Obituary: Lord Margadale

Patrick Cosgrave
Thursday 30 May 1996 00:02

"He's nothing like as nice as he looks," said a Tory backbencher whose arm had been savagely (though unsuccessfully) twisted by John Morrison, the future Lord Margadale. It was 1963, and Morrison was attempting to persuade him to record a preference for Lord Home over R.A. Butler to succeed Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister.

Iain Macleod was to make the same point years later in the Spectator about the skulduggery organised by three men - Macmillan himself, Morrison, and Martin Redmayne, the Government Chief Whip - to deny to Butler a leadership which would certainly have been his had there been an open election for the succession.

These three were the centre of a small group which Macleod dubbed "the Magic Circle", though Home, admirably qualified by ancestry and class for membership of the circle, took no part in the somewhat tawdry intrigues which made him Prime Minister. The fundamental principle of the circle in 1963, during the battle for the leadership - and it was a principle, not merely a selfish ploy - was that only people of their own background, social and educational, were fitted to rule the country, and that the Conservative Party in general, whether the party in the country, or in the House of Commons, should have no, or little, choice in the question of whom should be Prime Minister.

The tragedy of their position was that, after Home's general election defeat in 1964, they were swept aside, simply because public and parliamentary opinion alike, decided that the Tory leadership should never again be decided by a small group, but that there must, hereinafter, be an election for the leadership. In 1964 Morrison accepted, on the recommendation of Alec Douglas-Home - as the defeated Prime Minister had now become - an hereditary peerage. It was a recognition that his time had passed.

It must, however, be mentioned - and mentioned in his honour - that Margadale had one view from which, in his political life, he never varied, save on one occasion. The rule was that the only way of serving the interests of the nation was to sustain a Conservative government. It did not matter much to him which kind of Conservative government was sustained; it had to be Conservative. This, on his part, was an instinctive feeling, not one worked out rationally. But, given that his personality was, by turns, charming and brutal, he was a very effective instrument for prime ministers from Eden to Home, all of whom knew that he would give them first-class information on the popular feeling - as expressed through Members of Parliament - about ministers, but never about prime ministers themselves. He had an almost sacerdotal view of office, and the holder of the office could rely upon him.

Margadale's political position - one might even say his political power - depended on three things. The first was his immense personal wealth, accumulated over three generations. The second was his total lack of interest in ministerial office. The third was his simple conviction that, in politics, that what he felt was right. To try to understand him one must understand his attitude to his family background.

John Grenville Morrison was born to wealth, and to a certain, and somewhat lavish, style of life. He was sent to Eton, where he proved to be less interested in academic matters than was thought appropriate by his teachers. Thence he went to Cambridge, where, in spite of every influence exerted by his family, he could not be helped to a degree. He spent far too much time on sport, and far too much of his allowance on fox-hunting.

Then came the Second World War. Morrison, who had gone to fight in North Africa with a horse and groom, found himself recalled, at the singular behest of Churchill, to be the Conservative candidate for Salisbury. He made - in uniform - his maiden speech in the House of Commons, bewailing the conditions in which his troops lived. It was the only controversial speech of his political life, for it expressed a view of the conduct of the war which was antithetical to the views of the Government of the day. It showed a simplicity, and honesty, about Morrison which was in his nature, but which he was never after to display.

He did many things outside politics. He was a great Master of Hounds. He - when he became interested - saw a beautiful horse and decided to breed horses; they won some difficult races, or fared well in them. He reorganised the Jockey Club, so that ordinary punters could have a decent say in how races were run. He enjoyed political influence - and never sought political power, as a Minister of the Crown.

The paradox about this extraordinary man is that he was at once bluff countryman, efficient farmer, and effective Chairman of the 1922 Committee. In the end, one has to say that John Margadale found himself enjoying his estates, at Fonthill, in Wiltshire, and on the island of Islay, in Scotland, more than he had enjoyed his days of power and influence, but that he nevertheless enjoyed the influence. As John Biffen once, in his typically quiet, and ironic, way, said to me: "Do you think that John will enjoy it in the Lords, without any power?"

Patrick Cosgrave

John Granville Morrison, politician: born 16 December 1906; MP (Conservative) for Salisbury 1942-64; Chairman, 1922 Committee 1955-64; created 1964 Baron Margadale; Lord- Lieutenant of Wiltshire 1969-81; married 1928 The Hon Margaret Smith (died 1980; two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died 25 May 1996.

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