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Obituary: Baroness Seear

Geoffrey Tordoff
Thursday 24 April 1997 00:02 BST

Standing on Waterloo station one evening rattling a collecting box for Crisis at Christmas (which charity she also supported by serving meals to the homeless on Christmas Day), Nancy Seear was approached by a woman. "Oh! I know you," she said. "You're the Liberal Lady."

Seear was extremely surprised to be recognised in public and secretly delighted, because she would not have wished to have been known in any other way. But for most of her life she was not as widely known, in public, as she became after the introduction of television into the House of Lords.

Her early years after Cambridge (where she read History) and a period in the 1930s living in Germany and seeing the beginnings of the rise of Hitler, were spent working as personnel officer for the Somerset shoe manufacturers of C. & J. Clark. There followed a stint, during the Second World War, with the Ministry of Aircraft Production working on the Management Efficiency Board.

At the end of the war she moved into academia in the shape of the London School of Economics where she remained as a Reader in Personnel Management until retirement in 1978. It was felt by many that, as a woman, she personally encountered what today would be known as the glass-ceiling effect. However, her passion for women's rights in employment went far deeper than any personal feelings that experience may have brought her.

While scathing on the subject of positive discrimination she was fiercely active in campaigning for equal pay for work of equal value. The Times said in 1972: "Baroness Seear is to Feminists as Marx is to Marxists . . . Her works, on equal pay and opportunities, are for ever either being quoted, looked up or written down . . ."

"I'm very cross," she would say, not looking so in the least, "that I am typecast with 'Women'. I am interested in a whole variety of things concerning the problems of work but because I hit upon research into women's problems, I look like being stuck with this tag." But she wasn't in any sense a chauvinist and had little sympathy with the more revolutionary aspects of Women's Lib. "Revolutions," she said, "always backfire, you always get much further by plodding on." Not that she plodded at all. Her life was a constant round of productive, if chaotic, activity throughout.

Always deeply interested and active in politics, she was a lifelong Liberal. She fought in every General Election from 1955 to 1970, in seats as widely scattered as Hornchurch, Truro, Epping, Wakefield and Rochdale, with a few lost deposits and no wins, but without her beliefs undermined or her energy diminished.

Greatly loved, if sometimes feared, in the Liberal Party where she was a formidable speaker at Party Assemblies, to the world in general she was not particularly well known. This was to change with her elevation to the peerage in 1971. She began to play a very active part in the proceedings of the House of Lords while continuing her involvement in a varied range of outside bodies; membership of the Top Salaries Review Body; the presidencies of the Institute of Personnel Management, the Fawcett Society, the British Standards Institute and the Liberal Party; the chairmanships of the National Councils of Carers and of Single Women. (Woe betide anyone who ever addressed her as "Chair".) To all she brought the same vigour, determination and understanding, underpinned by a formidable intellect.

In the House of Lords her advocacy, from the Liberal front bench, on employment and economic issues led to her becoming Chairman of a House of Lords Select Committee "to consider and make recommendations on long- term remedies for unemployment" which in 1981, under her guidance, produced a most significant Report.

On the death of Frank Byers in 1984 she was the obvious choice for election to the leadership of the Liberal Peers, a move that was welcomed across the whole political spectrum in the House.

By then she had become a most effective performer. Not only did she spend a considerable amount of time on the front bench listening to and intervening with devastating logic at Questions and in Committee, but when she rose to speak in debates her contributions were among the most listened to in all parts of the House. Her ability to deal with the most complex subjects with total clarity was made even more impressive by the fact that she was never ever known to use a single note. It was this picture that impressed the audiences when television was introduced into the Lords in 1985.

A firm supporter of the Liberal/SDP Alliance and of the merger to form the Liberal Democrats, she insisted on handing over the leadership to Roy Jenkins immediately on his joining the Lords in 1988. An act of selflessness of which Lord Jenkins said he knew no parallel in political life. She continued to spend a vast amount of time touring the country, speaking at party meetings and dinners, and on the hustings at election time when her insistence on covering the length and breadth of the country gave her friends real concern for her health and strength, but she was indefatigable. Those who saw it will have an abiding memory of her telling John Prescott when he tried to interrupt her on one television programme to "Shut up!" and he did.

If this gives the impression of a humourless bluestocking, nothing could be further from the truth. While her wardrobe was obviously of no interest whatsoever to her, she enjoyed her food and the occasional whisky when in London and her wine in France. She had a tremendous sense of fun, to the extent that her frontbench colleagues had more than once to persuade her to leave the chamber with tears of laughter streaming down her cheeks at some particularly ludicrous remark made from the benches opposite or when she was the recipient of one of Roy Jenkins's perceptive and pungent asides. But the great joy in her life was her splendidly uncared-for cottage near Bergerac where she adjourned each summer and Christmas with her friends and where she especially relished having breakfast in the garden on Christmas morning.

Beatrice Nancy Seear, sociologist and politician; born 7 August 1913; Reader in Personnel Management, London School of Economics 1946-78; created 1971 Baroness Seear; Liberal Leader, House of Lords 1984-88, Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader 1988-97; PC 1985; died London 23 April 1997.

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