Sir Timothy Raison: Tory minister who also co-founded 'New Scientist'


There are not more than a score of MPs in the last 40 years who can credibly be considered as ex-future prime ministers. Timothy Raison was undoubtedly among them. I believe – and it is an opinion shared by several Tories in a position to know – that had Willie Whitelaw and not Margaret Thatcher succeeded Ted Heath as Conservative leader, Raison would probably have been his preferred successor. That was not to be. But Raison can claim another achievement: along with his father, Max Raison, he was the founder of two important periodicals – the hugely successful New Scientist, which goes from strength to strength today, and New Society, which was a serious venture, though it met with nothing like the success of New Scientist. Raison was one of Britain's most imaginative public figures of the second half of the 20th century.

Timothy Raison went from the Dragon School in Oxford via a scholarship to Eton. The Master in College, the classical scholar Walter Hamilton, steered him towards history, where Raison acknowledged that he was superbly taught by CRN Routh and AK Wickham, those most civilised of Eton beaks. He was also a demon fast-medium swing bowler and a stalwart of that most recondite of Eton games, the wall game. To no one's surprise he won a major open history scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, where his supervisor was the formidable Hugh Trevor-Roper.

At the suggestion of his father, Raison joined Edward Hulton's Picture Post, then in its heyday. In 1956 he was involved in the launching of New Scientist as a director of Odham's Press. It was he who chose Donald Gould, the medical journalist, as the first editor.

Dr Bernard Dixon, New Scientist editor (1969-79), said, "Tim had good instincts about how the magazine should evolve, and how they should satisfy their readers. He was against it being a gossip centre for the scientific community. In 1979 he organised IPC's forward-planning unit; his sensitivity to an audience and about how people were likely to respond was intuitive. His profiles of Max Perutz and others are not ephemeral but historical."

Raison, who was superb at organising his time, found it possible also to edit the Conservative progressive magazine Crossbow from 1958-1960. From 1960 to 1966 he headed the Youth Service Development Council, and was ca key member of the Central Advisory Council for Education. At this time he was editing New Society, which struggled but was nevertheless influential.

Raison, who was often before his time, took a leading part in the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence from 1966 until he was elected for the blue-chip constituency of Aylesbury. Although he had been a co-opted member of the Inner London Education Authority, his only electoral experience had been as a councillor in Richmond upon Thames.

His maiden speech, on education, on 8 July 1970, was among the half-dozen most eloquent and meaty maiden speeches that I heard in 40 years. Within 18 months he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Willie Whitelaw, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Whitelaw saw to it that Raison got his first ministerial post, as Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Education and Science. This was unfortunate. One of his faults, if fault it was, was an inability to conceal his impatience for those whom he thought were wrong or pandering to prejudice. Into this category came his Cabinet minister boss. And his boss was a member of the Heath cabinet by the name of Margaret Thatcher.

This explains why Raison was never to become, as his talents demanded, a Cabinet member in the 1980s. She simply wouldn't have him, in spite of Whitelaw's entreaties.

However, she couldn't avoid Whitelaw's request as Home Secretary to have Raison as Minister of State in the Home Office. Michael Heseltine records in his autobiography, concerning his visit to Merseyside and his involvement in the problems of Liverpool as Environment Secretary: "Whitelaw sent Tim Raison, his Minister of State, to accompany me and watch over his department's interest in police matters – a decision I welcomed not simply in order to avoid the dangers of misreporting from Liverpool back to the centre, but because Tim was a man with a real interest in the problems with which we were grappling."

Another of Raison's responsibilities was that of policy towards refugees. As a member of the Refugee Council before he became an MP, Raison was ideally placed. I remember listening to him on 25 May 1979 in a debate on refugee problems. He recognised that in a number of ways the British system for the recognition of refugees differs widely from some other countries which have a tradition of handling such matters in a more formal way. But he felt that it would be a retrograde step to introduce further formal procedures unless they were absolutely necessary.

In his last ministerial post, responsible for Overseas Development, he took a deep interest in the drought in Africa and particularly the problems of Ethiopia. In fact, he was probably the first minister in a Western European country to identify the extent of the problems of Africa. He decided to leave Parliament and took up the post of Chairman of the Advertising Authority. He devoted himself, as a Trustee of the British Museum (1991-1999), and a member of the Council of the National Trust, to the cultural issues in which he had been interested since his early teens.

Raison told me that if he had political heroes they would be Rab Butler and Sir Robert Peel: "What I like about them is that neither was a great party leader, but each could look back on his life and say, 'Here on the statute book are certain good, desirable and important things I have achieved'."

Tam Dalyell

Timothy Hugh Francis Raison, journalist and politician: born London 3 November 1929; MP for Aylesbury 1970-1992; Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Education and Science 1973-1974; Minister of State, Home Office 1979-1983; Minister for Overseas Development 1983-1986; Kt 1991; married 1956 Veldez Julia Charrington (one son, three daughters); died 3 November 2011.


On the day he was born...

In his 'Believe it or not' syndicated cartoon, Robert Ripley (above) pointed out that the US had no national anthem. As a result, in 1931 'The Star-Spangled Banner' was adopted