Obituary: Lord Aylestone
Monday 02 May 1994
THE OFFICE of Chief Opposition Whip is one of pivotal importance in British politics at any time. It assumes a double importance when there is a change of leadership in the opposition party. One of the crucial decisions of post-war politics - and it was the decision not to do anything - was made by Herbert Bowden in 1963.
George Brown and his friends fully expected that the weight and machinery of the Whips' Office would be thrown behind his candidature for the leadership. I remember Bowden asking to have a quiet word with me as a six-month- old MP in his room and saying that it was entirely up to me as to whether I voted for Brown or Harold Wilson, and that I was not to allow myself to be bullied by my senior Scottish colleagues into voting for their candidate George Brown. Indeed, I would suggest that Bowden's neutrality was a crucial factor in Harold Wilson's ever coming to the leadership of the Labour Party. Though his personal vote almost certainly went to Brown, he was determined that there should be fair play in the election of a leader. Fair play encapsulated the political style of Herbert Bowden.
My first encounter with the Chief Whip was within days of being elected in June 1962. Extremely naive, I missed eight votes on the committee stage of the Finance Bill. Summoned to the Chief Whip to explain why this had happened I told him the truth - namely that my bees had swarmed and that I had to be at home to clamber around bushes collecting the swarms. After he had used blunt RAF language and made it clear that swarming bees and the demands of opposition chief whips did not go together - he told me about his own background and how he himself had never expected to become a member of the House of Commons.
He was born in Cardiff, the eldest of 11 children of a baker, and moved to Leicester after his tobacconist's business collapsed in 1933. Just before the Second World War, he was elected to the City Council as a young Labour member. The war had a great effect on him as it did on many of his contemporaries who came into Parliament in the Labour landslide of 1945. If some of his colleagues dismissed him as a martinet it was because he was a real believer in the value of discipline, and perhaps a natural for the Whips' Office, which he joined in 1947.
Bowden was a stickler for standing orders. His organising ability and conscientious application to duty ensured his smooth rise through the ranks from Assistant Whip to Lord Commissioner of the Treasury to Deputy Chief Whip, when Labour went into opposition in 1951, and finally to the position of Chief Whip six months before Hugh Gaitskell became leader of the party. When Gaitskell died in 1963 Bowden was retained as Chief Whip by Harold Wilson, for whom only one of the existing shadow cabinet ministers (Fred Lee) had probably voted in the PLP election. It was appreciated that he and the Whips' Office had at least played fair and refused to go along with the pressures that were put upon them.
Herbert Bowden's tenure as Lord President of the Council in the incoming government was difficult. He was blamed for the feeling that there was no real contact between backbenchers and the Government, which resulted in much ill-will between the Cabinet and its supporters within weeks of coming to power. It was thought that as Lord President he should have been far more energetic in establishing party groups. There was considerable frustration with backbenchers forming indignant pressure groups, grievance groups and inevitably rebellion on such issues as pensions taken up by John Mendelson, Tom Driberg and Ian Mikardo.
Inside the Government, however, his senior colleagues thought well of him. Peggy Herbison, almost his exact contemporary, describes him as a good chief whip, who had been extremely valuable in the higher echelons of the Government. In particular, as chairman of the cabinet committee on immigration, he had shown clarity of mind on many of the most thorny issues facing British society in the middle 1960s.
It was partly because of Bowden's interest in immigration, not least as a result of casework in his Leicester constituency, that he was moved sideways in 1966 to the critical position of Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs when the issue of Rhodesia was at the heart of British politics. In December 1966 Harold Wilson took Bowden, his cabinet secretary Burke Trend and his attorney general Elwyn Jones to Gibraltar to meet Ian Smith on board HMS Tiger. It was Bowden who advised Wilson to choose a ship, not for theatrical reasons - although he was fond of dramatic actions - but because of the need for privacy and freedom from media pressure. Bowden had an old-fashioned resentment of press intrusion.
It was thought by those who were most implacably opposed to Smith that Bowden was egging the Prime Minister on to achieve a settlement of the Rhodesian problem that was excessively favourable to the terms that Smith might offer. The long conference sessions were held in a large wardroom with the delegation seated on opposite sides of a big mess table. They became bogged down in detailed constitutional differences about the franchise, the number of 'A' roll and 'B' roll seats and the setting up of a Royal Commission to advise whether the proposed independence constitution was acceptable to the Rhodesian people. Wilson and Bowden were determined to achieve a settlement if they possibly could and went far to meet Smith's demands, a good deal further than their attorney general was happy to go.
After two days of contention, heads of agreement were drawn up which had they been put into effect would gradually have resulted in majority rule in Rhodesia as more and more Africans got on to the electoral roll. To reassure the white Rhodesians Wilson and Bowden proposed a new sixth principle to be added to the basic five: it would be necessary to ensure that, regardless of race, there was no oppression of majority by minority or of minority by majority. All that was necessary was for the two prime ministers to sign the agreement on the basis that they would recommend it to their respective cabinets. Eventually, after Smith had spent crucial hours in the engineroom touring the ship, Wilson and Bowden were informed that he was only willing to sign the document as a record of what had been discussed and not as an agreement which he would recommend to his cabinet on his return to Salisbury. Smith confirmed this at an angry meeting in which Wilson and Bowden declared that they had only agreed to the Tiger talks on the strength of Smith's assurance that he had the full authority to commit his cabinet back in Rhodesia. The fiasco on Tiger meant that someone had to be blamed - and that someone was Herbert Bowden.
It was the end of his political career.
Wilson is a kind man with a conscience and he made arrangements for Bowden to have the prestigious and important job of chairman of the Independent Television Authority. He did it with considerable competence. As a member of MPs' delegations going to him from time to time, I gained the impression of a very effective and well-respected chairman. In the troubles of the early 1980s it was a great sadness that Bowden felt that he must leave the Labour Party and join the SDP. For a decade, as Lord Aylestone, he was a respected and well-liked figure in the House of Lords.
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