Obituary: Lord Finsberg

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The Independent Online
Once, in 1974, I was sharing a taxi with Geoffrey Finsberg, from the Cafe Royal to the House of Commons. I mentioned, casually, that I had heard a rumour to the effect that, in a coming reshuffle of Shadow Cabinet posts, he would be offered the agriculture portfolio. He pounced eagerly and asked to know my source, which, of course, I could not give him. I confined myself to saying that the source was pretty senior, but that I would not put over-much weight on it. He relapsed into the gloom that from time to time affected him in those days, as he saw political life pass him by. After a moment, however, he spoke again.

"But there aren't any farms in Hampstead." I was a trifle taken aback by this evidently very serious response to a trivial remark, made simply to pass the time. I muttered something about the then nascent city farm movement, and he brightened up. Then, just as we approached the House, he went off on a different tack.

"You're a young man," he said. "What do you think of this disaster that's happening to the Young Conservatives?" (When Finsberg joined the YCs their membership was comfortably over 100,000; on the day of his death it was, on an optimistic estimate, about 3,000.)

I told him that I had never had any desire to join an organisation which, with a few exceptions, I believed consisted of a lot of gin-swilling, sex-mad louts. "You're very wrong," he said as we got out of the road. "Road to Parliament, the YCs." The next time I saw him was on the terrace of the House. He was reading a pamphlet on farming in cities. But, alas for him, he never got the call to agriculture.

Geoffrey Finsberg was born in 1926 into a devout Jewish family of Conservative political inclination. He began to hew out his own political path by joining the YCs whom I so despised, and fell under the spell of Lord Woolton, who had founded the YCs and become chairman of the Tory party after the general election disaster of 1945. It was Woolton who took a demoralised party by the scruff of the neck, and made it into the most formidable election-winning machine in the Western world, vastly admired by those who sympathised with its aims and hated and feared by those who opposed it.

Finsberg was not merely Jewish, he had also gone to the City of London School which, though it was an admirable school, did not rank very highly in the estimation of Conservative constitutency associations looking for young and fresh candidates to rebuild the fortunes of the party. Woolton, however, had radical ideas; and when Finsberg worked for him for a brief period he digested, and acted upon, those ideas.

First, Woolton - given a free hand by Winston Churchill - decreed that those who wanted to stand for Parliament in the Conservative interest should be severely restricted in their right to make personal financial contributions to their constitutency associations: this stopped the pre- war blight of rich young men virtually buying nominations. Henceforth associations would have to raise money door to door which, naturally, brought the party back into touch with the people.

Second, Woolton was determined to inject youth into an ageing party: hence the YCs. Third, Woolton was determined to make a major assault on local government in towns and cities. Hitherto, while rural local government was generally regarded as a Tory preserve, urban areas were regarded virtually as the fiefs of Labour.

All three of these ideas were meat and drink to young Geoffrey Finsberg and, at only 24, he became a local councillor. Although he was, much later, to develop an interest in foreign policy and defence matters, his political roots were in local government and the YCs. He did not consider the youth movement of his party to be something frivolous. Its critics at the time often referred to it in scorn as a glorified marriage bureau. But Finsberg was not in search of a rich wife (as many of his contemporaries were) and it was not until 1969 that he married Pamela Benbow Hill, who died seven years ago; in 1990, in retirement, he married an old friend, Yvonne Wright.

Finsberg worked his way with assiduity through the world of local government. Among many elective appointments he was leader of Camden council from 1968 to 1970 and deputy chairman of the Association of Municipal Corporations from 1969 to 1971. He had a deep, and almost tactile, understanding of how local government worked and he was a formidable administrator. Few dared to cross his path for, besides being immensely knowledgeable, he could be exceptionally vain and overbearing; and he did not forget enmities.

In the upset Conservative general election victory of 1970 Finsberg was elected to the House of Commons as Member for Hampstead. And then his career began to peter out: the memory of the wonders of the Woolton reforms had faded and, besides, the Tories now had a leader and prime minister of working-class background and were not particularly disposed to heap plaudits on every Tom, Dick or Harry who had managed to find a seat. Finsberg might have done better in the Labour Party, for he had been a Bevin boy, working in coal pits under the aegis of the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, during the Second World War.

Ministerial advancement was a long time coming. He was a member of various House of Commons select committees and between 1974 and 1979, opposition spokesman on matters pertaining to London. He did this job well enough to make him, successively, a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Deparment of Employment, the (then) Department of the Environment and the Department of Health and Social Services.

But it was clear that he was going no further up the ministerial ladder. He found a new interest in affairs European and served both the Council of Europe and the Western European Union with his customary industry. It is interesting, though, to observe that, of all the many directorships and advisory posts in business that Finsberg took after he had left office, every one was in some way concerned with local communities, local affairs, local government. In the end - to use a phrase now popular - Geoffrey Finsberg came home.

Geoffrey Finsberg, politician: born London 13 June 1926; MBE 1959; MP (Conservative) for Hampstead 1970-83, for Hampstead and Highgate 1983- 92; Knight 1984; created 1992 Baron Finsberg; married 1969 Pamela Benbow Hill (died 1989), 1990 Yvonne Wright; died Stockholm 8 October 1996.