Obituary: Lord Aylestone

Herbert William Bowden, politician: born Cardiff 20 January 1905; member, Leicester City Council 1938-45; MP (Labour) South Leicester 1945-50, South-west Leicester 1950-67; PPS to the Postmaster-General 1947-49; Assistant Government Whip 1949-50; a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury 1950-51; Deputy Chief Opposition Whip 1951-55, Chief Opposition Whip 1955-64; CBE 1953; PC 1962; Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 1964-66; Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs 1966-67; created 1967 Baron Aylestone; Chairman, Independent Broadcasting Authority (formerly Independent Television Authority) 1967-75; CH 1975; joined SDP 1981; Deputy Speaker, House of Lords 1984-92; joined Liberal Democrats 1992; married 1928 Louisa Brown (one daughter); died Worthing 30 April 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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003