MANY were surprised when Reg Underhill was made a life peer in 1979. He was not a politician but rather a political party professional who had served the Labour Party as boy and man in Transport House and had attained the height of National Agent.
The House of Lords is remote from the mysterious world of party organisation. Yet Reg Underhill soon proved to be one of James Callaghan's most inspired choices as prime minister. Having been an onlooker of parliaments for a lifetime, Underhill suddenly blossomed as a parliamentarian, no orator perhaps but a polished debater and a master of the detail of legislation. Moreover he was the embodiment of the old Labour virtues, firm in faith and in principle yet undogmatic and always anxious to persuade opponents, including those inside his own party. He had joined the party in his teens and his socialism retained the innocent hopefulness of the 1930s.
In a year or two he had won the respect of the house and the affection of his colleagues and he was urged to stand as Deputy Leader of the party in the Lords when Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos vacated the post on being elected Leader of the Opposition in 1982. Underhill's special subjects were transport and Northern Ireland. For year after year he laboured on the front bench day and night and as he went into his seventies it told on his health. At first he feared he would have to give up his weekly treat, a game of golf with three old friends. For a time he was able to continue by carrying his clubs on an electric trolley but lately he had to give up golf and get his sporting satisfaction from Leyton Orient, a team he had supported all his life. His assiduity in the House of Lords continued despite the frailty of his health and he made his last speech there a few days before he died.
For many years he was a moderate believer in Britain's membership of the European Community and he spoke on the subject in a Maastricht debate on 17 February. 'When the treaty was first produced - I have read it - I realised that it was not a perfect instrument. Equally the Treaty of Rome was not a perfect instrument, yet I found it possible in the referendum of 1979 to vote to join the Community. We must keep in mind that Britain's trade in Europe is substantial. Rejection of the treaty is likely to move the United Kingdom out of the periphery of Europe, but Britain's future requires that we should be at its heart.'
The future peer left Leyton Central School at 15, worked several years for a firm of Lloyd's underwriters and, at the age of 19, joined the Labour Party staff as a junior accounts clerk. During the Second World War he served from start to finish in the National Fire Service. His first substantial promotion came after the war as assistant to Morgan Phillips, the General Secretary of the party, and he remained at Transport House for the rest of his working life except for 12 years as regional organiser in the West Midlands. Many people felt it was a pity that he was not appointed to succeed Morgan Phillips.
He took on one outside task, on the Houghton committee which enquired into financial aid for political parties. He was a foundation member of Apex, the clerical workers' union, and was awarded their gold medal before they became junior partners of the GMB.
The name of Underhill will go down in Labour history as the national agent who in the Seventies produced a first-class and damning report on Militant which was causing much disruption in the Labour Party. To its subsequent regret the party decided to take no immediate action on the report. He often spoke about this historic disappointment, but always in tones of regret, never of bitterness.
Reg Underhill had a happy home life and he and his wife celebrated their golden wedding six years ago.
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