Obituary: Lord Winterbottom
Thursday 09 July 1992
IAN WINTERBOTTOM entered the House of Lords as a Labour peer, served as a junior minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments, resigned to become a founder member of the Social Democratic Party, and, having the crossed the floor in December 1991, ended his political career as a Conservative backbencher.
Among his brother officers in the Royal Horse Guards Winterbottom was known affectionately as 'Uncle', having been almost too old to qualify for entry into Sandhurst. Someone once remarked that Winterbottom's arrival on the scene tended to herald the transformation of dire tragedy into broad farce.
During the advance on Arras in September 1944, Winterbottom proceeded on a mission in a borrowed Humber Scout Car devoid - as he discovered too late - of identifying signal flares. He was then shot up by friendly fire which destroyed both the car and his maps and wounded the driver. He continued cross-country on a lady's bicycle, ran into a German patrol, but managed to get away in the back of a horse-drawn baker's van hidden beneath the well-filled skirts of the baker's daughter. He continued through the German lines into Albert - supposedly held by the British, in fact by SS troops.
Escaping once again, he met another lost British unit, collected his wounded driver and rejoined his regiment, this time in an amphibious German Volkswagen, which subsequently carried him as far as Brussels before being destroyed.
Despite his wartime reputation for comical unorthodox exploits, Ian Winterbottom was a profoundly serious man and at that time a socialist. Born in 1913, he was educated at Charterhouse and Clare College, Cambridge, where he read physiology with the intention of doing research. However the worldwide recession and the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany changed his mind. He went to work in one of his father's textile mills in Manchester where he saw much poverty and this contrast with the affluent lifestyle he knew at home led him to join the very left-wing Miles Platting Independent Labour Party.
By then he had also spent some time in Germany mostly working in Winterbottom factories and had become a fluent German speaker. After his father's death in 1936 he returned to Germany with a roving brief and stayed there till shortly before the outbreak of war. He settled near Derby, where he built up a precision machine-tool factory. When war broke out Winterbottom found himself in a reserve occupation; it took two years to sell the factory to Brown and Sharp to free himself to join the armed forces.
After the war he remained in Germany, first as ADC to the Regional Commisionner of Hamburg, then as his political private secretary. In 1948 he returned to England, and in 1950 he was elected Labour Member of Parliament for Central Nottingham. He won the seat again in 1951 but was defeated in 1955 when he rejoined the family firm, which a few years late was the subject of a reverse takeover by Venesta International.
He was made a Life Peer in 1964, joining the Government first as Under-Secretary of State for the Navy, then as Minister of Public Buildings and Works and finally as Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Air Force. Following Labour's 1970 defeat, Winterbottom briefly rejoined his old firm as its Chairman but left in 1974 to serve as the British Member on the UN Trusteeship Council. Subsequently he rejoined the Government as a Lord-in-Waiting, serving as a government whip in the Lords and concentrating on defence questions.
In 1978 he resigned from the front bench, deeply dissatisfied with Labour's defence policy and the use made of the unions' undemocratic block vote. He was one of the founder members of the SDP - he had considered joining the Liberal Democrats, but distrusted their overwhelming pro-European enthusiams and so, following some months on the cross-benches, he applied in December 1991 for the Conservative whip.
From 1980 his health began to deteriorate but he continued to work both in the Lords and developing commercial relationships in Eastern Europe and Nigeria until the end of his life. He took a special satisfaction in the collapse of Communism throughout eastern Europe.
He was a simple, discreet, almost too optimistic man who particularly disliked hypocrisy, vanity and political systems which sought to enslave others. His directness was rewarded with the trust and affection of all those with whom he came in contact.
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