Obituary: Bob Cryer
Wednesday 13 April 1994
BOB CRYER was the first Member of Parliament, other than the Speaker, to be seen on a television broadcast from the House of Commons. At 2.33pm on Tuesday 21 November 1989 Cryer stood up on a point of order:
I understand that, as with the other sessional orders, this one on the Metropolitan Police is debatable. It is the right of honourable members to exercise that function in the debates of the House, whether there are television cameras here or not. I am concerned. I fully support the motion that honourable members should have access to the House, and agree that any obstructions to such access should be removed, but I can recall not very long ago when some members of the citizenry - students - wanted to come to the House and express a point of view. It is important the House considers extending these rights to the citizens and tax-payers who pay for this institution, so that they may have access to this place, and we may know that when they come to make representations, the police will help them as well, and not cause an obstruction, which is what occurred with the students' demonstration.
This was the essence of Cryer the parliamentary man. Had it been almost any other member he or she would have been muttered out of the chamber by colleagues who thought that the member speaking was simply concerned with personal publicity. Cryer was heard in silence and got away with it because he had done the same thing many times before, especially late at night, when the press gallery was sparsely populated, and before the days when cameras were present. Cryer was recognised by friend and foe - and his extreme left-wing opinions had many foes, not only in the government benches - as a champion of parliamentary democracy and basic values as to what the House of Commons was all about.
There was also something rather special and almost unique in Cryer's political history. Since 1945, few politicians have left governments of their own volition on a matter of political principle or genuine differences of belief about policy. And most of the few who did so had some inkling that they were likely to be sacked or gently moved from office for other reasons such as the inadequacy of ministerial performance. One of the exceptions to this generalisation - from a group which can be counted on the fingers of one hand - was Cryer. In 1978 he left the Callaghan Labour government because he would not accept the government's refusal to fund the Kirkby Co-operative. He further impressed his colleagues by not making a great song and dance about political virtue and his reluctance to injure the Labour government. By so doing he proved what his friends had always known, that he was a man of substance. I can also vouch at first hand, having gone to him when he was Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Industry on a constituency delegation, that he was a minister who cared about issues and the workforces in other members' constituencies.
Cryer was no mean parliamentary performer. He was an irritant to front benches, both the government's and his own; but he was an effective irritant. He was in the tradition of the parliamentary awkward squad whom ministers ignored at their peril. A man of impeccably good manners, he would rise time and again in a full House to challenge the conventional wisdom. That he was heard at all, and usually with attention, in the parliamentary bear garden was due, I feel, to three factors.
First, he always put a well-informed point of view, however unpopular it might be. Secondly, he displayed clarity of mind and diction and was completely unflappable, even when it was quite obvious that he had gone over the top. Thirdly, and above all, the House of Commons recognised that he was an outstanding expert on parliamentary procedure and indeed was chairman of the Select Committee on Parliamentary Statutory Instruments from 1979 to 1983 and again since 1987.
Cryer had enormous parliamentary stamina and was one of the late-night sentinels of the House of Commons. No governmental short-cut, no ministerial sleight of hand would go through unspotted when Cryer was on duty. And he was on duty most of the time and most of the hours when the House of Commons was sitting.
Yet as his friend Dennis Skinner said last night: 'Bob Cryer was a committed socialist and a full-time committed socialist in and out of the House of Commons. Certainly he was one of a rare breed who could make a relevant extempore speech at the drop of a hat.' Skinner added that whenever one needed an ally for an unpopular cause Cryer was there. And it was my own personal experience that when I was in parliamentary trouble, and in adversity, Cryer was a stalwart friend.
Cryer was born of a Yorkshire industrial family. After the Albert Road school and Salt High school in Shipley he went to Hull University to study economics, law and government. My first memory of him is of a tall, ginger-haired, live figure striding to the platform of the Labour Party conference in October 1962 and demanding that platform speakers and MPs, of whom I was the most recently elected, should not make over-long speeches. In October 1964 he contested Darwin, in Lancashire, but he had to wait until May 1971 to be elected to the Keighley Borough Council. This was the springboard from which he was able to beat the powerful Conservative Joan Hall in February 1974, the first of many elections where his campaigning skills, energy and capacity to make young people think that he was worth working for gained a seat which would not otherwise have gone to the Labour Party. One of his first causes in Parliament was persuading the Tribune Group to oppose the British Isles rugby tour of South Africa in December 1974.
To the surprise of some of Cryer's contemporaries, Callaghan appointed him to a junior post in the Department of Industry in September 1976. It was to his credit that, while he argued inside the government for a left-wing approach, he did not parade his left-wing conscience in public. He proved an extremely competent minister, well-regarded by civil servants who gave him the credit of knowing his own mind. After the Labour defeat, and only then, he criticised James Callaghan for having espoused policies which led, as Cryer saw it, to Margaret Thatcher's victory.
Losing his seat in 1983, Cryer became a member of the European Parliament, simply as an interregnum before he could fight to return to his real home, the House of Commons. His causes, in which he was greatly supported by his wife, Ann, were legion: criticism of the European Community, mandatory re-selection in the Labour Party, antagonism to cruise missiles, and endless left-wing issues. Bob Cryer was a great railway enthusiast and indeed gave technical advice on the film of The Railway Children (1970), in which his family appeared as extras.
Of few MPs can it be said that the House of Commons will be a poorer place without them. Bob Cryer was one such.
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