Obituary: Lord Banks

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The Independent Online
Desmond Banks was the kind of man who gives politicians a good name. Unimpeachably honest, unfailingly polite and a master of his selected subject, he attracted the respect of all those with whom he came into contact.

By the time I became a national officer of the Liberal Party in 1961, he had already been an active member for 25 years. By the time he died, aged 78, he had been an active member of the Liberal Party and its successor for 60 years.

Banks was born in the last year of the First World War, the son of a serving officer. His family were rooted in the Scottish professional classes and he remained in that tradition all his life, becoming an elder in the Presbyterian Church of England and its successor, the United Reformed Church.

He was educated at University College School, Hampstead, where he first joined the Liberal Party. On leaving school, he worked for both Harrods and Heinz until the outbreak of the Second World War when he joined his father, who had invented a new and profitable laundry machine. Banks then enlisted in the King's Royal Rifle Corps as a rifleman but was soon commissioned into the Royal Artillery, in which he served as an anti-tank officer, finishing with the rank of Major.

The end of the war found him in Trieste, where he became a member of the Military Government. Banks never boasted, but it appealed to his slightly wry sense of humour to remind the Liberal Party in the Sixties that he alone among them had been a member of a Cabinet.

On his demobilisation, he became a life assurance broker, first with Canada Life, then with Tweddle French and finally Lincoln Consultants as a freelance. It was this business background which gave him the grounding for his devastating competence as a social security spokesman for the Liberal Party in the House of Lords. But a very successful career as a businessman did not stand in the way of his service as a politician, fighting Harrow East in 1950, St Ives in 1955 and South West Herts in 1959, none of them in those wilderness days with particular success.

In the Fifties, Banks at one time worked full time for the party, and on the voluntary side (the two sides were scarcely separate in a party with small resources and recovering from the devastating general election results of 1950 and 1951), he became Chairman of the Party Executive in 1961 and again in 1969.

He was a superb chairman and when he had to deal with subversive elements like the Young Liberal Red Guard or a maverick party president like myself, he always displayed courtesy, humour and a sense of justice although, in spite of the fact that he was firmly positioned on the radical wing of the party, it is possible that he did not have complete empathy with the Young Liberal leaders (so many of whom in later life became successful administrators of pressure groups on behalf of the disadvantaged).

Banks became Party President in 1968-69, was appointed CBE in 1972 and finally reached Parliament as a Life Peer in 1974. In the House of Lords his compassion for the poor and expertise from the insurance industry found a perfect marriage, and he was acknowledged to know more about social security than anyone in the House, Minister and civil servants in the Officials' Box not excepted.

His other interests seldom strayed far from the party. He was an active President of the National Liberal Club and even his passion for Gilbert and Sullivan had a political link expressed in his liking for the scene from Utopia Limited in which the Cabinet deliberates while strumming on ukeleles. Only his passion for Clyde steamers, about which he published a book in 1947, seems to have no connection with either politics or religion.

He married in 1948 Barbara Wells (whom he had taught in Sunday School); she becoming a leading member of the Liberal Party in her own right. They had two sons.

Desmond Banks's appearance, complete with artillery-style moustache was good "cover" for a radical view of politics. He was a capable deputy whip in the Lords, and when he and Nancy Seear stood for the leadership of the party after the death of Lord Byers, it was a contest (which Lady Seear won) between two of the most competent and respected members of the House of Lords. It is a sad year in which they have both died.

Desmond Anderson Harvie Banks, life assurance broker and politician: born Ascot, Berkshire 23 October 1918; Chairman of the Executive, Liberal Party 1961-63, 1969-70, President 1968-69, Director of Policy Promotion 1972-74; CBE 1972; Vice-Chairman, Liberal Party Standing Committee 1973- 79; Liberal Spokesman on Social Security, House of Lords 1975-89, on Social Services 1977-83, Deputy Liberal Whip 1977-83; created 1974 Baron Banks; married 1948 Barbara Wells (two sons); died 15 June 1997.