Obituary: Stephen Murray

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The Independent Online
Stephen Hubert Murray, lawyer, farmer, local politician: born Oxford 19 February 1908; married 1931 Margaret Gillet (died 1979; three sons, and one son deceased), 1979 Dorothy Stirling; died Carlisle 11 July 1994.

WITH his deeply held principles, his wide variety of interests, and his vivid sense of humour, Stephen Murray would have made a success of any career that he chose to take up. In fact he was successful at the Bar, as a farmer and as an outstanding non-party politician.

He was the youngest son of Professor Gilbert Murray OM, the classical scholar, and Lady Mary Howard, eldest daughter of the ninth Earl of Carlisle. One of his grandfathers was the Australian politician Sir Terence Murray and an uncle was Sir Hubert Murray, who governed Papua on Queen Victoria's behalf for some 35 years.

Stephen Murray was educated at Shrewsbury and Balliol College, Oxford, from where he was sent down on 6 November 1929 for (it was said) excessive team spirit the previous evening. After employment in the engineering industry he took evening classes in law and was called to the Bar in 1935, joining the Admiralty chambers of Cyril Miller. He became a keen sailor, an active member of the Bar Yacht Club, the Royal Ocean Racing Club, and the Little Ship Club and with his wife Margaret (an architect) he wrote a book on the mending of old boats, called Every Man His Own Shipwright (1950), published under the pseudonym 'James T. Bell'.

In 1935 Murray was elected as a Labour member of the Borough Council in Hampstead, north London, where he lived. But shortly afterwards, when General Franco attacked the Spanish government, Murray regarded the Labour leadership's reaction as feeble. He joined the Communist Party, and continued as a member until the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939.

He had taken flying lessons and when war broke out in 1939 he joined the RAF with the rank of Pilot Officer. But MI5 cancelled the appointment, presumably because of his Communist associations, and blocked his further attempts to join the Forces. Ultimately he was rejected on the grounds of bad eyesight, and even then only after he had tried to get through by learning by rote the eye-test card; he learnt the wrong card, was rejected, and spent the war years in the Home Guard and the London Fire Brigade.

As a barrister he had joined the Haldane Society, the association of barristers which supported the Labour Party. He worked closely with Gerald Gardiner (later Lord Chancellor), its Chairman, and was part of the small team which in the late Forties produced a book recommending to the Labour government 11 areas for law reform, including the abolition of capital punishment and the germ of Legal Aid. But in the early Fifties the Haldane Society fell under the control of the far left. After heated discussions a group of moderate members, led by Murray and Gardiner, broke away and formed the Society of Labour Lawyers. It rapidly became the main rallying- point for barristers with Labour Party interests, as indeed it still is.

After a spell in the chambers of DN Pritt QC, himself a leading supporter of the Labour Party, Murray in 1949 joined the chambers of Harold Heathcote-

Williams. His practice was developing well when, in 1951, his mother passed on part of the ancient Howard estate in Cumberland to him and his sister Rosalind Toynbee, wife of Arnold Toynbee the historian. He was unhappy at being an absentee landlord and when, some six months later, one of the farmers on the estate went bankrupt, and his farm became vacant, Murray decided overnight to take over the farm and to live on the estate. He bought an ancient ex-Post-Office van, packed his furniture into it, and on New Year's Eve 1951 with his wife and children moved from an elegant house in Hampstead to a bleak, snow-covered hill-farm in Cumberland.

So at the age of 43 Murray began from scratch to learn about farming. Helped by cousins, by Ministry of Agriculture pamphlets and by government aid schemes, he built the farm into a going concern. His story is a saga in itself, which he partly told in a BBC broadcast in 1954. Though at the time of his death he had retired from active farming, he continued to live on the farm and to supervise its working.

As the farm got on its feet he reentered local politics. He was elected to the Border Rural District Council in 1953, and was its Chairman from 1962 to 1966. But experience as a councillor made him increasingly dissatisfied with the introduction of party politics into local government, on the grounds that it moved the decision-making process from the Council Chamber, where the discussion was public and the professional advice of the officers was to hand, to caucus meetings held in private. It was a central principle to him that party groups be avoided in local authority business. So when in 1964 he stood for election to the Cumberland County Council he did so as an Independent. His stance was well known in the county and that it was appreciated by the public was shown by his large majority in a turnout reported to be 93 per cent. He sat for the Brampton division from then until 1989.

Murray was Chairman of the County's Planning Committee from 1969 to 1977, Chairman of the Lake District Special Planning Board between 1977 and 1981, and finally Chairman of the Cumbria County Council from 1985 to 1987. He had the distinction of being accused by politicians of each side of 'in effect' belonging to the other, and at different times his independence led to his being removed from a committee chairmanship by each of the two main parties. For an Independent this record, of continued re-election by the electorate culminating in election as Chairman by a County Council, is perhaps unsurpassed; it speaks clearly of the reputation Murray acquired for impartiality combined with the good-humoured but efficient dispatch of business.

(Photograph omitted)

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