Lord Amery of Lustleigh: Obituary

Patrick Cosgrave
Thursday 05 September 1996 00:02

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Julian Amery - son of a secretary of state for India, son-in-law of a prime minister and himself a long- serving Conservative minister - is the largeness of his personality. Amery's exuberance concealed a sharp intellect, but it was a vital part of the nature of a man of exceptional physical courage, and devout political commitment. The exuberance showed itself in a robust sense of fun. I will illustrate it.

During the Conservative Party conference of 1972 I found myself at the same (large) lunch party as Julian Amery. In those far-off days security was a far less compelling consideration than it is now, and ministers, journalists and others would commonly stroll back from the Imperial Hotel to the Winter Gardens for the afternoon debates. On this occasion, however, a large group of trade-union demonstrators had gathered along the sea front to demonstrate against, and to heckle, Tories. The police had erected crash barriers along the route to hold the mob back. Ministers and others hurried to the Gardens, for the most part with their heads down, behind this protection. Not, though, Julian Amery.

I was a couple of yards behind Amery when, having finished his port, he emerged from the Imperial, a large cigar between the fingers of his right hand. He contemplated the demonstrators. He transferred the cigar to the other hand and walked slowly down the line shaking hands and jocosely greeting demonstrators in that deep and plummy voice. The police were worried but, by the end of his promenade, Amery was being cheered, in a friendly and amused fashion, by the demonstrators. There you have the man.

Harold Julian Amery was born in 1919. He came from a formidable political family, for the Amerys had been close allies of the Chamberlains when the latter family ruled Birmingham. The alliance was sundered when, in the Commons debate on Norway in May 1940 Julian's father, L.S. (Leo) Amery, pronounced the death sentence on the government headed by Neville Chamberlain, using Cromwell's deadly words - "You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"

With such a heritage, and such a father, it was hardly surprising that young Julian eventually turned to politics, bringing with him the old Chamberlain-Amery tradition of faith in the Empire and belief in free trade - though it is only right to say that Julian later became an enthusiastic advocate of British membership of the Common Market.

But, before politics, Amery enjoyed a colourful career - one is tempted to say a series of colourful careers. Between 1939 and 1940 he served as an attache on British missions to Belgrade, Ankara, Sofia and Bucharest. He enlisted as a sergeant in the RAF at the end of these missions, but was rapidly transferred to the Army, with the rank of Captain, and sent to the Middle East.

Another rapid transfer sent him to Yugoslavia, to liaise with the partisans fighting Germany. In 1944 he was in Albania, working with the Albanian Resistance. At the end of that tour of duty he was sent as the Prime Minister's personal representative to Chiang Kai-shek. He always maintained that Eton and Balliol had been a perfect preparation for such a splendid series of adventures: "You know, dear boy, that Eton and Oxford are other-worldly places, and so were the places in which I spent my war."

He fought and lost Preston North in 1945, but won the seat in 1950, the year in which he married Harold Macmillan's daughter Catherine. His long and variegated ministerial career began in 1957, when he became Parliamentary Under-Secretary for War. A year later, in December 1958, with the same rank, he moved to the Colonial Office. In 1960 he became Secretary of State for Air (essentially a military posting) and in 1962 Minister for Aviation (essentially a civil one).

The Conservatives having lost the general election, Amery's acquaintance with the rigours and delights of office for the moment ceased, and he was forced out of the House of Commons by the electorate in the Tory debacle that was the general election of 1966. A by-election in Brighton Pavilion (where the Macmillan connection had greatly helped him in gaining the Conservative nomination) in March 1969 brought him back to the House and, after Edward Heath achieved his famous victory in 1970, Amery returned to government as Minister for Housing and Construction.

The appointment was judged by most observers to be a surprising one. First, Amery's flamboyant image did not seem to fit in the new technological age supposedly issued in by the new Prime Minister. And, second, a domestic ministry did not seem to suit either his character or his interests.

He was, in truth, much happier when he shifted to the Foreign Office in 1972. After the Conservative defeat of 1974 he never again held office, nor did he expect to. He remained in the Commons until 1992, when he was promoted to the Lords, as Lord Amery of Lustleigh, in John Major's Dissolution Honours.

But he was never, as so many politicians passed over have been, embittered. He threw himself with zest into the role of a backbencher, intervening, in that great, rumbling voice of his, on a wide variety of subjects but, increasingly, in support of the rebel Rhodesian government headed by Ian Smith, thus showing he was his Imperialist father's son to the core. On Rhodesia Amery showed intellectual rather than political perspicacity. When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 his first major foreign challenge was the conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in Lusaka in the autumn, where the main topic was to be Rhodesia (the government of which was now headed by Bishop Abel Muzorewa, with Smith in close attendance).

Rhodesia was the main subject in the adjournment debate of 25 July, the last occasion for discussion of the matter before the summer recess. The Prime Minister took great care over her speech, seeking to placate both those who wanted to bring Muzorewa and Smith down, and the many on the Conservative back benches who sympathised with them. She succeeded, with one exception. Amery alone in the debate divined instantly that she had decided to abandon the Muzorewa-Smith government and, in a bitter and powerful speech, he castigated her for so doing. It was to no avail.

But Amery was much more than a politician. He was an omnivorous reader, and enthusiastic writer, and was possessed of a powerful mind. More: people meeting him for the first time who saw him glass in hand and cigar in mouth sitting happily with cronies in the Carlton, White's or the Beefsteak could scarcely credit the fact that they were seeing an enthusiastic and skilful skier, a hearty walker, and a man who rarely let a day go by without a long and vigorous swim. "You see, old boy," he would say, "the exercise burns off the drink and the tobacco." The formula seemed to be a successful one.

He was a considerable man, much more so than his style led observers to perceive. He was also kind and very entertaining. But if there was one word which I would use to describe him (and one that, I feel sure, he would like) it would be a patriot. Julian Amery was a patriot of the old school, to the very depths of his being.

Harold Julian Amery, politician: born London 27 March 1919; MP (Conservative) for Preston North 1950-66, Brighton Pavilion 1969-92; Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State and Financial Secretary, War Office 1957-58; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Colonial Office 1958-60; PC 1960; Secretary of State for Air 1960-62; Minister of Aviation 1962-64; Minister of Public Building and Works 1970; Minister for Housing and Construction, Department of the Environment 1970-72; Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1972-74; created 1992 Baron Amery of Lustleigh; author of Sons of the Eagle 1948, The Life of Joseph Chamberlain vols iv 1901-3: At the Height of his Power 1951, v and vi Joseph Chamberlain and the Tariff Reform Campaign 1969, Approach March 1973; married 1950 Catherine Macmillan (died 1991; one son, three daughters); died London 3 September 1996.

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