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Obituary: Mark Hughes

William Mark Hughes, economic historian and politician: born 18 December 1932; Research Fellow, Newcastle University 1958-60; Staff Tutor, Manchester University Extramural Department 1960-64; Lecturer, Durham University 1964-70; MP (Labour), Durham 1970- 83, City of Durham 1983-87; PPS to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury 1974-75; Member, Select Committee on Trade and Industry 1970-74; Delegate to the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe and WEU 1974-75; Member European Parliament 1975-79; opposition spokesman on agriculture 1980-86; married 1958 Jennifer Boobyer (one son, two daughters); died Aberystwyth 19 March 1993.

WHIMSICALLY candid to a fault himself, Mark Hughes would be the first to agree that his was a superb mind wasted partly by the misfortunes of political timing, and partly, by his own besetting fault, an overindulgence in wine and spirits in the last 15 years of his life.

I choose to remember him in his great days - he was not only a member of the first delegation the Labour Party sent to the indirectly elected European Parliament, but our agricultural spokesman. Hughes knew more about farming than any other Labour MP between 1960 and the present time, with the arguable exception of Dr Gavin Strang. He applied himself to be the master of detail in the world of Byzantine complexity of the Common Agricultural Policy. He made a superb effort to win the confidence and friendship of our European colleagues, speaking French, passable German and reasonable Italian. The leader of our delegation, the discriminating former Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart, a man with a Rolls- Royce mind himself, John Prescott, the deputy leader of the delegation, all of us were proud of Hughes. His expertise brought credit not only to the British delegation and to the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, but to our country. Between 1976 and 1979, Hughes established himself in Strasbourg, Luxembourg and above all at the committee meetings of the European Parliament in Brussels as an impressive heavyweight.

Hughes came from a combination of Welsh farming and academic stock. His father, Edward Hughes, was professor of history at Durham University, and so it was natural that this proud Welsh boy should go to Durham School. He gained a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, where he graduated with First Class Honours in 1956. He did his Ph D at Newcastle, where he became the Sir James Knott Research Fellow from 1958 to 1960. After a short time at Manchester University Hughes returned to Durham to lecture in the second half of the 1960s. In 1970 he was chosen as MP for the safe Labour seat of Durham City. For the first few years his relations with Durham and the Durham Labour Party could not have been better. But as he became more involved in national politics he moved south to Hertfordshire, which was the beginning of some of the difficulties that he was later to have with his north-of-England constituents.

During the period of the Labour government he was greatly valued as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Joel (now Lord) Barnett, and to Robert Sheldon, then Financial Secretary to the Treasury and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. Sheldon says: 'Mark Hughes was an immensely valuable member of the Treasury team who made a contribution far beyond that of a normal Parliamentary Private Secretary. The Labour Treasury ministers really valued his expertise.'

When it came to choosing a Labour delegation to the European Parliament, Hughes's expertise on agriculture made him an obvious choice. He soon became chairman of the European Parliament fisheries sub-committee. My first meeting with Hughes was before he became a Member of Parliament, on the beach at Barmouth, where I was on holiday with my children. Hughes entranced them by his knowledge of sand dunes and the small molluscs and other creatures of the shore. He was a real biological scholar. His contribution to European fisheries policy in those years was considerable, because he won the respect of powerful European Commissioners such as the Dutchman Pierre Lardinois and the Dane Finn Olav Gundelach.

When it was decided that there should be direct elections to the European Parliament, Hughes returned with the legitimate expectation that he would be given a significant position on the Labour front bench. The then Chief Whip, now Lord Cocks, says that he pleaded with the leadership of the party to give Hughes the responsibility which his work deserved. However, in politics there is an understandable hesitation about taking risks with someone who has any kind of a drink problem. His friends pleaded with him, but it was to no avail, and by 1987 it was a great sadness that he could no longer remain a member of the House of Commons.

Hughes had many other interests. He was a member of the executive of the British Council from the mid- 1970s, and from 1978 vice-chairman of the General Advisory Council of the BBC. In recent years he had returned to his native Wales, pursuing his interests in gardening, bird-watching and angling.

(Photograph omitted)