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Obituary: The Earl of Listowel

Billy Listowel was the last Secretary of State for India and Burma, and the last Govemor-General of Ghana. He was the sole surviving Labour member of Churchill's wartime coalition government, and the longest-serving member of the House of Lords. He was also the first, and so far only, Labour peer to have held the post of Lord Chairman of Committees. He was immensely popular with everyone who knew him, in the House and all over the world.

Gentle and warm-hearted, Listowel turned to socialism in the early 1920s. He had experienced profound shock on discovering how poor children lived in a slum near his parents' home in London. At Eton, where he was the only known socialist (except for the headmaster's wife, Mrs Alington), he debated with Quintin Hogg about the House of Lords and the hereditary principle, opposing both. Although Viscount Ennismore, he preferred to be known at school as Mr Hare.

From Eton he went up to Balliol College, Oxford, to read Modern Greats. The Oxford Union provided him with an enjoyable platform for the expression of his political views but, as the socialist heir to an hereditary title, a rare phenomenon at that time, his activities attracted press attention. His father removed him after only a year and asked the Marquess of Willingdon, then Governor-General of Canada, to accept his son as an aide-de-camp.

In the event Listowel was allowed to continue with his university education - at Magdalene College, Cambridge. There he read English and developed an interest in aesthetics. He went to study under Professor Victor Basch at the Sorbonne, and to London University to write a doctoral thesis, published as A Critical History of Modern Aesthetics (1933; expanded as Modern Aesthetics: an historical introduction, 1967).

In 1932, shortly after his father's death, Listowel took his seat in the Lords. Daily attendance at the House was then made up of fewer than 100 peers, all hereditary, who sat for three hours a day, three days a week. The House might deal with 200 amendments in a session, compared with 2,000- 3,000 today. The small number of Labour peers, led by Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, the son of Queen Victoria's Private Secretary, could be accommodated comfortably on two benches.

When war broke out in 1939, Listowel volunteered to join the ranks. Disqualified from active service on account of his poor eyesight, he joined the RAMC. But during a camp near Aldershot ("the worst experience of my life," he recalled) he was selected for Intelligence Corps training. Once commissioned he was posted to London District in Mayfair, where he became great friends with one of his fellow Second Lieutenants, the philosopher A.J. Ayer.

On one occasion, during a scare about leaks of information from the front, Listowel was sent to sit at a table in the Cafe Royal to monitor the conversation of British troops home on leave. The noise in the restaurant was such that Listowel was unable to hear a word anyone said; the exercise was swiftly abandoned. Other duties included the interrogation of German prisoners of war, mostly sailors, at "the Cage" on Kensington Palace Gardens.

In 1941 Viscount Addison, the Leader of the Labour Party in the Lords, invited Listowel to accept the post of Opposition Chief Whip. Listowel agreed, and Addison obtained permission for his release from the forces. Three years later, in the coalition government, he became Deputy Leader to the Marquess of Salisbury in the Lords, and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the India Office under Leo Amery, who arranged for him to sit in on meetings of the Cabinet's India Committee.

After the Labour Party's election victory in 1945, the India Committee recommended independence for the subcontinent within the lifetime of the Government. Listowel recalled that whilst, during the war, Attlee had been careful to represent Churchill's conservative views in committee ("very much His Master's Voice," as Listowel put it), once Prime Minister himself, Attlee ensured that his Cabinet adopted the liberal recommendations of the committee he still chaired.

Stafford Cripps, who had led the Cripps Mission to India during the war, was the India Committee's most dominant member and, according to Listowel, it was Cripps, rather than Attlee, who first suggested Mountbatten as Viceroy. As Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia, since 1943, Mountbatten had won the respect and trust of the popular nationalist leadership in India and Burma, a factor perceived to be of key importance in his qualifications to succeed.

In April 1947, after the terms of Mountbatten's Viceroyalty had been agreed, Listowel, at Mountbatten's request, replaced Lord Pethick-Lawrence as Secretary of State for India. The India Independence Bill was introduced into the Commons on 4 July, and Listowel then steered it through the Lords, unamended, by the end of the month. With Parliament's impending summer recess, any amendment would have jeopardised the timetable for independence on 15 August.

Although invited to Balmoral to receive King George VI's personal thanks for presiding over India's transition to independence, Listowel received no other honour. When asked by the King how he was to be recognised for his contribution, Listowel replied with characteristic modesty that he was too junior a member of the Cabinet to merit recognition. He also had to apologise for not returning his seals of office, which the India Office had lost.

As Secretary of State for India, Listowel's duties extended to Burma, for which he remained Secretary of State until independence in early 1948. The move towards self-rule in Burma was already well under way. In April 1947 Aung San's party gained a respectable majority in the country's elections, and almost all the seats in Burma's Constituent Assembly. In June the assembly approved a resolution proposing a republican constitution.

A month later, in July, Listowel was grieved to receive the news that Aung San, the first Burman since the 18th century to unite his country behind him, had been shot dead, together with most of his ministers, on the orders of his disaffected opponent U Saw. The transition to independence moved forward none the less, Listowel again steering the necessary legislation through the Lords, culminating in independence on 4 January 1948.

Listowel's next appointment was as Minister of State for the Colonies, a post he regarded as a generous reward for his work at the India Office. Ministerial responsibility for the British Empire was then divided up into three geographical areas, of which Listowel was assigned South-East Asia and the West Indies. One of his first duties was to go to Malaya to preside over the inaugural session of the Federal Legislative Council, the first step towards that country's eventual self-government.

During a tour of the West Indies Listowel invited all the local British governors to Barbados for a meeting - the first time they had met. He visited Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, British Guiana, British Honduras, and the Windward and Leeward Islands. Visiting the last, Listowel was distressed to find that the Governor, Oliver Baldwin, son of the former Conservative prime minister, had fallen out with local British residents by airing his revolutionary socialist views. Deep in the jungle of British Guiana, Listowel was astonished to discover Amerindian schoolchildren learning English from a textbook which opened with the words, "The Scottish nobleman strode out of his castle into the snow."

In 1957 Listowel received an invitation from Kwame Nkrumah, the socialist Prime Minister of Ghana, to succeed Sir Charles Arden-Clark as Ghana's Governor-General. Nkrumah had encountered Listowel in London, and was familiar with his activities as a member of the Fabian Society Colonial Bureau.

Listowel looked back on the three years he spent in Ghana as especially happy. "As Governor-General," he reflected, "everybody is nice to you. You have no enemies or carping critics." He was scrupulous in remaining above politics and when Nkrumah, prior to an overseas tour, asked him to select one of two Ministers, neither of whom Nkrumah wished to offend, to act as deputy in his absence, Listowel unhesitatingly declined to assist.

Listowel got to know Nkrumah well, and was struck by his devotion to the Queen. Greeting Listowel on his arrival in Accra, Nkrumah's first words were "When is the Queen coming to Ghana?" When the question of honouring Nkrumah arose, Listowel recommended he be made a Privy Counsellor, an honour which was received with delight. One of the happiest experiences of Nkrumah's life, Listowel judged, was the few days he once spent at Balmoral.

While in Ghana Listowel visited all the country's five Regions every year. In spite of the technically informal nature of these visits, Listowel was welcomed by each of the Regions' Paramount Chiefs in full regalia, with traditional dancing. He enjoyed a notable success in restoring relations between Nkrumah and the Chief of the Ashanti - whose people had stoned Nkrumah on a visit he made to Kumasi - by arranging for them to meet at the races in Accra.

In 1960, some months after the Duke of Edinburgh's successful visit to Ghana (Listowel observed that no other visitor to Ghana during his time there received such a rapturous reception), Ghana became an independent republic within the Commonwealth. Due to a mechanical fault, Listowel's plane, scheduled to leave Ghana two hours before the country became a republic, took off only minutes before the deadline expired, thus narrowly avoiding a constitutional crisis.

As Chairman of Committees in the House of Lords from 1965 to 1976, Listowel adhered strictly to the apolitical line demanded by the post. For many years afterwards he continued to sit on the Woolsack as one of the Lord Chancellor's Deputy Speakers. Describing his stance, in later life, as "more social reformer than socialist", he maintained a keen interest in foreign and Commonwealth affairs, human rights, and Third World aid.

George Ireland

William Francis Hare, politician: born 28 September 1906; styled as Viscount Ennismore 1924-31; succeeded 1931 as fifth Earl of Listowel; Member (Labour), LCC for East Lewisham 1937-46, for Battersea North 1952- 57; Labour Chief Whip, House of Lords 1941-44; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, India Office, and Deputy Leader, House of Lords 1944-45; Postmaster General, 1945-47; PC 1946; Secretary of State for India 1947, and Burma 1947-48; Minister of State for the Colonies 1948-50; Parliamentary Secretary, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries 1950-51; Governor-General of Ghana 1957-60; GCMG 1957; Chairman of Committees, House of Lords 1965-76; Deputy Speaker, House of Lords 1976; married 1933 Judith de Marffy-Mantuano (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1945), 1958 Stephanie Currie (nee Wise; one daughter; marriage dissolved 1963), 1963 Pamela Read (nee Day; two sons, one daughter); died London 12 March 1997.