Obituary: Victor Montagu

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The late Guy Barnett, fleetingly the only Labour MP the county of Dorset has ever had, who later represented Greenwich and was Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of the Environment 1976-79, used to regale his many parliamentary friends with tales of the never-to-be-forgotten by-election for South Dorset in 1962. I can personally vouch for the unembellished truth of one such saga.

We were at an early-evening meeting in a small Dorset village, before the candidate was due to proceed to a more important rally in Weymouth. Barnett gave a 10-minute spiel on Labour Party policy and then the chairman said: "Any questions for the candidate?" "Well, Comrade Barnett," in broad Dorset accent, "can we expect that you will be exactly like `Hinch'?"

Barnett demurred. He was hoping to be a Labour MP, and he hardly saw himself as the exact replica of the new Earl of Sandwich. "Oh no, it's not quite like that - I mean," persisted the comrade, "are you going to fight the authorities for any of us if we need you?" It was a subtle, if unintentional, compliment to Victor Montagu, Viscount Hinchingbrooke, by then 10th Earl of Sandwich - and soon by his own desire to go back to being Victor Montagu - but known to all and sundry as "Hinch".

Having expended so much shoe-leather canvassing in those gorgeous summer weeks of 1962, I can testify at first hand how deeply esteemed Hinch was for the way in which he would battle tirelessly for individual constituents if he thought that they had been wronged by the powers that were. I recorded at that time a Labour-voting teacher telling me: "If Hinch is eccentric, and he is, people here in Dorset feel at least that he is our eccentric."

For the same kind of consideration that the floating, not particularly political, voter of South Dorset respected Hinchingbrooke, the Conservative hierarchy was very cool to him.

Thanks to Tony Benn's epic and successful struggle not to succeed as Viscount Stansgate, Hinch - we can call him no other - divested himself in 1964 of the earldom of Sandwich and desperately wanted to return to the Commons in 1970 for North Dorset as a successor to Sir Richard Glyn, who had been advised by his doctors to retire. The flavour of Hinch's style and his attitude to the Tory hierarchy can be encapsulated in this passage of arms. He received a letter from Captain Burke, Chairman of the North Dorset Conservative Association, telling him that the selection committee "felt that they should select a man who was under 50 - for that reason only I am afraid that your name has not been placed on the shortlist to be interviewed".

The reply was vintage Hinch.

I must ask you what is involved in the present decision to define an age limit . . . does the constituency imagine that its organisers ought to be more concerned with the internal social round than with the governance of the nation's affairs? That would be an unworthy judgement and dangerous for parliamentary democracy.

Hinch continued striking hard at the cult of youth which was then becoming fashionable:

Does the North Dorset constituency believe that the younger voters give any readier help if the candidate is nearer to their age group? Of course they do not. They never have. It is mere guesswork to suppose so . . . Britain's plight is now so grave that none but the most experienced politicians can hope to bring the nation back to its faith and standing in the world. The political judgement which only comes from long service and maturity of years is needed now at Westminster more than at any time this century. In a sense much larger than personal affront I find myself heartily ashamed that part of a county which I dearly love should, by patterning its views on a passing cult, do so much disservice to the nation in its extremity.

The extremity to which he referred was six years of Harold Wilson's and Roy Jenkins's government.

Of course, the truth was that Hinch suspected, rightly, that his age was not the only factor against him. At Westminster he had been an independent politician who had not only resigned the Conservative whip for a time and become one of the leading lights of the Suez group; he had also given deep offence by supporting the popular anti-Common-Market Dorset councillor Sir Piers Debenham at the 1962 by-election caused by his own succession to the Sandwich earldom. As a result the Tories had lost Dorset South for a couple of years to Labour.

Hinch's family went back to Sidney Montagu, one of those who objected to the "hungrie" Scots who came south to London in 1603 with James VI and I, and were doing well out of the fact that a Scot had mounted the throne of England. Montagu himself landed the post of Groom of the Bedchamber to James I and, even more lucratively, Master of the Court of Bequest to Charles I. On the Restoration, Montagu came back from living on the Continent and for his loyalty was rewarded with the earldom of Sandwich.

Hinch was fond of referring to his relation Samuel Pepys who described another of his relations thus:

Sixth of August 1662 by water to White Hall; and so to St James's; but there found Mr Coventry gone to Hampton Court. So to my Lord's [Sandwich] and he is also gone this being a great day at the Council about some business before the king. Here Mr Pierce, the surgeon, told me how Mr Edward Montagu hath lately had a duel with Mr Cholmeley, that is first gentleman usher to the queen, and was a messenger from the king to her in Portugal, and is a fine gentleman; but had received many affronts from Mr Montagu and some unkindness from my lord, upon his score, for which I am sorry. He proved too hard for Montagu, and drove him so far backward that he fell into a ditch, and dropped his sword, but with honour would take no advantage over him; but did give him his life: and the world says Mr Montagu did carry himself very poorly in the business and hath lost his honour for ever with all people in it, of which I am very glad in the hopes that it will humble him.

Hinch's self-deprecating humour attracted him to that fourth Earl of Sandwich who held the position of First Lord of the Admiralty responsible for the Navy during the American War of Independence. Hinch told me that he acquitted him of any naval catastrophe or responsibility for the war against the American colonies, preferring to remember that he was a patron of Captain Cook. Cook repaid his generosity by naming the Hawaiian islands the Sandwich Islands and calling a group of small volcanic islets in the South Atlantic, north of the Weddell Sea, and south-east of South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands, which he visited in 1775.

Hinch also claimed, with a wink, but obviously believing it, that his ancestor the fourth Earl had bestowed his name on the sandwich, devised so that he could have sustenance and cope with an uninterrupted 24-hour stretch at the gambling tables to which he was notoriously addicted. Hinch's sense of family tradition entered his own later political behaviour.

Unlike most Etonians, he opted not for a Classics or History degree but for the Natural Sciences tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge. His father, George Montagu, who was MP for most of the present prime minister's Huntingdon constituency, and from 1916 ninth Earl of Sandwich, made him work on the factory floor of an engineering firm - an experience which remained with him for the rest of his life and which helped to explain his often surprising views on the rights of factory workers, unusual in a right-wing Conservative. At the time of the General Strike his father's influence got him the job of assistant secretary to Stanley Baldwin. I am told that the Baldwin connection disadvantaged Hinch as an ambitious young man in the 1940s from the advancement which he would then have liked.

Hinchingbrooke's maiden speech was given in July 1941 when he was a serving officer with the Northamptonshire regiment. He said: "I want to speak on the propaganda in the Army. It is no reflection on the Director of Public Relations at the War Office, who is doing excellent work in a rather different sphere, to say that the Army is neglecting propaganda - and by that I mean educational publicity - with consequent injury to its fighting efficiency."

Hinch's essays in a slim volume, Full Speed Ahead (1941), were an elegant attempt at defining the ethics of post-war Toryism. In the preface by the distinguished Sir Ernest Barker the great historian discusses the nature of Lord Hinchingbrooke's view of the essence of Toryism: "The keys to modern as to ancient Toryism are nature, family, inheritance, progression rather than progress, and a certain mystery." It reveals a lot about Hinch in middle age that he should preface his book with a quotation from Edmund Burke, "Public life is a situation of power and energy. He trespasses against his duty who sleeps upon his watch as well as he that goes over to the enemy."

I arrived as a new MP at the end of Hinch's two decades in Parliament. My memory of him is as a vehement anti-marketeer rising imperiously on the front bench below the gangway on the government side. In one of his last speeches he said:

Britain has all too easily slid into a position where it has been careful to devise all these schemes for Europe and neglect them for the Commonwealth. There is a sort of "shotgun marriage" going on with Europe, ordered by President Kennedy and carried out by the prime minister [Macmillan]. It is time that this country realised that, and began to see how it is neglecting, with the new techniques of economic co-operation, the purposes of a Commonwealth. I should like to see established not only a Commonwealth payments union but also a Commonwealth bank.

In one sense the Eurosceptics of today are in the tradition of Hinch. In another, his shade would disclaim them in not behaving properly towards their colleagues. Whatever his views, his manners were impeccable.

Tam Dalyell

Alexander Victor Edward Paulet Montagu, politician: born London 22 May 1906; MP (Conservative) for South Dorset 1941-62; succeeded 1962 as 10th Earl of Sandwich (disclaimed his peerage for life 1964); married 1934 Rosemary Peto (two sons, four daughters; marriage dissolved 1958), 1962 Lady Anne Holland-Martin (ne Cavendish; died 1981; marriage dissolved 1965); died 25 February 1995.

Comments