Obituary: Geoffrey Parkhouse

Click to follow
The Independent Online
There are two schools of thought, each with a good case to deploy, about the parliamentary lobby system. The first is that it is a conspiracy and racket, a system whereby politicians, particularly senior ministers, can con editors and manipulate newspaper offices, by making use of favoured journalists, by feeding them stories, nuggets, and titbits of information. Some lobby correspondents have infuriated their colleagues in the rest of Fleet Street by pretending to editors that since they were "in the know" and their colleagues not in the Commons "out of the know" their advice should take precedence over that of other journalists. Certain it is that the "magic circle" of lobby correspondents was much resented among those concerned with freedom of information.

The second school of thought has it that the lobby system is what Harold Wilson repeatedly told them and us was the "silver thread" of Parliamentary democracy, one of the glories of the British system of government (until at least the "D" Notice affair in 1966, when the lobby turned on him for attacking Colonel Sammy Lohan of the Ministry of Defence). The lobby was held up as an essential conduit between government, Parliament and the press based on trust. The justification for this supposedly "cosy relationship" is that the lobby correspondent would get more out of a minister and MPs, openly in this way, than out of an adversarial relationship. And one of the examples most frequently cited for such success, was Geoffrey Parkhouse, political editor of the Herald (till 1992 the Glasgow Herald) from 1975 until 1997, chairman of the Lobby 1988-89 - quite an honour for a journalist representing a non- metropolitan newspaper.

Parkhouse was born in Glasgow of English parents; his father worked in a bank. He was educated at Hurstpierpoint College, Sussex and then at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he distinguished himself as a centre three- quarter in rugby. It was his English background - albeit born in Scotland - almost alone amongst those working for a Scottish newspaper that gave him a unique over-arching view of the devolution controversies of the late 1970s.

Parkhouse's first job on leaving university was with a London news agency. The need for speed and accuracy and the wide variations in the work he did gave him a first-class training. He then moved to the Daily Herald, which was a Labour newspaper, and he introduced himself to me, then a young Labour MP, as a former employee of the Daily Herald - which was about his best connection with the Labour Party to whom he was always nice but rarely sympathetic.

Feeling far more at home with a right-wing newspaper he moved to the Daily Mail and then to the Sunday Express for whom he wrote some well- remembered profiles of leading politicians such as Rab Butler, Peter Thorneycroft and Ian MacLeod. It was on the strength of this work that Iain Lindsay Smith, then the editor of the Glasgow Herald, gave him the appointment which was to be the culmination of his life's work.

Parkhouse had a routine. After breakfast he would go riding in Richmond Park. He would then gravitate towards the Garrick Club or a restaurant at lunch-time. In harness with his personal and professional great friend Ian Aitken, the equally hard-working political editor of the Guardian, he would entertain a politician to lunch. I can confirm from a dozen such invitations over the years that those lunches were convivial in the extreme, filled with gaiety, and as I left I realised that I had told these two charmers more candid things than I had meant to. An equal pleasure was lunching with Parkhouse and Julia Langdon, his colleague in the Lobby, who is the mother of his adored small son and daughter.

Returning to his place in the gallery at Question Time, Parkhouse could be spied casting his quizzical looks on the parliamentary bear pit. He would then adjourn to ministerial briefings, talk to his chums (among whom could be numbered the leading members of the Tory government in the last 18 years) and any MPs with interesting things to tell him. At 7.30pm he would file his copy. Arnold Kemp, his editor for 14 years, pays eloquent tribute to the value that the Herald placed on Parkhouse's copy which made the paper a serious political organ of account far beyond Greater Glasgow.

Parkhouse's heyday was perhaps in 1978/79 when he covered the events that surrounded the Scotland and Wales Acts and the referendum in which they failed. On 24 July 1978 he wrote: "The only thing that is stopping the Government from admitting now that it is not going to announce a referendum date is that a decision hasn't yet been taken about how best to break it to the Scottish people." He was full of insights.

Vintage Parkhouse appeared on 1 March 1979, the day of the referendum, under the headline "Yes, No . . . But What If It Is Maybe?" Parkhouse put it thus:

If only Scotland will say clearly "Yes" or "No" today . . . but the signs are that the most likely answer will be "Maybe".

Maybe we do want an Assembly, maybe we don't. Maybe, just at this time, we don't much care one way or the other.

So today's referendum decision - foreshadowed by opinion polls indicating that less than four in 10 Scots approve the Scotland Act - becomes the headache of next Thursday's Cabinet, with very much more than just an Assembly at stake.

Plus ca change. Parkhouse continued:

More again, it becomes a dilemma for the Tories and a heartache for the Nationalists. Only the Liberals could be smug in their claim that their federal argument has not been put to the people.

There is another Maybe. Maybe the politicians have confused the issue so much that we don't, even now as we go to the polling booths, fully understand quite what we're supposed to be voting about - or for whom. (Who is this person Block Grant, I heard asked at one meeting.) This spells trouble for the parties who have reached a watershed in Scottish politics. A Maybe answer today could be particularly damaging to the Labour Party, which as ill-luck would have it is committed to its annual conference in Perth next week.

Unless there is a clear "Yes" what can the Scottish Secretary of State, Mr Bruce Millan, tell his party at their conference? How can the conference agenda be padded out if the Assembly, about which there is a mass of resolutions, is still up in the air?

Parkhouse concluded:

If the Scots are judged to be still unsure about what they want, Westminster will be tempted to sit on the Scotland Act while a bored England shrugs her shoulders. What a cry will go up from the Nationalists then of a Scotland cheated by Government incompetence and rival party antipathy. Nothing could give the SNP such a re-charge. Nothing could be more likely to destroy one of the chief objects of both Labour and Tory politicians - to neutralise the Nationalists. In this piquant sense, a timid answer from Scotland today could have the most profound implications for Britain as a whole.

It is a matter of infinite regret that Geoffrey Parkhouse will not be in his customary place in the parliamentary gallery next week, pencil poised, to offer his thoughts on the Referendum Bill, and later on the 1997-98 Scotland and Wales legislation.

Geoffrey Parkhouse, journalist: born Glasgow 19 January 1935; Political Editor, the Herald 1975-97; married 1963 Pauline Coldwell (two sons; marriage dissolved) 1996 Julia Langdon (one son, one daughter); died London 12 May 1997.