Lord Boston of Faversham: Politician, barrister and journalist who served as Speaker of the House of Lords and helped launch TVS

Michael Leapman
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:40

Terry Boston had three careers – in broadcasting, the law and politics – for which his principal passion was the third.

When he was 16, just after the Second World War, he joined the Labour Party and by 1950 was on the executive committee of the International Union of Socialist Youth. Five years later he was the Labour candidate for the safe Conservative seat of Wokingham, Berks. He lost there again in 1959 but in 1962 was selected as the party's candidate for Faversham, Kent. The sitting MP, Percy Wells, was suffering from Parkinson's Disease and planned to stand down at the next general election. In the meantime he needed a high level of support if he was to continue to be an effective MP. Boston worked closely with Wells for two years until his death forced a by-election.

Faversham had long been a swing seat – in 1956 Wells had scraped home with a majority of only 59 – so Boston did well to win by nearly 5,000. In the Commons he began to climb the lower rungs of the ladder of advancement and advised the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, on policy towards the media. In 1966 he was a member of the committee looking at the feasibility of broadcasting Parliamentary debates, and he was made an assistant Government whip in 1969; but changes in the demographics of his constituency, principally stemming from the closure in 1960 of the Royal Naval Dockyards at Sheerness, were making it less and less fertile ground for Labour. The Conservatives captured the seat in 1970 and Boston departed the political scene until 1976, when he was made a life peer, Baron Boston of Faversham, in Wilson's resignation honours.

Terence George Boston was born in 1930 and educated at Woolwich Polytechnic School in south-east London. He served as an officer in Royal Air Force from 1950 to 1952, then studied law at King's College, London, where he was deputy president of the student union from 1955 to 1956. He was called to the Bar at Inner Temple in 1960, but before that had started a parallel career in broadcasting, joining the BBC External Services in 1957 and becoming a current affairs producer in 1960. Among the programmes he produced was the long-running Law in Action series, now on Radio 4 but then on Radio 3. In 1963 he married Margaret Head, an Australian market research consultant.

He quit the BBC on his election to Parliament, where he proved a conscientious constituency MP, campaigning successfully against a proposal to site London's third airport on the Isle of Sheppey. Had he remained in the Commons longer than six years he might well have achieved high office, but instead, following his defeat, he concentrated on his work as a barrister that would lead to his appointment as a QC in 1981. Returning eagerly to public life on his elevation to the peerage, he was appointed to the British delegation to the United Nations from 1976 to 1978, then made Minister of State at the Home Office in 1979, shortly before Labour lost power.

His re-entry into broadcasting was to some extent accidental. In 1980 ITV's regional franchises were up for renewal and a number of consortia were formed aimed at wresting the choicest parts of the network from their incumbents. James Gatward, an ambitious producer and director, created a company called TVS to bid for the franchise then held by Southern TV. It was customary for such bids to be fronted by a representative of the great and good, preferably a peer. Gatward's original choice for chairman was Lord McGregor, but he was lured away to be chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority and Boston was drafted in to replace him, in part because Faversham was within the region.

It had been widely assumed in the industry that Southern, who had held the franchise with considerable credit since 1958, would have it renewed. But the Independent Broadcasting Authority never liked to be taken for granted and TVS was declared the winner, going on air in January 1982. The tall, patrician Boston proved popular among the senior staff – more popular, certainly, than the spiky Gatward – but he saw his role as being a hands-off chairman, leaving the day-to-day running of the company to the professionals. "He was not cut out for the hurly-burly of the TV business," was the verdict of a former executive.

Had he been more engaged he might have challenged the decision that effectively undermined the enterprise – the acquisition in 1988 of the American company MTM, producers of such hit shows as Hill Street Blues. It caused a severe drain on TVS's finances in a recessionary period and resulted in Boston and Gatward stepping down. In 1991 the franchise was awarded to Meridian.

The final chapter in his political life was the most rewarding and most suited to his talents and temperament. In 1991 he was appointed Deputy Chairman of Committees in the Lords, becoming Chairman – equivalent to Speaker of the Commons – three years later. He was the first life peer to serve in that post, in which his suave and courtly manner, combined with a graceful, good-natured wit, chimed precisely with the ethos of the Upper House, making him popular among peers of all parties. His most challenging task was to control the passionate debates about reforming the Lords itself and effectively expelling large numbers of hereditary peers. This he achieved with a supremely deft touch, drawing to the full on his resources of tact and diplomacy. When he stood down at the age of 70 he continued to attend the House from time to time, most recently for the address by President Obama last May.

In the 1959 General Election Labour had scraped home by 24,327 to the Conservatives' 24,074, writes Tam Dalyell. When Percy Wells, a long-standing MP who had been Ernie Bevin's Parliamentary Private Secretary, died, Labour had to find an acceptable candidate in Kent for an absolutely critical by-election – the curtain-raiser for the mandatory general election of October 1964. It would have been a catastrophe if Labour had failed to hold on to the seat, however slender the majority had been. Poor, intelligent, with exquisitely good manners, Terry Boston was a dream candidate. At the by-election he romped home with a majority of 4,941 – which was to fall to 3,964 in 1964 and 2,489 in 1966 against a new Conservative candidate, Roger Moate, who was to vanquish him in 1970, after which he was to make his life in the distinguished career in the Lords in the television business and the law.

None of us in the Parliamentary Labour Party who went to Faversham, morning after morning, will forget that June by-election. The weather was gorgeous. Rural Kent was at its loveliest. The strawberries were delicious. The candidate and his Australian wife Margaret attracted huge loyalty among the Labour faithful and gained the respect of a fickle electorate.

After the October general election, Boston became PPS to the Minister of Public Buildings and Works, Charlie Pannell, MP for West Leeds, but himself a man of Kent, who had become friendly with the young Margaret Thatcher when she contested Dartford in 1950 and 1951. Thatcher had become Pannell's regular pair and as his PPS Boston had to do the logistics of pairing. Boston and Thatcher built up a mutual respect and friendship which was to last a lifetime.

At the fag-end of the first Wilson government in 1969, Terry Boston was appointed to the pivotal position of Government Pairing Whip. This involved constant attendance in the house. He lost the 1970 election when Ted Heath, himself from Kent, carried all before him in the county. Boston's defeat was a loss to the Parliamentary Labour Party, because he was one of the few who understood and authentically represented the aspirations of southern England, and a loss to the House of Commons on account of the fact that he always, when he spoke, had something worthwhile to say.

Yet perhaps it was better for him that he should have been defeated and allowed to make his career elsewhere, because he would not have enjoyed the turbulent years of the 1970s and the long reign of Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister. He was a constructive politician by nature, and not an opposition politician.

Terence George Boston, politician, journalist, barrister and television executive: born 21 March 1930; MP June 1964–70; Chairman, TVS Entertainment 1980–90; Chairman of Committees, House of Lords 1994–2000; cr. 1976 Life Peer, of Faversham, Kent; married 1962 Margaret Joyce; died 23 July 2011.

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