IF, UNHAPPILY, there is much truth in the adage that there are few real friendships in politics, happily, there are exceptions, and these tend to be notable ones, perhaps because they have to endure strains rather more severe than in other occupations. And few active in political life emerge cheerful and content, disappointments forgotten, and the good days warmly remembered.
David Sells was for me since 1976 my happy mentor, sage, companion and friend, as he was to countless others. In spite of several attempts he never secured a parliamentary candidature, but became one of the finest and most popular servants the Conservative Party has had in recent years, and one of its very best conference chairmen - achievements which, in spite of his knighthood in 1960, were in the opinion of many inadequately recognised by the party. Perhaps his lack of adulation towards Margaret Thatcher - especially after her treatment of his close friend Francis Pym (whose association chairman he had been) after the 1983 general election victory - may have had something to do with this.
Immensely loyal to his country, and with firm views on people and issues, Sells was a leader rather than an acolyte. The qualities he most respected were patriotism, unselfish public service and integrity; the best of company himself, with a keen appetite for political discussion and gossip, he was not at his best with bores, self-preening garrulous know-alls or self-seekers. He would maintain his courtesy, but the beetling brows would beetle further, and his look of resigned impatience would alert his family and friends to his predicament.
What was so impressive was the time and care he would give to everyone who sought his advice, however junior, and which made him especially beloved by those who worked with him in business and politics, and not least by Conservative Party agents and workers in East Anglia to which he migrated from Kent in 1959. Decency and shrewdness were allied to sensitivity, an uproarious sense of humour and enjoyment of the sheer fun of life, and politics; when Sells arrived, everyone cheered up. He became very much the Michael Fraser of East Anglia - a dedicated, although never uncritical, servant of the Party, without any personal political ambitions for himself after his early disappointments in obtaining a seat. Not all his many friends were Conservatives, and not all Conservatives were his friends. In so many respects he was of the old school in everything he did. It was a very good one, and the fact that it combined seriousness with laughter, and duty with enjoyment, increased its attractiveness.
He had read law at Christ Church, Oxford, before being commissioned into the 2nd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards in 1941, serving in North Africa and then in Italy, where he was wounded, and also became fluent in Italian, becoming a liaison officer with units of the Italian forces. He finished the war as a major, and resumed his aspirations to become a leading barrister. He was called to the Bar in 1947, practising in the same chamber as John Widgery, later Lord Chief Justice, who became a lifelong friend, but the financial rewards were meagre, especially after his marriage in 1948 to Beryl Charrington and the arrival within three years of two sons (a third to follow later). To the keen regret of many colleagues in the law he decided to go into business to support his young family, which he did with great success. Among his achievements when he became an independent small businessman was the creation of lakes, which included that for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds at Sandy, and also the rebuilt water gardens at Balmoral.
But politics, outside his devoted family, and country pursuits, particularly fishing and shooting, were his real love. And he did not lack guile nor, when it was required, dark cunning.
A classic example of this was the meticulous planning, worthy of Montgomery himself, of an operation to de-select the choice of candidate by a Cambridgeshire Conservative Association. It was an engrossing episode, in which I was not totally uninvolved. There were meetings and telephone calls that never took place. There was an inspired leak to a national newspaper that caused a pleasing uproar in the constituency, and other machinations. It worked brilliantly, and the candidate never knew what hit him. As later events proved, Sells's eye for a wrong 'un had proved once again unerring. It was not the least of his services to his party - and to Parliament. The tactics and methods may not have been all that democratic or strictly by the rules, but desperate situations require desperate actions.
But his eye for talent was equally acute. He thought well of John Major from the first time he met him (as did Michael Fraser) and forecast a glittering future for him. He was very much Sells's idea of what a Conservative should be - determined, but also kind and compassionate, with a sincere social conscience. And there were others, mostly Cambridge students, whom he spotted and encouraged, who are now in Parliament and government. But he always had a deep respect for worthy political opponents, and did not care for the harsh confrontationist politics of the 1980s. He was very much a One Nation man. He was also a very civilised one, with a wife, sons, and grandchildren he gruffly adored, and whose successes and disappointments meant much to him. His cheerful Christianity was important to him, but was never ostentatious, although his private opinions on recent changes in the Church of England were splendidly lacerating.
In the general election of 1987, when the opinion polls pointed to my imminent involuntary departure from the House of Commons at the will of the electors of Cambridge, Sells rushed over to canvass with me at the end of the campaign. I took him to 'Red Romsey', normally a Labour bastion. In over two hours of door-to-door canvassing we did not find one elector who was not going to vote Conservative. Sells was astonished and muttered militarily, 'It only goes to show; you have to see the situation for yourself on the ground.' Early in the morning after the election, when we were in total post-election exhaustion, he rang us, simply to bellow, 'WELL DONE THAT MAN]'
It is not an appropriate valediction from me, and so many others, to him. David Sells fulfilled every qualification for Disraeli's ultimate accolade: 'He was an English worthy.'
The little church was packed for his funeral. The East Anglian sky was clear and sharp. The first signs of autumn were in the trees and in the air, the kind of weather he loved. The Prime Minister was represented, and the service was simple, beautiful, short, and in the traditional liturgy, with the old, and the best, hymns. There were tea and sandwiches afterwards. It was England - which David Sells had served in war and in peace, and for which he cared so profoundly.
The Dictionary of National Biography will not record him. The historians will pass him by. But people like David are far more representative of the quiet glory of the British race than many who seek fame and wealth rather than service.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content