MA at Yale. He entered journalism at the top, at Newsweek, where he was Foreign Editor (1959-61) then Chief Foreign Correspondent (1961-63), as well as contributing to the Telegraph and Express.

He gave up journalism splendidly in 1963 to become adviser to the Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Never having fought the customary, hopeless, other side's safe seat, he was snatched by fiery chariots for the Tory heaven of Bury St Edmunds, which would give him majorities in the 15-20,000 range.

Set up for a brilliant career, he heard the customary bad fairies talk of a future Prime Minister – and, like so many early fancies for the top, went nowhere. Yet with his academic credentials, American connections, press experience and, not to be sniffed at, slightly banal good looks – tall, broad shoulders, crinkly light brown hair and good guy's jaw, a young senator in an unsubtle film – Griffiths looked cast for the kind of career which finds the Home Office a disappointment.

With essentially right-wing views he might have expected delay under Edward Heath. But the job he got, Under Secretary at the Environment, essentially Minister for Sport, would be his summit. With Margaret Thatcher established as Opposition Leader he held promising shadow portfolios, spokesman on Trade and Industry, then Europe. But by 1976, at 41, he was finished politically. He stayed on in Parliament, later failing selection for a European seat, served on select committees, notably Foreign Affairs (1979-83), was a member of the executive of the 1922 Committee, led delegations to countries and chaired or vice-chaired parliamentary groups (Anglo-Polish and Anglo-Iranian), and obtained wide experience on company boards, notably Caparo Group and Barber-Greene. The post he held longest, giving great satisfaction, was as advisor to the Police Federation (1966-70 and 1974-89).

His interesting failure was not to hold the steady run of junior posts, and it is not obviously explained. There was no scandal and there was not, as with some disappointed MPs, an ideological glass wall of disagreement with the leadership. He had done at least respectably under the liberal Heath. Given the Thatcher succession, he was a natural in most of his opinions (pro-hanging, the US and the police) and in his enmities (the BBC, petrol tax and the Soviet Union)- for acceleration and at least steady employment.

Almost certainly the elder group of liberal Tories like William Whitelaw and Lord Carrington, who carried weight on appointments, would have been unsympathetic to Griffiths. Even so, total exclusion from all office, including the decent lower ranks, is striking. Perhaps the remark he made when in office in Heath's time, that he could not indefinitely live on a junior minister's salary, not only put up a wide assortment of backs, but was taken gratefully as self-exclusion from the modest company of Ministers of State.

Cursed with a flying start, he talked too much, and like an heir living on high but unsecured expectations, talked with an assurance which irked obscurer colleagues. And he could be intolerably pompous. His back bench speeches were orotund, heavy with cliche and proclaimed a speaker taking himself with a seriousness not generally shared. He was, together with Winston Churchill Jr, the last politician in Britain to grasp his lapels while talking.

The term "right-wing" needs refinement. The advancing right under Thatcher was made up of ardent classical economists, often socially and morally liberal. Griffiths, the policeman's son and long-stay spokesman for the Police Federation, was dedicated to penal severity, had been a supporter of American bombing in Vietnam, denounced the anti-apartheid campaign, talked about Asian immigrants "jumping the queue", went on about "red moles" at the BBC and, during the 1975 referendum as Tory Spokesman on Europe, stated that Labour had a choice between the EEC and Communism.

He was punitive/authoritarian/high alarm. So was Thatcher, but the typical rising Thatcherites were people like Peter Lilley and Leon Brittan: relaxed, unreactionary believers in free markets as part of a wider freedom. When Keith Joseph made his seminal speeches reviving liberal/classical economics, Griffiths attacked them. The sharpest judgement came from Enoch Powell: "Eldon Griffiths fears becoming an old man, but he's an old lady already."

Over the years, Griffiths walked out of an anti-apartheid service addressed by Bishop Huddleston, denounced as "a wretched little bill" the legislation which became the Race Relations Act, voted at the European Assembly against the expulsion of the Greek Colonels regime, attacked Ted Heath for supporting Scots and Welsh devolution and questioned the fitness of bishops to vote in the Upper House if in Synod they could not "put their house in order over homosexuality."

Yet Griffiths used his police expertise in favour of advanced scientific matters like genetic fingerprinting ahead of its acceptance, and prophetically criticised early drugs legislation for assuming that addicts would remain few. He was an intelligent critic of the privatised BT, made pertinent criticisms of Ulster Loyalism, was never any sort of racist and would be a dedicated worker in the cause of the mentally handicapped. However much the public style and lack of tact contributed to his failure to rise, it is difficult not to feel that he deserved better than he got.

He had a son and a daughter with his first wife, Sigrid. In 1985 he married Betty Stannard, who died in 2009. Last year he married Susan Donnell, an American author he had known for 50 years. "People are as old as they feel and I don't feel old," he said. "I always remember the famous remark: old age is always 15 years older than what you are."

EDWARD PEARCE

Eldon Wylie Griffiths, journalist and politician: born Wigan 25 May 1925; MP for Bury St Edmunds 1964-92; Kt 1985; married firstly Sigrid (divorced 1985; one daughter, one son), 1985 Betty Stannard (died 2009), 2013 Susan Donnell; died 3 June 2014.

Comments