WHEN THE Liberal MPs met after the February 1974 election, we found that our tightly knit group of 14 almost held the balance of power. We had to contemplate the approach from the prime minister, Edward Heath, to support his continuation in office. We had the advantage that we all knew each other, including three of the newcomers - except for one individual. Who, we all asked, is this bloke who has got elected in the Isle of Wight?
For Stephen Ross was not only unknown to the rest of us, his was not even on the ever-optimistic Liberal list of target seats. He used later to make much mock of us on this score, but his overturning of a 17,000 Tory majority into a 7,000 Liberal one was largely achieved through the force of his own personality, as was his holding on to it through the three following elections, and the seat was lost again on his retirement in 1987. In 1983 he was defending a majority of only 352 against a high-powered Conservative assault led by their candidate, Virginia Bottomley. Some bookies quoted odds of 40-1 against his holding it. He did, by 3,500.
Steve Ross came from a Scottish background, his family being in shipping in Liverpool. His mother died when he was a baby and he was brought up by his father, who held the MC, in London. Educated at Bedford School, he went into the Navy aged 18 in 1944 and served four years on the lower decks, which he claimed was the best thing that ever happened to him. In 1948 he joined his uncle's firm in Kidderminster, which was an auction and cattle mart. He qualified as a chartered surveyor and land agent. He went to the Isle of Wight in 1953 to secure a better job, and in 1958 tried to join the Liberal Party but 'no one wanted to know'. He finally joined in 1961 and in the 1964 election worked for an elderly lady candidate 'who was slightly muddled about who was Prime Minister'. He decided things could not go on like that and fought the 1966 election himself with his wife, Brenda, a few friends and a Land-Rover. He did the same in 1970, by which time he had become a county councillor.
He only reluctantly agreed to stand a third time in February 1974 because this time 'someone rang up and offered to help the day the election was announced'. He had never had any help, he claimed, until the actual day of previous elections. By now he was Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee of the council and was an immensely popular campaigner for the island's interests.
As an MP he had to look after one of the largest constituencies in the land - 90,000 electors - and was totally assiduous, as I saw on many visits there. He was proud of the hovercraft and Britten-Norman Islander aircraft industry as well as being a promoter of small businesses some of which he helped personally by opening up a craft market centre.
In the Commons he was sucessively party spokesman on housing and local government, the environment, transport and Northern Ireland, but his main legislative imprint remains to this day in the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977 which he promoted sucessfully as a Private Member's Bill. On retirement he was elevated to the Lords, where he spoke on local government. He moved with Brenda back to the Welsh border country where he enjoyed his collection of antiques and porcelain.
I visited him in Westminster Hospital in 1982 when he had one of the early heart by-passes. He took a long time to recover, and last week when he told colleagues in the Members' Dining Room that he might have to contemplate another, he was dreading the prospect. It was not to be; he died suddenly of a heart attack.
His best friends would not claim he had a tidy mind. In his last speech he thanked the House 'for putting up with me and listening to this rant'. His last letter to me was a glorious jumble of diatribe against the Government's failings.
But he was a devoted servant to his people and a most loveable colleague and companion. One of the house officials said to me the day he died: 'He was a really nice man, and you can't say that about many in this place.'
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