Obituary: Lord Strauss
Wednesday 09 June 1993
IN THE 1960s there was a table by the window of the Members' dining room in the House of Commons which was by custom kept for the elders of the Labour Party at lunchtime. Bob Mellish, the Chief Whip, would sit in the corner and would be accompanied very usually by Charles Pannell, Dick Plummer, John Strachey, and even, until he died, Lord Morrison of Lambeth. With them would be George Strauss. The level of conversation about the current events in the Commons would be of the highest quality and it was a privilege for any young MP drifting into the dining room to be invited to join them.
They were not old fogies. They were not - to use the phrase in its derogatory sense - 'House of Commons men'. They were extremely experienced politicians who cared very much about the workings of the institution to which they had devoted the greater part of their lives. Even when he was Father of the House of Commons, from 1974 to 1979, George Strauss retained that twinkle of irreverence which spoke volumes about an earlier parliamentary career which had begun as long ago as 1929.
George Strauss came of a family of well-to-do Jewish metal merchants, whom he said quite openly had done well out of the First World War - a matter which was to be the source of some guilt to him and one of the reasons why he fought so hard for a rational iron and steel industry in this country. His Conservative MP father, later to join the Labour Party, Arthur Strauss, sent him to Rugby. Quite often I would talk to Strauss abut public-school boys in the Labour Party. Although he was grateful to Rugby for its high-quality teaching, a scar was left at the rough treatment meted out to Jewish boys at school. From that time on Strauss cared vehemently about issues of race.
Unlike many of those born into prosperous Jewish families Strauss, to his eternal regret, did not go to a university. This was partly because his father died in 1920 and he felt an obligation to concern himself with the family business. This was to be his bread and butter until Attlee gave him government office in 1945. He told me that working in the metal industry not only gave him first-hand knowledge which was of great use in a party that did not have too many industrial managers in Parliament, but it also provided the wherewithal to be his own man and express his own views.
Although Strauss, with Aneurin Bevan and his close friend Stafford Cripps, was to be expelled from the Labour Party for advocating a popular front against the Nazis and Fascism, Strauss kept the closest personal link with his first patron and London mentor Herbert Morrison, whose Parliamentary Private Secretary he was between 1929 and 1931. In 1947 Strauss, after service as a junior minister in the Department of Transport, was promoted to become Minister of Supply, which although it did not rate cabinet status was a key position in the post-war Labour government.
It fell to Strauss to steer through Parliament the most controversial legislation of that government, the nationalisation of iron and steel. This he did with consummate skill and there is no doubt that, had there been Labour governments in the 1950s, Strauss would have been a major minister.
I was invited once to his beautiful and elegant house in Kensington Palace Gardens, which he had inherited from his father. He was totally honest with his Vauxhall constituents about the style in which he lived and as the guest of Vauxhall Labour Party I know the high regard in which he was held as a clever and good man who took infinite trouble about their grievances. This was partly the result of experience for nearly a quarter of a century representing on the old LCC some of the poorest parts of London.
In 1957 Strauss got entangled in a controversy which raised important questions about parliamentary privilege. He had written a letter to the then Paymaster General, Reginald Maudling, saying that from information he had received the London Electricity Board was disposing of scrap cable in a way that did not obtain the best price available. Strauss wanted an immediate investigation. Maudling contacted the board, who threatened Strauss with a writ for libel. Strauss raised the matter in the Commons and claimed that a letter from an MP to a minister concerning a public board should be covered by parliamentary privilege. This raised the whole issue of 'proceedings in Parliament', which was to be so important in many other privilege cases and in particular in the Clive Ponting case.
After the affair of the London Electricity Board there was another fierce row in which Strauss became involved. The question was whether the British decision to make an atom bomb had ever been before or even approved by the Attlee government. As Dick Crossman's Parliamentary Private Secretary I know how he passionately asserted that this crucial watershed decision had never been constitutionally discussed by the appropriate organs of the British state, and the most important decision of the late 1940s had been hidden from the British people. In a famous letter to the Times George Strauss, who was the Minister of Supply, vehemently denied that there had been any such conspiracy and pointed out that direct questions and the right questions had never been asked in Parliament. As one of Dick Crossman's biographers I have to say that in this matter my judgement is that Strauss and not Crossman was in the right.
Strauss was passionately interested in the arts and had the good luck of being able to pursue the cause of the arts throughout the period of the Wilson government in a most effective way. His long-term companion Benita Armstrong, whom he married at the age of 86 in 1987 after the death of his wife Patricia, exhibited many times at the Royal Academy. In 1968 he was fortunate in winning a place in the ballot which enabled him to introduce the bill abolishing theatre censorship.
George Strauss will be remembered by a whole generation of those in Parliament and in the Labour movement for wise, relevant and constructive advice.
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