Obituary: Aidan Crawley

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The Independent Online
Aidan Merivale Crawley, politician, journalist, television executive: born 10 April 1908; MP (Labour) Buckingham 1945-51, (Conservative) West Derbyshire 1962-68; MBE 1946; Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for the Colonies 1945, 1946-47; Parliamentary Under- Secretary for Air 1950-51; Editor-in- Chief, Independent Television News 1955-56; Chairman, London Weekend Television 1967-71, President 1961-73; President, MCC 1973; books include Escape from Germany 1956, De Gaulle: a biography 1969, The Rise of Western Germany 1945-72 1973; married 1945 Virginia Cowles (died 1983; one daughter, and two sons deceased); died 3 November 1993.

AIDAN CRAWLEY could have stepped straight from the pages of a novel by John Buchan. The title of his autobiography, Leap Before You Look (1988), expressed his philosophy of life. He plunged into every experience that presented itself. He was a journalist. He was a warrior. He was a politician - on both sides of the great divide between Conservative and Labour. He was a scholar, his life of Charles de Gaulle being the finest study written in English of that remarkable man. Indeed, he was incapable of writing other than beautifully. But, to add to this sketch of a veritable Renaissance man, he was also a highly successful television producer, and a highly successful businessman.

Moreover, there are further comparisons with Buchan (and his characters). As a young man Crawley toured the world. He went pig-sticking in India. Already a qualified pilot, he made a dangerous flight through the Yangtze Gorges, and wrote about the rule of the warlords in China.

Then, after two years on the Daily Mail and a spell in Palestine making documentary films, came the Second World War. Crawley had been for some time a pilot in the Auxiliary Air Force, but his initial posting was as Assistant Air Attache to Ankara, with additional responsibilities in Belgrade and a base in Sofia. Like most spirited young men of his generation, however, he wanted to fight, and he procured a transfer to the RAF, only to be shot down over Italy in 1941. He was a prisoner of war until 1943.

The son of a clergyman, Crawley had a finely developed social conscience. He felt obliged, therefore, to join the Labour Party, and won Buckingham in the Labour landslide of that momentous general election of 1945. He never reached the heights of politics, but he developed new interests as Parliamentary Private Secretary to two Secretaries of State for the Colonies before returning to his first love as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Air in 1950. This job lasted for only a year, for the Conservative Party returned to power in 1951, and Crawley was one of the Labour members who lost his seat.

Meanwhile, he had not neglected his journalistic interests. He became Editor-in-Chief of Independent Television News in 1955, and was instrumental in the development of such distinguished careers as those of Sir Robin Day. It is hard to recapture, from the last decade of the century, the extent of the bitter opposition to the introduction of commercial television in this country; but Crawley gives an account both moving and amusing of the media conflicts of the day in his autobiography.

The creation of a commercial television service was the most dramatic, though certainly not the only, cause of Crawley's growing estrangement from the Labour Party. There was certainly a strong feeling of opposition to ITV in the Conservative Party, but the opposition in Labour ranks was much more marked. In 1957 Crawley resigned his membership of the Labour Party. The governing party was, of course, delighted with such a recruit, though he was not to find a Conservative seat (West Derbyshire) until 1962. By then his political career was effectively over and, as he told George Gale and myself over lunch in 1971, he had stood in Derbyshire only to make a point - that an ex-Labour candidate could win a Tory seat.

His later years were marked both by glittering achievement and by great personal sadness. He became, successively, Chairman and President of London Weekend Television. He was a member of the Monckton commission of investigation into the affairs of what was then Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1960. His books were invariably were received and sold well. Then the clouds darkened.

In 1945 he had married the brilliant writer Virginia Cowles. In 1983 they were travelling through Spain by car when their car crashed. Virginia was killed instantly. She had in fact been suffering for some time from emphysema and had been given only weeks to live by her doctor. A few years later his two sons, Andrew and Randall, lost their lives when the light aircraft in which they were returning from a business trip came down in Italy. All this cast a shadow over Crawley's last years, as did constant nagging physical pain, lightened only by the devotion of his daughter, Harriet, herself a budding Tory politician.

Aidan Crawley was a man blessed with many gifts. He was also a man of real courage, and he possessed a stubborn resilience in the face of adversity. He made a mark on his times that went far deeper than his somewhat varied career.

(Photograph omitted)