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Obituaries Sir Charles Irving

Monday 03 April 1995 00:02 BST

Charles Irving, the former MP, was the most splendid of company. He was a dedicated gossip, never mind whether the gossip was wholly true or not. He was, in an avuncular way, a friend to all. He was inclined to turn every exchange into a joke as, for example, in his riposte to Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman when she sought to interrupt him in the House of Commons: "If you were the only girl in the world, And I were the only boy- I would not give way to you."

On the other hand, he was a man of prodigious (and efficient) industry. He put his name, and his management skills, at the disposal of any number of good causes, particularly to that of the refurbishment (financial as well as physical) of the catering facilities of the House of Commons. "Ah," said a colleague when, as Chairman of the Commons Catering Committee, he first turned in a profit on the operations of the non- parliamentary activities, "but you've only done what Maxwell did". The remark was not seriously meant, but it was seriously taken. "Maxwell was a thief and a liar," Irving exploded. "Are you saying I'm either?" His allusion was to the exceptionally "creative" accounting methods Robert Maxwell used to balance the committee's books when he was chairman: they included selling all the fine wines stocked over the years by the committee - to himself, at a price which it would be exceptionally polite to call advantageous.

The lineaments of Charles Irving's adult character can readily be discerned in his family background. His mother was an actress and an extrovert with a passion for popular and worthy causes: she took the 13-year-old Charles to join a picket outside Gloucester prison to protest against capital punishment in general, and the impending fate of a then inmate in particular. Charles's father was a much quieter soul, revelling in business administration and, in particular, in the development of the original Irving Hotel into a chain of agreeable hostelries.

Charles Irving was miserable at both his schools, Glengarth, in Cheltenham, and Lucton, in Hereford. He evinced no academic bent and when he tried to join the Army he was turned down on the grounds of being insufficiently robust. He tried the Home Guard, but was a good deal less than successful in those ranks, the highlight of his career being the accidental stabbing of a colleague in the hindquarters with a bayonet. It was with relief as well as pleasure that he turned to the family business: he became chairman in 1949.

He also threw himself into local politics. He was elected to the Cheltenham Borough Council in 1947, and to the Gloucestershire County Council the following year. He did two stints as local mayor, in 1958 and 1971. The friendships and alliances he formed over 30 years served him well in the general election of October 1974, when he succeeded the retiring member, Douglas Dodds-Parker.

Local government had begun to pall, and Irving had hankered after a role on the national stage. He made two unsuccessful attempts (in admittedly unwinnable seats) before success came his way at Cheltenham. Once in the House, however, his zeal proved inexhaustible, his range of interests manifold, and his independence of mind formidable. He was a founder member of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, and of the National Victims' Association. He campaigned tirelessly for the improvement of conditions within prisons; he campaigned too against cuts in the National Health Service, for greater provision for the homeless and the mentally ill.

More spectacularly, he rebelled against the Government's decision to de-unionise GCHQ, which was in his constituency, and it was said that the only subject on which he and Margaret Thatcher agreed was Europe, he being the most profound of Eurosceptics. He was, in the most amiable sense, a Little Englander. When he became chairman of the Catering Committee, he insisted that all menus be printed solely in English, that French mineral water should be banished, and that wholesome English fare should predominate. With all this went a vast expansion of the House of Commons kiosk service, including the provision (which delighted him) of Commons humbug and Commons fudge.

Yet this seemingly hyperactive man liked nothing better than to curl up with a thriller and a large cigar. He claimed - this Caesar of committees and St George of the disadvantaged - to be too shy to propose marriage, though he enjoyed a warm, Platonic friendship with Dame Janet Fookes for many years.

In 1992 Irving decided that he had had enough of the House of Commons, with which institution he had become deeply disillusioned. He retired to his own concerns, leaving behind him a feeling that a lamp had gone out, that mirth was diminished, and that a different breed of politician had taken over.

Patrick Cosgrave

Charles Graham Irving, politician: born 6 May 1923; Mayor of Cheltenham 1958-60, 1971-72; MP (Conservative) for Cheltenham 1974-92; Chairman, Select Committee on Catering 1979-92; Chairman, All Party Mental Health Committee 1979-92; Kt 1990; died 30 March 1995.

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