Sir George Sinclair

Deputy Governor of Cyprus and Tory MP
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If the Parliamentary Labour Party had been polled over the period 1964 to 1979 as to who were the 10 most congenial, constructive, and thoroughly decent Tory MPs, George Sinclair would have been high up the list. This was partly because he had, so obviously, so much to contribute to Parliament from a wealth of experience. Lord Weatherill, the former Speaker of the House of Commons, shared an office with Sinclair as a newly arrived MP. He recalls:

That generation, the class of '64, was the last time the majority arrived with heavy background baggage, and could participate relevantly and meaningfully from their personal experience. New boys, of whom George Sinclair was prominent, really did have something valuable to offer - arising out of my background of trade in suburbia and war service in the Far East, or Sinclair's public service in West Africa and Cyprus.

In my 43 years as an MP, I think Sinclair was the only person to have been knighted already, before his election to the Commons, for services outside party politics. He had served with distinction as Deputy Governor of Cyprus, first to Field Marshal Sir John Harding (later Lord Harding of Petherton) from 1955 to 1967, and secondly to Sir Hugh Foot (later Lord Caradon) from 1957 to 1960. They faced the huge problems posed by Eoka.

George Sinclair's father, Francis Sinclair, was a scion of the Sinclairs of Caithness who left the north-east of Scotland to become an apprentice with the Eastern Telegraph Company based in the extreme south-west of Cornwall. Their base and that of Empire Cables was at Porthcurno and it was from there that Sinclair père was sent to work in Ascension Island, St Helena and many other then remote parts of the world. He returned to settle down as Director of Training at what was, from 1870, the nerve centre of a British Empire dependent on cables.

It was at Porthcurno that George Sinclair was born, in 1912. After Abingdon School he read Greats at Pembroke College, Oxford, and joined the Colonial Administrative Service in 1936. His first job was as an Assistant District Commissioner in the Gold Coast administration, when he applied himself to learn the language and customs of the Ashanti people based in Kumasi.

From 1940 to 1943 he served with the Royal West African Frontier Force, whose unglamorous but absolutely crucial task it was to maintain the safety and viability of the West African ports. When the threat receded he returned as a District Commissioner in the Gold Coast and was Secretary to the Commission on Higher Education in West Africa. This was an experience that he was to put to excellent use 20 years later when he was one of the most active and influential members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and, along with the Labour MP Colin Jackson, the Council for Education in the Commonwealth. After a period at the Colonial Office as a Principal Assistant Secretary he was appointed Regional Officer in 1952 of the Trans-Volta Togoland Region, much concerned with irrigation and sustainable development.

In 1955 Sinclair was chosen for the crucial position of Deputy Governor of Cyprus. It was thought that a warm personality and someone who understood the aspirations of local people was something of a counterweight to the taciturn and formidable Field Marshal Sir John Harding, former Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who had been plucked from retirement. I was told by James Callaghan when he was Foreign Secretary and much concerned with Cyprus that Sinclair (by that time an MP) had a golden reputation both in his handling of Harding and subsequently his relationship with Hugh Foot, the first civilian governor of the island. Foot's son the journalist and socialist worker Paul Foot, not a man given to voicing a good word about Tories, was full of praise for Sinclair's skill at that time.

At the age of 50 friends in the Dorking constituency persuaded him - he did take a little persuading - to become their candidate. In October 1964 he gained 23,862 votes over Labour's Douglas Tilbe's 9,806 and the Liberal Wilfred Watson's 8,773. He never had the slightest difficulty in retaining a massive majority. He was assiduous, for example, in raising constantly on the floor of the Commons an issue of perennial concern to the constituency - the multifarious problems caused by Gatwick airport, from planning permissions to night flights. Such political troubles as he ran into arose from the Dorking Conservative Association, some of whose members did not find his "enlightened views" on subjects such as abortion and population control to their taste. Indeed, Sinclair was among the most active and brave Conservative MPs in making good cause with Douglas Houghton, David Steel and others concerned with the Abortion Act, where he served with distinction on the committee stage of the amending Bill.

My first clear memory of Sinclair was sitting and listening to his remarkable speech on the address to the Queen's Speech on 12 November 1965. The subject was Rhodesia:

I want first to deal with one matter of detail. That is, the duty of civil servants and those in the armed forces and the police. This is a very difficult matter for every officer in the field and is likely to be so over many months ahead . . . It is important, if we have the ultimate aim of conciliation in Rhodesia and bringing all communities back to a new course of constitutional government in which all can share, that we should not encourage widespread suffering inside the country, and this is a practical task of keeping the essential services going. I mean such services as water, transport, telecommunications, hospitals and health. I should like the Government here and their representative, the Governor, in Rhodesia, if he has any means of communication, to make it absolutely clear that, in the interests of all the inhabitants of Rhodesia, Africa and white Rhodesians, the essential services should be kept going.

Sinclair added that he was not trying to make a party point in saying that, though warnings had been given to Ian Smith and his main supporters of the consequences which would flow from an illegal declaration of independence, he wasn't sure how far those warnings had reached the main body of the supporters of Smith's party in the country. He paid tribute to what he called "the enormous efforts the Prime Minister [Harold Wilson] made when he went to Rhodesia".

The speaker who followed Sinclair was Christopher Rowland, MP for Meriden, who was one of the 11 backbench Members who had been to Rhodesia the previous week. He congratulated Sinclair for a speech which "throws across the divide of the House some possibility of an accord on this matter". Precisely because he was generous and thoughtful in speech, I know that Labour government ministers took his private advice extremely seriously.

Sinclair was one of the first MPs to campaign on the problems of immigrant children. Soon after he became an MP he asked Ernest Thornton, Joint Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Labour, how many sons of Commonwealth immigrants were among the 110,000 boys who obtained apprenticeships and what steps he would take to ensure that immigrant children on leaving school had access, on their merits, to training apprenticeships. Failing to receive a convincing answer, Sinclair typically followed it up with visits to ministers in their departments and made sure that at least the problem began to be tackled.

In everything he did in the House of Commons, Sinclair was serious - and scornful of posturing. He was one of the champions of intermediate technology. Another interest was his work as a member of the United Nations World Conference of Parliamentarians on population and development and his vice-chairmanship of the Family Planning Association. He made speeches about human rights two decades before it became a central political issue.

I first met George Sinclair when John Hannan, captain of the House of Commons tennis team, paired me with him in the spring of 1965 in a match on the Vincent Square courts against the Metropolitan Police. My clear memory is that at 53, giving me more than 20 years, he was the more effective partner. He was always a fit athlete. I remember his great distress in 1971 when his first wife Katharine, after a 30-year partnership, succumbed to cancer. Their son, Charles Sinclair, is currently the group chief executive of the Daily Mail and a director of Reuters.

In 1972 Sinclair married Mary, the widow of George Sawday, and again was to have a happy marriage lasting a third of a century.

Tam Dalyell