AFTER THE death of Judith Chaplin last month the Conservative Party was much exercised by the question of her replacement as the candidate for Newbury. No one doubts that there is division within the party, and that division might have become rancorous in the course of a by-election. It therefore seemed to many that it would be a good idea to ask Michael McNair- Wilson to stand again for the seat from which he had retired before last year's general election.
He had been, after all, for 23 years an immensely effective constituency member (for 18 of those at Newbury). He was popular, not only in all sections of his party, but on the other side of the house as well. He had been quite exceptionally industrious. I find it moving that his last journalistic act was to pen, for this page, an obituary of his successor. However, there was no doubt that his health could not have withstood the rigour of a campaign, and I doubt that he would have had the inclination anyway. The last time I saw him he had told me that he was proposing to give up his seat, because he felt increasingly physically incapable of doing his job as well as he ought to.
After Eton, McNair-Wilson went straight into the army. He saw out his national service in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, where he was commissioned. He served in various stations, particularly in the Middle East. After his service he tried farming, and then journalism. He got a job - after much provincial work - with the BBC in Northern Ireland. He had a considerable knowledge of the politics of Northern Ireland acquired during his time in the army. And after he entered politics in 1969, as MP for Walthamstow East, he made manifest his unsparing conviction as an Ulster Unionist: he was, indeed, a founder member of Friends of the Union.
The striking thing about McNair- Wilson in politics was how effectively he combined what are conventionally described as right-wing and left-wing views. Unionism is a badge of the right; but his passionate concern for the National Health Service, and later specifically for the disabled, is a mark of the left.
In 1984, he was struck down by kidney disease. He recorded in Who's Who the fact that he was the first MP to use a kidney dialysis machine, and the first to have a kidney transplant. One has to understand, however, that that bald record does not give the reader the sheer sense of fun with which he expressed this singular distinction. It was something, he used to say, which marked him out. After all, he never held ministerial office, serving only on the lowest rung of the political ladder, as parliamentary private secretary to the Minister of Agriculture, Peter Walker, from 1979 to 1983.
Illness meant that McNair-Wilson had to abandon riding, skiing and sailing, hitherto the passionately pursued occupations of all the time he could find outside politics and his many business interests. But he was not a man easily to be put down: he merely diverted his energy into the pursuit of his humanitarian interests. He successfully procured the passage of an NHS reform bill, and his hand is to be found, because it derives from his Patients' Charter, in the social ambitions of the present Government.
If I had to find one word for Michael McNair-Wilson it would be irrepressible. He met good fortune with the same grace, and the same good humour. For this he will be remembered longer than many politicians who might be deemed to have achieved more in terms of the glory of office.
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