obituaries: Sir Kenneth Robinson

As Harold Wilson's first Minister of Health, from 1964 to 1968, Kenneth Robinson negotiated the General Practitioners' Charter, which formed the basis of the successful development of primary care in Britain, at that time the envy of most other countries in the world. Robinson updated Aneurin Bevan's health service.

Sir George Godber, the Government's Chief Medical Officer from 1960 to 1973, recalls Kenneth Robinson's firm adherence to socialist principles and his ability to understand how to adjust the "awkwardnesses of the health service to meet professional concerns, not just those of the doctors but of the nurses too", while Sir Roy Calne, since 1965 the Professor of Surgery at Cambridge, remembers him as "one of the few Ministers of Health that the medical profession have liked". This, says Calne, was because of his "transparent compassion and his understanding of the profession, which may have come from his father".

Godber too speaks of Robinson's "quiet understanding and appreciation of medical problems" - though on many occasions he did not concede what the doctors wanted. His philosophy was summed up by his frequent reference to the remark of a St Pancras fireman talking about the London blitz: "We found out that we were all neighbours."

Part of the reason why he was so successful as a health minister was that, as a member of the North West London Hospital Board, he had come up against the problems of the health service at the sharp end. Whereas his successor Richard Crossman was flamboyant in the cause of trying to put health service grievances in the fore of political argument, Robinson's approach was to try to put difficult situations right.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer when Robinson was Minister of Health was James Callaghan. He believes Robinson was a man of "profound understanding" of the job that he was doing. "He knew what he was talking about," says Callaghan, "and all of us in the highest echelons of the Government respected him because we knew that he knew what he was talking about.

"So many of the problems of the health service are not political and Robinson applied to them good judgement and expert knowledge. He did not get involved in the raw politics of major decision-making but was essentially a departmental minister. "

Robinson's style can be assessed from his speech of 25 November 1964:

The movement of population in Greater London is relatively greater than in other parts of the country, and each removal of a patient across a boundary sets in train a simple but time-consuming procedure so that the patient's record can follow him and the doctor's remuneration can be adjusted. The constitution of a large number of executive councils would therefore considerably increase the clerical work of executive councils without any benefit to the patient or the practitioner.

Kenneth Robinson was born in 1911, the son of Clarence Robinson, a well- respected surgeon and general practitioner in Warrington. Unfortunately Dr Robinson died when Kenneth was 15, and as he had a brother to educate, his mother, a nurse, was compelled to withdraw him from Oundle School. It was astonishing to his parliamentary colleagues, who imagined that Robinson's erudition was the equal of those glittering Oxford Firsts who manned the Wilson government, that he had no further education after the age of 15 and was entirely self-taught.

In 1927 he went as a lad to work as a clerk at Lloyd's insurance brokers and stayed there ferociously reading and accumulating knowledge until he volunteered for the Navy in 1939. He spent the Second World War on Atlantic convoy duty, latterly rising to the rank of lieutenant-commander on the battleship HMS King George V. In 1941 on leave he married Elizabeth Edwards, who was to remain his partner for over half a century.

Robinson's interest in the Services and the situation of service personnel remained with him for all the years that he was a member of the House of Commons. It was a considerable source of pleasure to him to be appointed a trustee of the Imperial War Museum. Jonathan Chadwicke, Secretary of the museum, recalls his work as a member of the Artistic Records Committee, which has the job of commissioning paintings of the British Forces doing their business throughout the world. Robinson, he says, specifically helped the museum to obtain a reverse painting in glass of HMS Belfast by Eric Kennington. From early 1981, along with the artist Frederick Gore and Field Marshal Lord Carver, Robinson was a commissioner of works of art and was regarded as an elder statesman of the museum, expert in advising them how to deal with Whitehall.

In 1946 Robinson returned to Lloyd's and became a company secretary. On the death of the member for St Pancras North, George House, it was thought that the Labour Party needed this kind of company secretary expertise in Parliament and Robinson, who had lived in the constituency before the war, was chosen as candidate. On 10 March 1949 he polled 16,185 votes to the 11,118 of the Conservative candidate, N.S. Shields. Making his maiden speech in April 1949 Robinson asked Stafford Cripps "to lop off extremes of wealth and poverty" and to do more to bring about the redistribution of national income. As a company secretary he had ideas as to how this could be achieved.

At the fag-end of the Labour government, in 1950, Robinson was appointed a whip by Clement Attlee. However the early 1950s were an unhappy time for a party that had become deeply divided and Robinson as a whip had to remain neutral and had no appetite for political fratricide.

At the end of the war, while he was recovering from jaundice in India where he had been in charge of naval personnel returning to Britain, his wife sent him some of the novels of Wilkie Collins. Robinson spent his first months in opposition writing the first biography of this social outsider, a friend of Charles Dickens. One of the aspects of Collins's novels which had grabbed his imagination was the story of a woman with several children born out of wedlock. Wilkie Collins, a biography, published in 1951, reveals a very sympathetic understanding of the problems of what we now call one-parent families but which were less sympathetically treated earlier in the century. Wilkie Collins also wrote about those who were addicted to opium, which was a growing problem before he died in 1889. Robinson was one of the first members of the House of Commons who took seriously the drug problem.

When in 1968 Harold Wilson decided to make Dick Crossman the supremo of the Social Services, Crossman asked Godber what should happen to Kenneth Robinson, who had been Minister of Health without being in the Cabinet. Godber replied that Robinson should not be seen to lose political stature because he was so popular with the health service and therefore should not remain in the department. Crossman's account in his diaries gives the impression that Godber thought that Robinson ought to be sacked. This was the reverse of the truth. The problem was solved by making him Minister of Land and Planning in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

Though he concealed it, it almost broke Robinson's heart to be removed from his beloved health service. His time in Housing and Local Government was not nearly as successful as in the Department of Health, partly because he was reported as injudiciously having said that he would solve the housing problem in three years. Having left the Government in 1969 when his ministry was abolished, he saw little point in remaining in the House of Commons and started a new life as director of social policy and subsequently - until 1974 - managing director of the personnel and social policy division of the British Steel Corporation. Hard-bitten steelmen told me that, though they had qualms about such a compassionate "do-gooder" occupying a key position where tough decisions had to be made, they could think in the event of no one who better handled the thorny problems of the rationalisation of the steel industry.

On account of his success at British Steel, Robinson was chosen for the bed-of-nails task of Chairman of the London Transport Executive, where he remained until 1978 and the Tory takeover of the GLC.

The previous year he had been appointed Chairman of the Arts Council, where he served a five-year term. Colin Nears, the television producer, who sat on the council with him, describes him as "extraordinarily considerate and always a listener to the opinions of members".

Robinson's passion for the arts had already led him, in 1972, to become Chairman of the English National Opera. Russians in the embassy who had arranged a ministerial visit to Moscow and Leningrad for Robinson in the 1960s told me that their colleagues had been amazed at a health minister's considerable scholarship in opera. Between 1983 and 1988 he was joint treasurer of the Royal Society of Arts.

The last time I saw him, a year ago, he was as clear as a bell and only last week he went out to see the current Cezanne exhibition at the Tate.

Tam Dalyell

Kenneth Robinson, politician: born Warrington 19 March 1911; MP (Labour) for St Pancras North 1949-70; Minister of Health 1964-68; PC 1964; Minister of Planning and Land 1968-69; director, Social Policy, British Steel Corporation 1970-72, managing director (Personnel and Social Policy Division) 1972- 74; Chairman, English National Opera 1972-77; Chairman, London Transport Executive 1975-78; Chairman, Arts Council of Great Britain 1977-82; trustee, Imperial War Museum 1978-84; Kt 1983; married 1941 Elizabeth Edwards (died 1993; one daughter); died London 16 February 1996.