Obituary: Ernest Armstrong

In May 1963, the Labour Party held one of its 34 conferences on education - "two-way- traffic-in-ideas", they were called - in Sunderland. The conference covering Weirside stood out in the mind of the then Shadow Secretary of State, Richard Crossman, on account of the powerful and sustained contribution of the chairman of the Sunderland Education Authority, Ernest Armstrong. He told the party not to be "examination daft". He warned of over-specialisation in schools - education was about the whole of life.

Armstrong represented mainstream thought across the north of England; Crossman predicted that when he came to Westminster - he was heir apparent to the North-west Durham seat of Will Ainsley - he would be a force in the party's educational thinking. And so it proved. Armstrong defied the rule of thumb that local- government heavyweights seldom make effective MPs.

In my opinion Armstrong's most important, if unheralded, political achievement was the considerable influence he had on the thinking of his friend Anthony Crosland (Secretary of State for Education and Science from January 1965 until August 1967) and the creative senior civil servant Toby Weaver, who together devised the binary system and promoted the concept of comprehensive education.

Armstrong never ever apologised for comprehensive education. He may have seemed to be on the right of the Labour Party, but no one did more to champion the cause of equality of opportunity for all children in Britain. As chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party backbench education committee at the time, I know how much the glittering Oxford intellectual and author valued the judgements of the primary-school headmaster from County Durham. For his part, Armstrong told me that whenever he felt despondent about the Labour Party he would turn for solace to Crosland's magnum opus, The Future of Socialism. Though he added with a chuckle: "I often had to tell Tony that good sense in education policy began when you got north of Darlington!"

Ernest Armstrong was the youngest of nine children of a miner, Councillor John Armstrong of Durham County Council. His maternal grandfather was a boilermaker in the Sunderland shipyard making the world-famous Doxford engines, and throughout his life Armstrong championed the interests of the skilled engineering craftsman.

He did not go to university in the 1930s but to Leeds Teacher Training College, in the knowledge that some of his elder siblings could have had a further education had his parents been able to afford it; as the youngest he was the lucky one. Perhaps it was from this knowledge that his compelling sense of duty to others stemmed.

Within months of qualifying as a schoolteacher Armstrong joined the RAF and was posted to Egypt in support of the 8th Army. He once told me that as a young man he had been appalled by the way so many British servicemen treated the Egyptians as "wogs". For a devout Christian brought up on the dignity of man this was a terrible lesson and later on spurred Armstrong to take a deep interest in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which he served for many years in the belief that it promoted fellowship between peoples of different races.

He was also very active in the United Nations Association; having taken part in a tough Italian campaign in 1944-45 he shared the horror of war common among MPs who had actually experienced fighting.

On his return he went to teach at Simpson Street Primary School in Sunderland. In 1953 he was promoted as headteacher of New Seaham Primary School. This brought him into contact with the local MP, Manny Shinwell (who was also my predecessor as MP for Linlithgow). Ernie Armstrong would describe late at night how he used to do one meeting at an election and Manny another and then they would change pulpits. One of us, he laughed, would stick to Labour Party policy and the other wouldn't. Guess who was the loyalist.

In 1956 he was given the head-teachership of a bigger primary school, Unsworth Colliery in Washington, before it became a new town. This meant he could have a local government career on the Sunderland Council, which he also joined in 1956, while at the same time acting as headmaster in another authority.

After contesting the seat of Sunderland South in 1955 and 1959 (which he lost to Paul Williams, the Conservative right-winger), Armstrong finally arrived in Westminster as MP for North-west Durham. In his maiden speech on 5 November 1964, Armstrong encapsulated his view that

Nothing has less productive potential than a closed pit. In my area there are men in the prime of life about 45 years of age [Armstrong was 49 when he first became an MP] redundant with no hope of employment. In the proposals for the North East four categories are assigned to various districts and areas. In this country we seem to have a mania for labels. We label our boys and girls. We begin to label some of them even in the infants' school. We label our villages and areas.

Armstrong favoured the treatment of individuals as humans and towns and villages for what they were. Soon Tony Greenwood appointed him as his Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS), and when Greenwood left the government Armstrong became Merlin Rees's PPS, joining the whips' office as northern whip in 1967.

My colleagues from the north of England at the time spoke of his understanding and humanity during the difficulties of the Labour government, and took the view that Ernie Armstrong was so nice they didn't like to cause him pain by failing to vote for the government.

When Labour returned to power in 1974 Armstrong went as a junior minister to Education and said many times from the despatch box:

What is taught in school, the methods we use to teach and the way we organise education, depend very much on, and indeed reflect, our view of society and the individual child growing up in that society. Staff, parents and pupils have a vital part to play.

However, truth to tell, he was less than happy under the Secretary of State Reg Prentice and was excited by the prospect of changing to his other love, the Department of the Environment, where the Secretary of State was then Tony Crosland, and where he was to remain under Peter Shore from 1975 to 1979.

On 13 May 1977 he said from the despatch box during the Council Tenants' Charter Bill:

For a number of years I was a member of the local housing authority. The predominant theme at every meeting, apart from assessing the needs of various applicants, was to get the greatest number of units of accommodation, as they are described in circulars from the department. It was the numbers game, so to speak; in those days we thought that when we had a certain number of houses most of the problems would be solved.

Great progress has been made in providing the number of houses. But we now realise that only by bringing housing management, the rights of tenants, involvement and participation and a sense of personal responsibility to each individual

householder shall we begin to

provide for everybody the most important social quality. Stable family relationships are the basis of a good society. To have stable relationships we need adequate housing for every family.

Armstrong was a practising Methodist, becoming Vice-Chairman of the Methodist Conference in 1974-75. Although he didn't share the view held by some of his colleagues that there was an underlying religious revival afoot, he believed passionately that people wanted moral values reiterated. People, especially youngsters, he felt, needed guidelines and leadership at a local level.

For such reasons he decided to second Tim Sainsbury's Private Member's Indecent Displays (Control) Bill (1980-81). Although against censorship, Armstrong felt that the pendulum had swung too far.

In 1981 he was appointed Deputy Speaker, and his sympathetic attention was an encouragement to anybody trying to make a constructive speech. Viscount Tonypandy, then the Speaker, George Thomas, described him as "a man whose reliability was as solid as Durham Cathedral". The present Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, at the time a member of the Speaker's Panel, said that Armstrong was "a fine parliamentarian who loyally served the folk he represented at Westminster. His warm Northern accent remained a distinctive feature throughout his career, during which he performed good service as a Labour back-bencher, as a minister and as Deputy Speaker. He helped to steer my early parliamentary career." (Derek Foster, today MP for Bishop Auckland, remembers Armstrong as "a tremendous footballer in the Northern League, and we all thought he was an excellent referee" - a good training for the Speaker's chair.)

For his part Armstrong told me that he liked Clem Attlee's observation to a colleague passing through the Commons' library on his way to the Table Office with a question he was sure would confound the minister. He showed the question to his leader expecting approval. Attlee read the question and threw it across the table with the words "It will serve no useful purpose."

Armstrong was contemptuous of cheap one-upmanship. He liked members to speak from personal experience about real people; this for him had much greater impact than analytical impersonal treatises however well researched. He thought rightly that the House of Commons resented being lectured. He was forever constructive himself and a believer in constructive compromise. He used to commend the reply attributed to Lloyd George when he received a deputation from a group of purist "Liberal MPs". LG was being accused of running away from Liberal principles and compromising too much. He said to them: "You must make up your minds. Do you want to go to heaven or come to Westminster?" Ernie Armstrong pleaded with his colleagues to live in the real world.

Ernest Armstrong, schoolmaster and politician: born Stanley, County Durham 12 January 1915; Chairman, Sunderland Education Committee 1960-65; MP (Labour) for North-west Durham 1964-87; Assistant Government Whip 1967- 69; Lord Commissioner, HM Treasury 1969-70; Opposition Whip 1970-73; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Education and Science 1974-75, Department of the Environment 1975-79; PC 1979; Deputy Speaker 1981-87; married 1941 Hannah Lamb (one son, one daughter); died 8 July 1996.

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