Obituary: Baroness Elliot of Harwood (CORRECTED)

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CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 12 JANUARY 1994) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

Katharine Tennant, politician: born 15 January 1903; Chairman, National Association of Mixed Clubs and Girls' Clubs 1939-49; CBE 1946, DBE 1958; Chairman, Women's National Advisory Committee of Conservative Party 1954-57; UK Delegate to United Nations Assembly, New York 1954, 1956, 1957; Chairman, Advisory Committee on Child Care for Scotland 1956-65; Chairman, National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations 1956-67; created 1958 Baroness Elliot of Harwood; Chairman, Lawrie & Symington, Lanark 1958-85; Hon LLD Glasgow 1959; Chairman, Consumer Council 1963-68; JP 1968-94; married 1934 Walter Elliot (died 1958); died Hawick, Roxburghshire 3 January 1994.

IN A VIVID description of the scene in the House of Lords on the occasion of Margaret Thatcher's maiden speech, a sketch writer describes, not unkindly, how at the former prime minister's mention of Lloyd George, a noble baroness with a hearing aid perked up from her seeming slumbers. Their Lordships sitting on the benches nearby had to reassure her that Lloyd George was not present in their House that day. Had Lloyd George been in the House her hackles would have surged up. She was HH Asquith's sister-in-law, Baroness Elliot of Harwood.

Great age can often be cruel to reputations. It is sad that so many people will inevitably think of Katharine Elliot as that old woman who was always to be seen in the first seat in the second row below the gangway. As the seat in front of her belongs by custom to former prime ministers, television cameras would focus on Lady Elliot, automatically in the frame.

In her heyday - and her heyday spanned three-quarters of a century - 'K' Elliot was a human dynamo. She was born with the Liberal equivalent of a silver spoon in her mouth. Her father, Sir Charles Tennant Bt, was by then 79 years of age, himself the son of a near octogenarian. Her eldest half-sister was older than her by over half a century. Margot Tennant was Mrs Henry Asquith, second wife of the Prime Minister, soon to become the Lady of No 10 Downing Street. And No 10 and its garden was but one of K's childhood haunts - from her home at The Glen, near Innerleithen in Peeblesshire, she would also sally forth to visit the family of Sir Edward Grey, at Falloden, to Walter Runciman's, in Northumberland, and other grandee homes. She claimed to have made Asquith chuckle by hurling her teddy bear out of the nursery window at suffragettes having a demonstration in the then ungated Downing Street. Later in life she came to regret this regression as she cared very much about the place of women in society.

Her education was mostly at home with a series of French governesses on whom, according to my mother who was a frequent guest at The Glen she would play the most fiendish tricks. Eventually, this handful of a girl was despatched to Abbot's Hill School, Hemel Hempstead, with few results and to a finishing establishment for young ladies in Paris.

In 1921, she was a debutante, and presented at the Court to King George V and Queen Mary. But alas the Season and social whirl did not see much of K Tennant that year. Off her own bat she had enrolled at the London School of Economics for a course in political theory and sat at the feet of Harold Laski and William Beveridge. 'You see,' she would say, 'I was a very political creature.'

For political reasons she was disarmingly candid and matter-of-fact - she bought No 17 Lord North Street, in Westminster, and proceeded systematically to acquire a political education through the process of entertaining Oliver Stanley, Robert Boothby, Frank Donaldson, Noel Skelton and other interesting young figures of the day. Among the others were two in particular. Harold Macmillan, who was to make her the first life peeress and therefore the first woman, the monarch apart, to make a speech in seven centuries or more in the House of Lords; and Walter Elliot, whom she was to marry in 1934.

When she was asked in 1929, at the age of 26, to be a parliamentary candidate, it was of course in the Liberal interest. Yet her potential Conservative opponent was a friend and therefore it was natural, she said, to have refused to take on the candidature against him. Individuals mattered to Elliot throughout her life. Personal relationships were paramount and gave her many cross-party friendships, extending to unlikely opponents such as Aneurin Bevan and Willie Ross.

In 1934 she set up home at Harwood, in Roxburghshire, with her husband Walter Elliot, by then Minister of Agriculture. When I was Labour candidate in the Borders in 1958-59, I canvassed Bonchester Bridge, the local hamlet where one of the farmers described her as 'some lassie' - a term of considerable approval in those parts. He told me that, 25 years before, he and his friends among the local farmers had collected money for a wedding present for the Elliots. Asked what she wanted, she eschewed offers of dinner services or silver quaichs, the usual present in such circumstances, and asked if she could have a tractor. Amid amazed Border comment, a tractor was duly produced. K Elliot set about learning how to use it, demanding that she be tutored in tractor driving by those who had contributed to the present, and treating her instructors far more seriously and indeed deferentially than she had treated her governesses. She became so involved in farming the 5,000-acre estate, that I was told that she had not missed a local sheep sale for 25 years, and indeed she was never to miss one for the following quarter of a century.

Her husband was an auctioneer by profession. When Walter Elliot died in 1958, K followed him as chairman of Lawrie & Symington Limited, the Lanark auctioneers. On one occasion in 1983, my wife and I took three formidable ladies, Peggy Herbison, Irene White and K Elliot, to the Lanark auction market in the back of our car. When we arrived, K, in her element, took over. It was almost a royal progress. Hill farmers with their cromacks are among the world's least deferential people. Yet for K they raised their caps in warm greeting. She was, simply, a queen bee who was loved in the Scottish agricultural community. Her courage in the hunting field was legendary and, whatever one's view of field sport, she gained great admiration for her practical concern for countryside issues. She was honoured by the Roxburgh branches of the National Farmers Union.

During the war she was the vigorous chairman of the National Association of Mixed Clubs and Girls Clubs and it was through this work that she came to the attention of Herbert Morrison, who later, as Clement Attlee's Home Secretary, invited her to be a member of the All-Party Committee on the Effects of Prisons. Characteristically, with demonic energy, she visited virtually every large prison in the United Kingdom and made her discontent known to legislators, High Court judges and all her enormous range of influential friends.

Possibly the highlight of her public life came unexpectedly in 1956. She had been appointed to be a member of the British delegation to the United Nations. The General Assembly of the UN was convened to discuss the invasion of Hungary by Russian armour and the British delegation naturally had to express a view. However, all the MPs had had to scurry back to London as the Suez crisis was at its height and there were crucial votes; it was left to K Elliot, who was used to speaking at meetings of the Roxburgh County Council, to put the British point of view. This she did with considerable force. She recalled: 'I climbed on to that enormous rostrum and delivered a strong attack on Russia. It was a very great thrill.'

When her husband died in 1958 from a heart attack, she was selected, or rather press-ganged against her better judgement, into becoming the Conservative candidate for the subsequent by-election in the Kelvingrove constituency of Glasgow. As an active Labour Party worker against her, I can record that she absolutely refused to play the widow-in-mourning card. When she was beaten by Mary McAllister and the incipient tide of anti-Conservative opinion in Scotland, her dignity was impressive.

Elliot was created first a Dame and then a life peeress in 1958. She had the distinction of being the first woman to be asked to move the Loyal Address. With the newly elected MP for Finchley, Margaret Thatcher, she was, too, one of the first all-woman twosome to put through a Bill in Parliament - opening local government committees to the public.

At first hand I know in detail that she made a more effective contribution than any other Conservative Scot to the anti-devolution cause, which she saw as the thin edge of the wedge in breaking up Britain. Many and varied were the committees on which she made a contribution until her late eighties. I shall always picture her propelling herself off the train at King's Cross doing the weekly journey to and from London when the House of Lords was sitting. The only time when I heard her swearing and using foul language was against Dr Beeching, whose cutback on the railways, which included the closure of the Edinburgh-Carlisle line, had added a 50-mile car journey to her weekly travel. Alas, she never had children but she was adored by her talented and extended family. Rightly so.

CORRECTION

In Tam Dalyell's obituary of Baroness Elliot of Harwood (5 January) it was stated that her husband Walter Elliot was an auctioneer by profession. While he held a controlling interest in the family auctioneers Lawrie & Symington, he in fact practised as a doctor, and the action he saw in the First World War, as Medical Officer of the Scots Greys, convinced him to go into politics. He was first elected an MP, for Lanark, in 1918.

(Photograph omitted)

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