Obituary: Alex Lyon

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Alexander Ward Lyon, politician: born 15 October 1931; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1954; MP (Labour) for York 1966-83; Chairman, UK Immigrants Advisory Service 1978-84; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire 30 September 1993.

IN THE HOUSE of Commons there is a thin line between those considered to be men of principle and those considered difficult and awkward colleagues. For a number of senior members of the Wilson government, such as Dick Crossman, Alex Lyon was perceived as a difficult man - a very difficult man indeed, obstinate and stubborn and not sufficiently sensitive to the political needs of the hour.

For most of his contemporaries, Lyon was a man of marked principle - and I am sure that his contemporaries were right about him and senior ministers were wrong. He did exceptionally well to win York against the popular and promising Conservative MP Charles Longbottom in 1966. In the late 1960s such was Lyon's standing among members of the 1964 and 1966 parliamentary intake that we thought of him as a possible future leader of the Labour Party.

An event which made a seminal contribution to Lyon's political perceptions was the situation of the Kenyan Asians. The number of immigrants from Kenya had risen steadily each month throughout the winter of 1967-68. Some 13,000 had come to Britain in the first two months of 1968, which was twice as many as in the whole of 1965. As things got worse and worse in Kenya and pressure increased on the Asians from the new Kenyan government, signs of panic began to appear. The number of immigrants arriving at Heathrow stretched to two or three hundred over a day; they had little money and not much prospect of jobs. Almost all of them were homeless.

The tabloid press carried huge pictures, which were both lurid and exaggerated the extent to which the Kenyan Asians were drawing bountiful assistance from the social services. There were endless stories of descriptions of boat- loads of illegal immigrants being smuggled ashore on isolated beaches on the south coast of England where they were left stranded. Southall, in west London, and Bradford rapidly became centres of immigration as the Kenyans congregated in areas where their fellow countrymen had already settled. Housing and education authorities expressed public concern that they were quite unable to cope with the influx. In April 1968 Enoch Powell made his notorious speech on the Tiber and race and, to the dismay of the Parliamentary Labour Party, dockers marched to Parliament to support Powell.

One man above all others in Parliament resisted the prejudice and acted as a focal point - as he had in relation to Rhodesia - for resistance and standing up for what most of us knew in our heart of hearts was right. That man was Lyon. We will never forget the inspiration that he gave those who resisted caving in to prejudice by voting against the government; nor the respect that he evoked among the faint-hearted, of whom I was one, who went into the Government lobby in support of the Wilson administration. Lyon really did care about racial equality.

However, Lyon's courage, tinged it must be said with a certain self-righteousness, sowed the seeds of discord with Jim Callaghan who had the unenviable task of carrying through these unpopular measures as Home Secretary. When Labour was returned to power in 1974 Lyon became Minister of State at the Home Office and again had difficulty with Jim Callaghan, who was by now Foreign Secretary. When Callaghan became Prime Minister, Lyon was asked to leave the Government and this was the source of burning resentment.

In 1979 Lyon did well to hold the marginal seat of York but he could not do so again in 1983, when his second wife, Clare Short, was successful in Birmingham. I greatly admired the way in which Lyon was prepared for role reversal and was quite content to work for Clare as Clare had worked for him. It was a remarkable partnership between people who were really conviction politicians.

Lyon came of a Methodist background and reached a senior position in the Methodist conference. He was the epitome of the well- known saying that the Labour movement owed more to Methodism than to Marx.

His contribution to Home-Office-type courses cannot be underestimated. His colleagues on the Younger Comittee on Privacy thought extremely highly of him with all the experience of being called to the Bar back in 1954. With characteristic courage he bore a long illness with enormous support from Clare Short.

(Photograph omitted)