Obituary: Sir Ian Percival

Patrick Cosgrave
Monday 06 April 1998 23:02

IN 1970 the fledgling government of Edward Heath, already confronted by a multitude of problems, found itself confronted by one particular problem for which its assiduity while in opposition had not prepared it. This was the attempted hijacking of a passenger airline en route from Cairo to London by a group of Palestinian terrorists led by an attractive-looking young woman, Lelia Khaled.

The terrorists were apprehended on board the plane, which safely landed. The Prime Minister's natural and immediate instinct was to prosecute them. His difficulty was, however, compounded by the almost simultaneous hijacking of another passenger plane in Jordan. This was successful; and the passengers were held hostage. In spite of the danger to the lives of the hostages, Heath's courageous inclination was to go ahead with the prosecution of Khaled and her associates. A few days later it was announced that the hostages would be released and that Khaled and her accomplices would be deported.

Heath's action was widely denounced as a surrender to terrorism, most forcefully by Enoch Powell. In fact, the situation was far trickier than was publicly assumed. The Attorney General, Sir Peter Rawlinson, advised the Prime Minister that, since the Khaled adventure had taken place outside British airspace, any prosecution would certainly fail. The PM turned to the Chairman of the Conservative Party's backbench Legal Affairs Committee, Ian Percival. Percival gave the same advice as had Rawlinson. Heath then played a difficult card with admirable finesse. He allowed the Arab forces concerned to believe that he would exchange Khaled for the hostages trapped in the Middle East, without letting them know that any legal action against Khaled would not succeed. She was deported and the hostages were released.

Ian Percival's advice was all the more important because of his standing as a prominent right-wing Conservative, a supporter of capital punishment (he was a stout opponent of the abolition of the dealth penalty in 1967) and a staunch opponent of terrorism. But he was also, to the point of being pedantic, a stickler for the application of the letter of the law, a characteristic which was amply demonstrated during the only period when he held office, as Solicitor General, between 1979 and 1983.

Ian Percival was educated at Latymer Upper School and St Catharine's College Cambridge. From his youth - and well into his later years - he was an enthusiastic sportsman, his particular interests being skiing and golf. During the Second World War he fought in North Africa and Burma, rising to the rank of major. The Burmese experience gave him a particular interest in the Far East.

Percival was first elected to the House of Commons, for Southport, in 1959 and held the seat until his retirement in 1987. He was regarded by his parliamentary colleagues - not altogether unfairly - as a slightly curmudgeonly figure. But the real truth is that his sternness, and sometimes irascibility, of temperament demonstrated a fundamental devotion to the absolute principles by which he lived. As a politician Ian Percival was no trimmer and this, perhaps, retarded his prospects of ministerial advancement.

Unquestionably, he was disappointed by being passed over for office in the government reshuffle which followed Margaret Thatcher's electoral triumph in 1983. If his heart was set on any office it was that of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Indeed, some of his friends and acquaintances - myself included - believed that he should have had that office in 1979: there was a good deal of amazement when Humphrey Atkins was preferred. The union with Ulster was one of his main causes in public life and he would, I believe, have made a resounding success of the job.

However, although hope flickered when he was made a Privy Counsellor in 1983, it was not to be. Thereafter it was his role in Parliament to pursue his own particular interests. Most notably, he came to public attention in 1984. In that year the IRA bombing in Brighton killed five people. Percival, recognising that capital punishment could not be fully restored, moved a Bill to restore it for terrorist offences only. At the time I taxed him with what, I thought, people would see as a contradiction between his 1984 attitude and that he took during the Khaled affair. There was no contradiction, he assured me. "In 1979 I was supporting the law. In 1984 I propose to change it."

Percival had other activities to pursue, even after he had left Parliament. In 1994 there was a disastrous explosion at a chemical factor in Bhopal, India. Moves were immediately begun to erect a hospital in the area, initially to care for the surviving victims of the explosion but, eventually, to look after all of the local inhabitants. Percival's Far Eastern concerns, born in Burma, came to the fore of his life, and he proved to be a formidably energetic fund-raiser. The hospital will now certainly be completed. Alas, that most energetic of campaigners, Ian Percival, had not lived to see it.

Patrick Cosgrave

Ian Percival, barrister and politician: born 11 May 1921; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1948; MP (Conservative) for Southport 1959-87; QC 1963; Secretary, Conservative Party Legal Committee 1964-68, Vice-Chairman 1968-70, Chairman 1970-74, 1983-87; Recorder 1971-98; Solicitor-General 1979-83; Kt 1979; PC 1983; married 1942 Madeline Cooke (one son, one daughter); died Tenterden, Kent 4 April 1998.

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