Obituary: Lord Mulley

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Fred Mulley was one of the most self-effacing, yet effective, cabinet ministers, who throughout a long period of high office remained precisely what he always was - a considerate, helpful, extremely intelligent and thoroughly decent human being, devoid of airs and graces, pomp and circumstance.

For an MP seeking help from a senior minister for his constituents, provided their case was sensible, no cabinet minister could have been more constructive. The solution was what mattered to Mulley - not who got the credit.

Among Mulley's many services to the Labour Party none can have been greater than that on Saturday morning, 26 April 1975. It was the party's special conference on the Common Market held in the Michael Sobel Sports Centre, Islington. Mulley was the year's chairman and it was a pivotal year of an incoming Labour government in which much could have gone awry. With great dignity he welcomed the many ambassadors, High Commissioners and politicians from abroad. It was the third special conference in the then 75-year history of the Labour Party. The last one had been in 1971, also on the subject of the Common Market.

With considerable tact - it was his hallmark towards those with whom he disagreed - Mulley quoted Ian Mikardo, chairman of that 1971 conference: "I very much hope that those who write about this conference after today will see it as a manifestation of - for all our differences of opinion - the fundamental basic unity of the party."

As chairman Mulley had only one ambition and he confessed it to us. It was to get our debate started as quickly as possible, to have a debate with as many speakers as possible, to hear all the arguments on all sides deployed well, strongly and clearly and heard in tolerance and understanding by those who took a different view. Mulley was a superb synthesiser.

He introduced this conference leading to the famous Common Market referendum as a unique constitutional situation. "That is why we have the slogan on the platform today, a slogan that has never appeared at any political meeting before - `Conference will advise, the people will decide'." What Mulley did not say was that he himself had devised the adroit form of words which let the Government off a very sharp hook. He pleaded that the conference should let the people have the vote and that in conducting the campaign there should be a successful experiment both in public education and public participation.

That the National Executive Committee got their way by 3,724,000 votes to 1,986,000 was partly due to Mulley's own skilful chairmanship in choosing 17 pro-Market and 18 anti-Market speakers of whom 13 were from trade-union delegations, 14 from constituency parties and 8 ex officio. As often before and since he justified the verdict of Dame Sarah Barker, Labour's redoubtable Yorkshire national agent, that Fred Mulley was one of the most skilful operators that she had ever seen on a National Executive.

Mulley was born at the end of the First World War, of a family of labourers at Leamington Spa. They believed passionately in education and scraped to send him to a church school and then to Warwick School. The seeds, he told me, of his interest in foreign affairs stemmed partially from the fact that the local MP for his area was Anthony Eden. In 1939 he joined the Worcestershire Regiment, went to France and was taken prisoner gallantly participating in a covering operation to allow as many British soldiers to escape in the little boats from the Dunkirk beaches.

Few young men can have used their time as prisoners of war to better effect to study. And later in life, as a passionate pro-European, Mulley paid tribute to a number of German personnel who enabled him to conduct studies and went out of their way to provide him with books in the English language. It was this determination to work that impressed the Rev Dr John Lowe, for two decades the distinguished theologian and Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. Lowe was instrumental in welcoming a number of ex- prisoners of war on adult scholarships to the college in 1945.

Mulley's vigorous hard work got him first class honours in philosophy, politics and economics in 1947 and the reward of a Fellowship in economics at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. Here he became friendly with E.E. Rich, later Master of St Catharine's and one of the leading historians of the British Commonwealth.

Having contested the 1945 general election without success against Geoffrey Lloyd in Sutton Coldfield, Mulley was selected to fight the safe Labour seat of Sheffield Park in 1950. For the next third of a century any political visitor to Sheffield would sense the extremely high regard in which he was held - both by his constituents and his contemporary Sheffield colleagues such as George Darling, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade in the Labour government, and a wonderful street-corner orator, the butcher Dick Winterbottom. Truth to tell, towards the end he became estranged from the new Sheffield Labour Party and was in effect deselected in 1982 for the 1983 general election.

At the fag-end of the Attlee government Mulley was given his first foot on the political ladder as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Works. With a laugh, Mulley would recall that he was the lowliest one of a ministerial pecking order but his position was to be vital for his career, since the Minister of Works was none other than the unforgettable George Brown, later to be deputy leader of the party and deputy prime minister.

Mulley's star was hitched to an important bandwagon during the Gaitskell years. Through his trade-union connections with Usdaw Mulley became a member of the National Executive Committee of the party in 1957-58 and from 1960 until 1980 remained as one of those regularly returned for the trade-union section. This gave him added muscle in the eyes of the Prime Minister and indeed of the Civil Service, who rated a minister partly according to his position in the party. Mulley's first job in the Wilson government was as a number two to Denis Healey, with whom he had an excellent working relationship.

Healey said yesterday: "I came to know Fred Mulley as soon as he entered the House of Commons because Terry Frost had told me of Fred's generosity in helping him to get started as a painter when the war ended - after they had been together in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Fred gave him a slice of his grant. That generosity was typical of the man." Terry Frost said: "Fred was our art critic at Stalag 383 near Regensberg. He encouraged me to carry on painting. This is what he did repeatedly - encourage people."

Loyalty was in Mulley's character and he could be depended upon politically to defend unpopular policies against people like me and my friends who were deeply critical of the Borneo war and other policies which we had not expected a Labour government to pursue.

When Roy Jenkins became Home Secretary in 1965 Mulley went to Aviation, where he had tricky negotiations involving Rolls-Royce and the cancellation of wildly expensive military aircraft projects. He was the last Minister of Transport before the Wilson government fell in 1970.

When Labour returned unexpectedly in 1974 Mulley went back to Transport, and then to Education and Science. It was a pity that he was moved, for reasons more to do with politics than good administration, to the difficult position of Secretary of State of Defence in the last three years under Jim Callaghan. He never shirked an uncomfortable assignment and it would be a travesty of justice if Mulley were to be remembered for that cruel picture of him dozing off during a royal visit to the Forces. Seeing him voting at four in the morning the night before, I can easily understand why the exigencies of a slim majority which became non-existent brought that lapse about.

In the past 15 years as a vice-chairman of the all-party Arts and Heritage Group of which Mulley was treasurer I have come to appreciate his deep interest in and knowledge of the arts which he shared with his devoted wife Joan of nearly 50 years.

Tam Dalyell

Frederick William Mulley, politician: born 3 July 1918; MP (Labour) for Sheffield Park 1950-83; PPS to the Minister of Works 1951; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1954; Deputy Defence Secretary and Minister for the Army 1964-65; PC 1964; Minister of Aviation 1965-67; Joint Minister of State, FCO 1967-69; Minister for Disarmament 1967-69; Minister of Transport 1969-70; Minister for Transport, Department of the Environment 1974-75; Secretary of State for Education and Science 1975-76; Secretary of State for Defence 1976-79; created 1984 Baron Mulley; married 1948 Joan Phillips (two daughters); died 15 March 1995.