Sir Robin Maxwell-Hyslop: Fearless MP who made life difficult for ministers with his energy and cussedness

Wednesday 20 January 2010 01:00

Robin Maxwell-Hyslop was a Parliamentary original. Ministers would be demented by his cussedness, whips would tear out their proverbial hair. In vain, because Maxwell-Hyslop never wanted anything from them, office or baubles. He insisted that the election of the Speaker was a matter for Parliament, and not for Prime Ministerial patronage. And single-handedly, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of procedure relating to complex amendments of motions – no MP had ever studied Erskine May as meticulously as he did – Maxwell-Hyslop forced Mrs Thatcher to renege on her promise of the chair of the House of Commons to Humphrey Atkins, and created the conditions for Jack Weatherill to become Speaker. Quite simply, and to my first-hand knowledge, had it not been for Maxwell-Hyslop's demonic energy and extraordinarily confident grasp of the rules of the House of Commons, Weatherill – who turned out to be one of the great Speakers – would never had been chosen.

If I dwell on one particular episode three weeks after his by-election victory in 1960 it is because it set the pattern for Maxwell-Hyslop's Commons sojourn – one cannot call it a career, as he was the least careerist politician imaginable. He once voted against a three-line whip from the Macmillan Government. He was summoned to the chief whip's office, where Lieutenant Colonel Sir Martin Redmayne pointedly ignored his presence. Hyslop plonked himself into one of the armchairs, picked up a newspaper and began to read it. Redmayne, spluttering with rage, said, "Hyslop, I hope you realise that it is within my power to make sure that you never become a minister!" To which Hyslop, still seated, responded, "Redmayne, I do not want to be a minister at all; all I want is that you show me some respect."

I doubt if any chief whip had ever been spoken to like that by a newcomer. From that moment on, Maxwell-Hyslop went his merry way, good mannered, ebullient, wonderfully irritating and cheerfully creating parliamentary mayhem. "Stubborn" would be too weak a word; even the Scots word "thrawn" is an inadequate description. He had no inhibitions about treading where other people were too shy or too decent to tread.

Robert Maxwell-Hyslop was born in Ivy Bridge, the son of Captain A. H. Maxwell-Hyslop, whose bravery was said to have saved HMS Devonshire in 1929 from explosions and who later became Captain of HMS Cumberland. It was always Maxwell-Hyslop's sadness that slightly defective eyesight prevented him from following his father. In July 1940 he was sent to relatives in Canada, where he attended Upper Canada College, which left him with a rather unreverential Canadian attitude to life. Returning to Britain in 1943 he was sent to Stowe, where he was taken under the wing of the great headmaster, J. F. Roxburgh.

He served his National Service with the Royal Artillery – in the Commons he frequently wore his gunner's tie to make the point of his interest in servicemen. After reading PPE at Christchurch, Oxford, he went to work for Rolls-Royce as a graduate apprentice and was chosen in 1958 as personal assistant to Sir David Huddie, Director and General Manager of the sales and service department. Asked by Phil Gilbert of the Rolls-Royce General Council in America what had induced him to leave the aero-engines division for a political career, he replied in poetry:

"Well are the rules of state craft learnt without the fingers being burned / and wise indeed, who ne'er contrives to alter other people's lives. / In strength the Commons daily grows in measure with the Country's woes; but legislation never can divert the natural hopes of man. / It were no sin to have a pride in that for which our fathers died, nor arrogant to call our own the land where Englishmen have sown / In love and sweat the healthy seeds which grow and satisfy our needs. / So when the threshing time is here, the wheat ear part from chaff keep clear; / and burn not faster than you build, less the fire you've lit / consume the future with the past 'ere you extinguish it."

In the 1959 General Election, Maxwell-Hyslop, working in Derby for Rolls-Royce, had the chance to contest Derby North, which he lost to the Labour MP, Group Captain Clifford Wilcock, by 22,673 votes to 20,266. But he was thought to have done so well that he won the safe Conservative seat at Tiverton in Devon in 1960.

Throughout his time in Parliament Maxwell-Hyslop specialised in trade and industry affairs. When I led the parliamentary delegation to Brazil in 1976, I agreed with his colleague Paul Bryan, a Conservative minister who had suffered from his questioning, that his knowledge of the infant Brazilian aircraft industry impressed our hosts and added weight to the delegation. He was very good with foreigners and a credit to the House of Commons abroad. He was also asked by a succession of Speakers to represent them at conferences on procedure in Commonwealth countries.

Maxwell-Hyslop had his adventures in Botswana; he addressed the parliament there on the Westminster rulebook and was getting the warmest of receptions. Suddenly his audience became furious and he couldn't understand why. Then it emerged that he had used the phrase about MPs "catching the speaker's eye". Unfortunately the speaker of the Botswana parliament had a glass eye which gave him trouble. The Botswana MPs thought that he was being highly offensive to their beloved speaker. After a few minutes misunderstandings were cleared up, everyone laughed uproariously and amity was restored.

At home, Maxwell-Hyslop could raise all sorts of hackles by his hostile questioning on the Trade and Industry Select Committee of which he was the longest-serving member ever, serving for 21 years between 1971 and 1992. He was well known for his ditties, which sometimes got into the wrong hands. In July 1986 he composed this verse: "Pot-bellied industries plc; what can they make, and which can they be? / Led by a minister, red-faced and bland, carry-plus-piles, with his head in the sand... / affable, fluent, secretive and able; just the right jockey to ride for that stable."

Maxwell-Hyslop's heaven was the Standing Orders committee of the House of Commons, on which he served from 1977 to 1992, and the Procedure Committee, on which he served from 1978 to 1992.

No one in Parliamentary history has occupied so much of the clerk's time. On the one hand they appreciated his genuine concern; on occasions, he could exasperate them. I will never forget the description by Sir Richard Barlas, one of the great clerks of the House of Commons, as to how he was asked by ministers to ask Maxwell-Hyslop to desist from putting down parliamentary questions about Jeremy Thorpe and events at Minehead Court, where he was accused of conspiracy to murder. This distinguished man knocked on the door of the back-benchers' room: "Maxwell-Hyslop proceeded to tear a strip off me for allowing myself, as an officer of the house, to be the pawn of the executive! I'd never been treated like it. My reaction was one between suppressed fury and admiration for his colossal brass neck," Barlas chuckled to me.

Robin Maxwell-Hyslop, with the devoted support of his wife Joanna, was never tainted with any soupçon of scandal. He was sea-green incorruptible. This was why he could be a hero to some, (and "some" includes me), and a pain in the backside to a large number of distinguished and important personages. Certainly the House of Commons post-1945 had never seen his like; I doubt if Parliament will ever see his like again.

Tam Dalyell

Robert (Robin) John Maxwell-Hyslop, politician: born Ivy Bridge 6 June 1931; educated at Upper Canada College, Stowe, Christchurch College Oxford; worked for Rolls Royce, 1954-60; Member of Parliament, Tiverton division of Devon, 1960-92; Member, Trade and Industry Select Committee, 1971-92, Standing Orders Committee of the Commons, 1977-92, Procedure Select Committee, 1978-1992; Kt 1992; married 1968 Joanna McCosh (two daughters); died 13 January 2010.

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