Lord St-John of Fawsley: Flamboyant politician who fell foul of Margaret Thatcher

Perhaps his greatest feat was the Herculean task of editing the works of his hero Walter Bagehot

Dennis Kavanagh
Tuesday 06 March 2012 01:00
St-John: his house in Knightsbridge contained an extensive collection of Victoriana; he also had a country mansion in Northamptonshire
St-John: his house in Knightsbridge contained an extensive collection of Victoriana; he also had a country mansion in Northamptonshire

When the flamboyant Norman St-John Stevas was performing, the House of Commons could resemble the Palace of Varieties. His striking appearance (lurid socks, colourful shirts, often with a white collar) elaborate and almost affected style of speech, ready wit and camp manner, brought a touch of Oscar Wilde to public life. Because of this he was sometimes underestimated. But he was a man of diverse talents: author, constitutional commentator, confidant and defender of the Royal Family, politician, parliamentary reformer, and Head of Cambridge College. His readiness, even passion, to appear in public prints and on television, together with a certain self-centredness and pomposity, could make him ridiculous. But he was also a deeply generous, cosmopolitan and civilised man, widely read and a passionate patron of the arts.

Stevas was born in London in 1929. His father Stephen was a hotel proprietor. His mother, Kitty St John-O'Connor, was an Irish Catholic who insisted on the hyphenated surname. She decided her son's religion and he was sent to Ratcliffe, the small RC public school in Leicestershire. A contemporary was Gordon Reece, later Margaret Thatcher's publicity guru.

Stevas was a precocious schoolboy, active in the Young Conservatives and a speaker on Catholic and Tory platforms. There was also a touch of priggishness; he once reported Reece to his superiors for atheism. Following Ratcliffe he spent six months in Rome studying for the priesthood. He did not have a vocation, and went to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. He remained a devout Catholic, a prominent apologist for the Church in the media and a leading lay figure in the Church.

As a law student, at Cambridge and then at Oxford, Stevas was ambitious and self-promoting. He made a mark as a splendid debater and an able student. His quick mind, ability to grasp the essentials, good memory and writing skills brought him a First at Cambridge. More important for him was that he was President of the Union. In spite of a middle-class background he assumed a grander manner than that of many so-called Tory grandees. He had acquired the grandiloquence, ostentatious courtesy and a certain foppishness which were lifelong traits.

Over the next decade he was an academic lawyer, as student, teacher or author. He completed a Bachelor in Civil Law at Christ Church, Oxford. But what he really wanted was to be the first President of the Union of both universities. He became Secretary of the Oxford Union, but no more. He spent two years at Yale University on fellowships, tutored at various colleges, lectured at King's College London and wrote on the interconnections of Christianity, ethics and morality. Among his books and pamphlets were Law and Morals, The Right to Life, Life, Death and the Law and the influential Obscenity and the Law. Of more long-term significance was his Walter Bagehot: a Study of his Life and Thought. He was also called to the Bar, although he never practised.

It was while working at the Economist that Stevas embarked on perhaps his greatest achievement. He began the Herculean task of editing the entire collected works of Walter Bagehot, the 19th century editor of the magazine: 15 volumes were published between 1966 and 1986 to great acclaim.

Meanwhile Stevas sought a seat in the House of Commons. He had been blooded in the safe Labour seat of Dagenham and in 1962 he was selected for the winnable Tory seat of Chelmsford in Essex. He entered the House in October 1964 and prospered in spite of his liberal views. He had opposed Eden's invasion of Suez in 1956, was a long-standing opponent of capital punishment and immigration restrictions based on race, and favoured a relaxation of the obscenity laws. Newly arrived in the House, he was also a co-sponsor of Leo Abse's Private Member's bill to reform the law to permit homosexual acts between consenting adults.

But as a devout Catholic Stevas opposed Abse's divorce bill and David Steele's abortion bill. These stands marked Stevas out as a politician of conviction rather than fashion. His early support of the easing of the law on homosexuality was particularly courageous for an unmarried Conservative MP, and one who clearly had no intention of getting married. During a debate on abortion in the Commons in 1967 a boisterous Labour opponent attacked Stevas because he was not able "to put a bun in anybody's oven".

Edward Heath formed a government in June 1970 and Stevas was made Under-Secretary at the Department of Education and Science in November 1972. In December 1973 he was promoted to Minister of State for the Arts. His tenure lasted only 100 days but he prepared a draft scheme for a Public Lending Right for authors. On the return to opposition in 1974 he was made shadow spokesman on Education and on the arts. In common with all the Shadow Cabinet (except for Sir Keith Joseph) he voted for Ted Heath over Thatcher on the first ballot for the party leadership in February 1975. But only he and Joseph among the Shadow Cabinet voted for Thatcher over William Whitelaw on the second ballot. She retained him at Education.

He was never fully at ease at Education. The finer details of curriculum reform, assertive teachers' unions, and dealing with local authorities and their comprehensive schemes, did not interest him greatly. He was not close to his No 2, Rhodes Boyson, right-wing champion of school vouchers. He felt put on by his energetic and attention-seeking deputy, ready with a colourful and confrontational statement which did not reflect Stevas's views.

Stevas was a defender of grammar schools and academic standards and was particularly proud of the Parents' Charter (1976) which promised parents a greater choice over schools, an appeals system and a requirement for schools to publish prospectuses and exam results. He was relieved in November 1978 when Thatcher made him Shadow Leader in the Commons, with responsibility for the Arts. She appointed him to the post (and the sinecure of the Duchy of Lancaster) when she formed her first administration, in 1979.

In spite of a relatively short tenure, he left his mark as Leader of the House and arts minister. Overcoming the reservations of Thatcher and some ministers he persuaded MPs to agree to a new system of Select Committees, an arrangement which still largely endures. The scheme had been canvassed by an all-party House of Commons Committee the previous year; under it most Whitehall departments would have a Select Committee to scrutinise their administration, expenditure and policy. He also minimised the whips' influence in the new system. Ministers and civil servants, however, rapidly wearied of the interrogations and adverse reports, and they blamed Stevas.

As Leader, Stevas also understood that, while needing to get government business through the House, he also had to be sensitive to the concerns of other political parties. His charm and lack of partisanship helped him to gain the confidence of the opposition.

As Minister for the Arts he defended his small budget against Treasury incursions and introduced the National Heritage Act (1980), which provided a modest endowment fund to help preserve the nation's works of art. He also encouraged business sponsorship and ensured that the author's lending right and the British Library at St Pancras went ahead. He showed sympathy and support for the arts.

There was some surprise when he resigned from Cabinet in January 1981 after only 18 months. He was originally invited to leave the Cabinet while retaining the Arts portfolio; he correctly saw this as an invitation to resign. He was the first casualty of Thatcherism: he was critical of economic policies, openly so at the 1980 party conference, although other Cabinet ministers had spoken along similar lines. It was his sharp tongue and malicious, if witty, indiscretions which did for him. He referred to Thatcher as "the blessed Margaret", and "the Leaderene" and to Sir Geoffrey Howe as "Geoffrey Who".

This was all very amusing but it was also a difficult time for ministers and they did not appreciate his self-indulgence. In her memoirs Thatcher wrote that he "turned indiscretion into a political principle". His immense disappointment at losing office was partly assuaged by tea with the Queen Mother a few days later.

It was also put about that the Cabinet could not have an alleged homosexual in it and that he leaked Cabinet matters. He was furious at the last allegation and insisted on Thatcher's disclaimer. At the age of 52 the ministerial career of a talented man had come to an end. As a private member he furthered his reputation as a Parliamentary reformer with his bill to extend the range of inspection powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General to cover nationalised industries and other public bodies supported by monies voted by Parliament. It further provided that a National Audit Office be set up.

On the back benches he was loyal to Thatcher but continued his criticism of economic policy. He was a One Nation Conservative who looked to Disraeli rather than Milton Friedman. He deplored the rise in unemployment or cuts in benefits. In his book The Two Cities (1984) he wrote that Thatcher could see "everything in black and white [but] the universe I inhabit is made up of many shades of grey". In 1987 he left the Commons and took a peerage.

Norman St John Stevas loved the ancient institutions to which he belonged or was connected. The Commons, the Lords, Cambridge, the House of Windsor and Rome all provided a platform and he usually achieved distinction in his dealings with all. Having tea with a member of the Royal Family, or watching the Queen opening parliament, or being on television for any programme seemed to turn his head. He was a man for show, announcing the next week's business to the House of Commons, proposing a toast at Emmanuel College, (of which he became Master), or appearing on Kilroy. All were performances, eloquent and witty, accompanied with ostentatious hand movements and preening. Geoffrey Howe once recalled that as a fellow undergraduate Stevas had been a peacock; he remained one. He was a man of paradoxes: an ardent supporter of the Protestant Royal Family but a devout Catholic; a One Nation Conservative but a social snob; an élitist desperate to appear on daytime television; a genuine defender of the rights of Parliament but one who loved the seals of office. Yet he carried off the role with great aplomb.

He loved beautiful places – Venice and Rome were particular favourites – and attractive things. His Knightsbridge house at Montpelier Square contained a large collection of Victoriana and he had a country mansion, the Old Rectory, in Northamptonshire. His love of bright colours was evident in his redecoration of the master's lodge at Emmanuel. He enjoyed the Mastership, although visitors were sometimes astonished to call on him in late morning and be welcomed by Stevas in an imperial purple dressing gown. He cared greatly about the arts and was an engaged and successful Chairman of the Royal Fine Arts Commission (1991-96).

His friends had to be "names", achievers on the public stage or with a royal connection. His advocacy of the canonisation of the hedonistic Grace of Monaco was silly, combining his devotion to the Church and royalty. He collected names and dropped them. He liked the company of young men. In the late 1970s he paid regular visits to the Conservative Research Department in Old Queen St, overlooking St James's Park, where young desk officers worked on policies for the party. Forewarned about his arrival, secretaries would arrange for the handsome young Michael Portillo to be absent on an errand.

Stevas loved public life and cutting a public figure. But in spite of the active social life and the zeal with which he collected honours and appointments, friends suspected an undercurrent of loneliness, especially when he was not centre stage.

Norman Antony Francis St John-Stevas, lawyer, academic and politician: born London 18 May 1929; MP for Chelmsford 1964–87; Under-Secretary of State, Department of Education and Science 1972–73; Minister for the Arts 1973–74; Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Leader of the House of Commons and Minister for the Arts 1979–81; Master, Emmanuel College, Cambridge 1991–96; cr 1987 Life Peer, of Preston Capes; died London 2 March 2012.

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