Charles Morris: Well-liked and highly regarded politician who served as PPS to Harold Wilson


Thursday 19 January 2012 01:00

As Opposition Leader and Prime Minister, Harold Wilson was careful about the choice of his Parliamentary Private Secretary. He displayed shrewd judgement, and it was never shrewder than the choice of Charlie Morris in the crucial years from 1970-74. Morris was immensely well-liked across the spectrum of a fractious Parliamentary Labour Party. And he was a reflective colleague, with good judgement about issues and people. He had an unerring "feel" for the Labour movement.

In my informed, close-up, first-hand opinion Morris contributed significantly to Labour's victory (unexpected, even by Wilson) in February 1974. He counselled Wilson against certain precipitate actions, particularly in regard to relations with Jim Callaghan, his Home Secretary, which would have opened up fault-lines in the Labour Party and led to victory for Edward Heath.

"Getting to" a party leader can often be difficult. Unlike many people who say they will tell the boss and then fail to do anything of the kind, Morris did. If he thought a point was trivial or unreasonable he would say, "I'm not going to bother Harold with that." He was the best kind of ministerial gatekeeper and he did speak truth unto power.

In the first week after I was elected in 1962 I was mystified when the MP for Gateshead, Harry Randall, who had been Organising Secretary of the Union of Postal Workers, came into the Commons post office to collect his mail and greeted another elderly colleague warmly, saying, "Good morning to you, Post Office." Soon I discovered that this elderly colleague was "Post Office Williams", William Richard Williams, MP for Manchester Openshaw.

Alas, within a year, "Post Office" died, causing a by-election. It was accepted that the UPW thought Openshaw was their seat, and Charles Morris was chosen. He had impeccable credentials: Mancunian through and through, a member of Manchester Corporation since 1954 and Labour candidate for Cheadle in 1959 when, though he came third, he fought a courageous campaign.

I remember asking two very different brothers, Sir Leslie Lever, flamboyant Lord Mayor of Manchester at the time of the Munich air crash and MP for Ardwick, and Harold Lever, the MP for Cheetham who made millions in the City and bankrolled the Labour Party, whether as a recent by-election winner I had a duty, as was the custom, to canvass in Openshaw. Their answer was identical: Don't waste your bloody time: Morris is a really good guy with a great wife; they are tailor-made for Openshaw. Morris romped home.

Alf Morris, now Lord Morris of Manchester, told me, "Charles and I and six siblings were brought up in the slums of Manchester." Their father, disabled through being gassed in Flanders, became a poorly paid signwriter who died aged 44. Little wonder that Charles was concerned about poverty and disadvantaged children. But I never heard him harp on about deprivation in his childhood. As his daughter Estelle, Baroness Morris of Yardley, put it to me, "My dad was always more concerned about where one is going rather than where one has come from. He taught us that opportunities were always there to be seized." Her judgement chimed with that of parliamentary colleagues.

A single speech can establish a new MP's reputation. I recall how impressed the PLP was by Morris's first major contribution, in a February 1964 debate on the vexed subject of Household Delivery Services, in which he annihilated the Postmaster General Reggie Bevins: "Not since the time of Postmaster-General Herbert Samuel and the Liberal administration of 1911 has there been such a disputatious atmosphere in the Post Office as that which exists at present ... Why are the postmen concerned about the introduction of this service? Having worked with so many of them for so long, I know that they have a pride of craft in the service ... When one is wearing the Queen's uniform and going about with crowns on ones lapels one does not want to be reduced to the status of pamphlet peddler."

With Labour's election in 1964 Morris was invited to become PPS to the Postmaster-General Tony Benn, who told me that "There was significant opposition in the senior echelons of the Post Office to my using a union official. But such an attitude was the opposite of what I wanted to do – to foster close relations with the UPW." Benn developed a high regard for Morris's balanced approach, which came to be shared by the Post Office management.

Morris had a long spell in the Whips' Office, ending up in 1969-70 as deputy to Bob Mellish. He was talkable-to, a valued quality in a Whip, especially at a time when Barbara Castle was driving half the PLP to despair with her zeal for industrial relations laws and her White Paper In Place of Strife. The verbally explosive Mellish recognised the value of a No 2 "who unlike me is quiet and reasonable and civilised with dissenters." What angered Morris was not awkward opinions but colleagues whose behaviour in any way brought the Labour Party, to which he was intensely loyal, into disrepute.

After a short spell as Environment Minister, Morris spent 1974-79 as Minister for the Civil Service, a round peg in a round hole who won the respect and liking of the mandarins. His last major contribution was on the contentious Telecommunications Bill. On 29 November 1982 he told the Commons that his concern was the Bill's impact on jobs in British Telecom's equipment manufacturing industries. "Successive governments have rightly put constraints on BT in relation to where it can purchase services and equipment. Most of the 70,000 jobs in BT's equipment industries depend on BT's orders. A fit home market is vital for export success. However, the privatisation of BT will inevitably mean a move to a worldwide sourcing system as pressure to maximise profits increases. For evidence of that we need only to look at what happened after the so-called liberalisation of telephone equipment supply under the British Telecommunications Act of 1981. Only two of the 96 telephone handsets from other BT sources which were submitted for approval were made in Britain. The Bill will encourage that."

In 1983 the Openshaw constituency numerically shrank as a result of a slum clearance and was divided into three, with the result that Morris did not stand. Albeit no longer in Parliament, Charles and Pauline – they came as a package – occupied themselves with Party responsibilities and good causes.

Tam Dalyell

Charles Richard Morris, politician: born Manchester 14 December 1926; MP, Manchester Openshaw 1963-83; Whips' Office 1966-70; PPS to Harold Wilson 1970-74; Minister of State, Civil Service Department 1974-79; married 1950 Pauline Dunn (two daughters); died Manchester 8 January 2012.

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