OBITUARY: Niall MacDermot

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At the dispatch-box of the House of Commons Niall MacDermot was the most sure-footed, on-top-of-the- job, confidence-inspiring ministerial performer of all the talented 1964 Labour government, cabinet members included. In hour after hour of the Financial Bill, then taken on the floor of the House (it was MacDermot - in the crucial role of Financial Secretary to the Treasury - who initiated the pressure to have the Finance Bill taken upstairs on the Committee corridor), I never saw him caught out or made to look silly. On the contrary, not even the for- midably clever ex-Chancellor Reggie Maudling or Iain MacLeod, himself a superb parliamentary performer, were keen to get into a fandangle with MacDermot.

Why he was not promoted to the Cabinet at an early stage, I do not know. Nor, I suspect, does anyone else now alive, with the possible exception of James Callaghan, who shrewdly insisted on having MacDermot as his Financial Secretary to the Treasury when he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1964. But both Wilson, who saw conspiracy all too easily, and Richard Crossman, an ex-Intelligence operator himself, but deeply sceptical of MI5, were united in believing that MacDermot was "compromised on security grounds".

Niall MacDermot was the son of a distinguished Dublin-based King's Counsel, Henry MacDermot. Sent to Rugby, he much enjoyed his time there and was amused by public schoolboys who became socialists for no better reason than that they'd had a bit of a hard time at their public school. When I said how lucky I was at my public school to have been happy and well- taught, he said he had had the same experience.

At Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, he read Modern Languages, which gave him a foundation many years later to become Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists between 1970 and 1990. With strong backing from dons at Corpus, in particular Peter Charvet, later head of Modern Languages at the college, he embarked on a second degree in Law at Balliol.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, MacDermot was directed into the Intelligence Corps, where his knowledge of German was deemed to be useful. At the age of 26, in 1944, to be chosen for the crucial position of General Staff Officer 1 was a reflection on MacDermot's perceived talent. On leaving the Forces, he returned to an increasingly lucrative legal practice.

Unlike other young men, he did not try to get into the House of Commons; indeed, he showed only the mildest political interest, not joining the Labour Party until 1956. He told me that the reason for this was that he thought he was non papabile for politics - when he was a student at Balliol he had had not so much a fight as a strong difference of opinion with another student and had given him a shove. Unknown to MacDermot, this student had a heart condition, fell over and died. MacDermot was immediately involved in a manslaughter case. He thought that, when this was discussed, as it would have been if he had become a political candidate in 1945, he would have stood no chance.

Partly on account of the excellent job that he had done in interrogating Dr Josef Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, made possible by his fluency in German, he had come to the attention of Elwyn Jones, MP for East Ham and Harold Wilson's Attorney- General, later to become Lord Chancellor. It was Elwyn Jones who persuaded MacDermot to let his name go forward for the Lewisham seat on the death of Sir Austin Hudson, the Conservative MP who had been Civil Lord of the Admiralty and Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power. In a by-election on St Valentine's Day, 1957, MacDermot turned a Conservative majority of 3,236 into a Labour majority of 1,110.

This was a considerable achievement in the circumstances of dissension in the Labour Party and impressed Hugh Gaitskell, who offered MacDermot the post of Solicitor-General in a Labour government. However, at the 1959 general election, faced by a formidable Conservative candidate in the shape of Christopher Chataway, Olympic hero, fresh in the public memory for his epic run against Vladimir Kutz, MacDermot succumbed by 4,000 votes.

Having had a first-class legal training in the chambers of Ronald Armstrong- Jones, MacDermot became Deputy Chairman of the Bedfordshire Quarter Assizes. Again, a by-election beckoned, at Derby North, and MacDermot was chosen on the death of the Labour Member, Gp Capt Clifford Wilcock, to be the Labour standard-bearer. He won the seat with 49.4 per cent of the vote in the first of a series of by-elections in 1962 which marked the turning- point in Labour's fortunes.

Immediately on the formation of the Labour government, MacDermot became a central member of the administration, as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. However, his influence extended well beyond finance. He was much involved in possibly the most urgent domestic issue of the time, the Rents Bill and, along with Herbert Bowden as Lord President, Michael Stewart, Willy Ross, Elwyn Jones and Douglas Houghton, he was a member of the Home Affairs Committee of the Cabinet, which kept an eye on Dick Crossman as Housing Minister in charge of the controversial legislation. In the entry to his diary for Wednesday 3 February 1965, Crossman writes in relation to his new Fair Rent Formula:

There seemed to me two men I ought to get on my side, Eric Fletcher, who is the Lord Chancellor's number two, and Niall MacDermot, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and, even more important, an able lawyer who really understands rents. I knew I had to persuade him, so I spent most of the morning doing this.

The reasons why MacDermot gave up politics are a delicate area for any obituarist who also had a by-election in 1962, and who had strong personal friendship. So for the sake of being complete, I quote Crossman's diary for Sunday 20 February 1966:

Then I turned to the manning of my big new federal Ministry of Housing, and suggested that he should send Fred Willey to work with the Lord Chancellor and let me have Niall MacDermot as my Minister of State. "Ah," he [Harold Wilson, the Prime

Minister] said. "Niall's only staying

in Parliament another 12 months because he is marrying again."

This shows Harold's very amiable tolerance of private life. Niall has broken with his brilliant doctor wife and fallen in love with a Russian girl in Geneva. In order to marry her, he is ending his political career. "In that case," I replied, "I could have him for his last year and he could fight these two big Bills through for me and bring the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources back into the Ministry of Housing."

However, it was not to be under Crossman that MacDermot went to the Ministry of Housing, since Crossman was promoted to be Lord President of the Council. For MacDermot, this turned out to be impossible, since the Ministry of Land was a friendless department in Whitehall, waiting to be swallowed up by a resentful Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Besides, MacDermot was upset at what he perceived to be his treatment by the party in relation to his second (part Russian, part Italian) wife in Geneva. The truth was that many people in the Labour Party liked his first wife and thought, rightly or wrongly, that he had behaved abominably towards her.

One of MacDermot's strong points was that he was an extremely skilful questioner. His questions improved the office of Ombudsman. They avoided a huge argument about possible legislation on the sound barrier. Above all, his questions, like those of his friend Gerald Gardiner, the Labour Lord Chancellor, stopped many a human rights injustice in its tracks. Andrew Faulds, also a Midlands MP, tells me of how MacDermot gave invaluable advice to him about a wretched constituent who had been unjustly despatched to Winson Green Prison in Birmingham.

His friends, who thought at one point that MacDermot was a possible leader of the Labour Party, came to feel that there was no better intellect for the post of Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists. For two decades he had golden opinions from those of that small fraternity who were in a position to judge.

Niall MacDermot, lawyer and politician: born Dublin 10 September 1916; OBE 1944, CBE 1991; MP (Labour) for Lewisham North 1957- 59, Derby North 1962-70; QC 1963; Recorder of Newark-on-Trent 1963-64; Financial Secretary, Treasury 1964-67; Minister of State, Ministry of Housing and Local Government 1967-68; Secretary-General, International Commission of Jurists 1970-90; Recorder of the Crown Court 1972-74; married 1940 Violet Maxwell (one son; marriage dissolved), 1966 Ludmila Benvenuto; died Geneva 22 February 1996.