Obituary: Lord Houghton of Sowerby


Tam Dalyell
Thursday 02 May 1996 23:02

On the death of Hugh Gaitskell in January 1963, Harold Wilson, then Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, was elected Leader of the Labour Party - and in his place came Douglas Houghton. I was fascinated, as the newest member of the committee, by the genuine respect Houghton elicited from the civil service knights and dames (Mary Smieton and Evelyn Sharpe), accorded to him not simply as PAC chairman but on account of what the mandarins knew of his past. For some of them, Houghton had been a veritable institution of their own profession for over 40 years; for all the accounting officers of the 1960s, he was quelqu'un and far more than simply another politician. Houghton was the pioneer/creator of civil service trade unionism.

In his 1987 autobiography Time and Chance, James Callaghan observes that the measure of Houghton's leadership was that he gained the lifelong loyalty and admiration of the membership. "His contemporaries have cherished him all his life as an outstanding leader, who forged their union for them, and achieved conditions they could not have won without him."

Over an outstanding span of 38 years, from 1922 to 1960, Houghton was General Secretary of the Inland Revenue Staff Federation, which started life as the Association of Officers in Tax Offices (AOTO). This small, but remarkable, trade union managed to attract a 95 percent voluntary membership without the benefit of a closed shop; and despite the fact that its 10,000 members were scattered in 600 separate towns and offices the length and breadth of Britain. In the informed judgement of Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, who was at the age of 21 elected to the NEC of the union, "This was mainly due to the vigour and organisation ability of the General Secretary, Douglas Houghton, who was then a young man in his early thirties."

Houghton was an inspiration-al innovator, and continued to think constructively until his mid-nineties, as those of us who talked to him, padding around Westminster, can testify.

One of Houghton's inspirations was to fill the gap left by the failure of the Board of Inland Revenue to provide new recruits with any systematic instruction. He decided that a course should be prepared to enable newcomers to pass the qualifying examination for promotion, and with the voluntary aid of other members of the union, a course of tuition covering the syllabus was devised. Houghton then submitted the proposed course to the Inland Revenue Department; he received their informal blessing though they did not officially recommend it to new recruits.

Houghton's tuition course proved a useful bait to draw new members into the AOTO; even those who could find no other reason for belonging to a trade union understood this to be a positive attraction. For 15 shil-lings, the AOTO was ready to provide new recruits with a six-month correspondence course.

Houghton insisted on a written paper to answer, which arrived regularly once a fortnight, and the provision of a voluntary tutor, allocated to each student, drawn either from within the student's own office or from a nearby town. The dynamo behind this voluntary work was Houghton, and his passion for detailed care was such that the new recruits could hardly fail to pass the examination.

In the 1930s, the Civil Service was rigidly stratified. The clerical class was drawn from the secondary schools; the executive class from the sixth forms of the grammar schools, and the administrative class from the universities. Once a young person was tagged "clerical class", he or she could hardly, if ever, escape and improve themselves by internal means. So, in an age when for many families higher education was an impossible dream, there was a host of young people confined to the clerical class who were quite as able as those in the executive class - and, indeed, some university entrants.

Houghton perceived this situation, and rather than resort to posturing and ranting about the iniquities of the class system, tried to do something constructive about it. He persuaded the Board of Inland Revenue to hold an internal examination that would enable members of the clerical class to be promoted to the tax inspectorate. After much patient negotiation, believing that in life more flies were caught with honey than with vinegar, Houghton persuaded the Revenue to institute an examination from which 10 clerks a year would be selected for promotion.

This examination may seem proverbial small beer nowadays; it was the opening up of a chink in the rigid system of class stratification of the 1930s which, apart from all else, was to be so inefficient for the country. Houghton was a passionate believer that Britain - he was enormously patriotic - should be a land of equal opportunity. He also believed that the avenue to success should be kept open, and this was translated into staunch and committed support for Harold Wilson and Jenny Lee, when the Oxbridge cabinet members were faint-hearted and sceptical about the Open University.

Since I stayed in London within a stone's throw of Houghton's Westminster pied-a-terre, at Marsham Court, between 1970 and 1974, it was a pleasure for me to walk back with him after late-night votes, none of which, although he was in his mid-seventies, he thought he ought to miss as PLP Chairman. His father and mother, John and Martha, he described as orthodox, Victorian yeomen, for whom he had a lasting affection. At school, his headmaster was Frederick Attenborough, father of Richard and David Attenborough. What changed his life was the First World War, and, a fact to which he seldom referred, experience as a lad, barely turned 18, of the Battle of the Somme. From being a raw 16-year-old school leaver, and apprentice clerk in the local tax office, Houghton was catapulted into the trenches, as a Private in the Civil Service Rifles.

Albeit a man of vehement opinions, Houghton had the same attitude as Macmillan - since so many of all backgrounds had laid down their lives together, fellow countrymen were worthy of respect. Cheap abuse, so much the currency of modern politics, Houghton regarded with contempt, and he deprecated the behaviour of his own colleagues who indulged in it. "You know," Houghton would say in his gravelly voice, "once a lad has witnessed his teenage contemporaries massacred in Flanders, one really does think that one has some obligation to try and make the world a more `civilised' [one of Houghton's favourite words] place."

Forty-five years after Houghton was demobbed from the 60th Rifles, it was fitting that the Labour government of Wilson-Callaghan should appoint him to the Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life. For Houghton, one of the things that really mattered in life was Good Behaviour. High up in Houghton's pantheon of Bad Behaviour was being petty. Walking back one night, after a particularly frustrating meeting of the PLP, Houghton told me, "If like me you feel you are lucky to be alive, living on borrowed time after the carnage of the Somme, you can be forgiven for becoming impatient with pettiness among colleagues!"

It was not without thought that he chose as his motto on his coat of arms when he was made a life peer in 1974 "Bear no base mind". Nor was it an accident that his armorial supporters were badgers, and that the centre-piece should be a barn-owl statant. This reflected his abiding interest in animal welfare, and his vice-presidency of the RSPCA from1978 to 1982.

From 1941, Houghton had become a household name. In the days when the BBC Home Service was unchallenged, the Can I Help You? programme - partly because it certainly could help you - was followed by millions. Perhaps the most effec-tive contributor of all was Houghton. His knowledge of tax in particular, and the government machine in general, was encyclopaedic. It was also expressed with avuncular common sense, with something of a rasp. For Houghton a spade was a spade. The advice was sound. And it was not hectoring.

His period as an alderman on the LCC, from 1947 to 1949, forged a link with Herbert Morrison. Albeit Houghton was over 50, saw his life in the Trade Union Movement, and did not entertain parliamentary ambitions, it was Morrison who persuaded him that it was his duty to go forward in the Sowerby by-election. This had been the seat of John Belcher, Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade in the Attlee government, and in the wake of the Lynskey Tribunal into an episode of what by today's standards would be petty corruption (Belcher was accused of ministerial misbehaviour in relation to spivs and the black market), a candidate of national reputation was required to hold the seat, and Labour's hitherto unblemished record in by- elections.

That, after entering the House of Commons, Houghton became identified neither with the Bevanites nor the Gaitskellites, or any of the factions in the fractious Labour Party of the 1950s, is due to the fact that he spent the decade as a busy member of the General Council of the TUC. In addition to remaining General Secretary of the Inland Revenue Staff Federation, Houghton was in the pivotal position of Chairman of the Staff Side of the Civil Service National Whitley Council from 1956 to 1958, at a period of delicate tensions between the public sector and the Macmillan government.

When he embarked on his ministerial career Houghton was already 66 years old. Perhaps it was his immense skill at negotiation and compromise, or perhaps it was the fact that he was given the non-job of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, co-ordinating the Social Services, that gained Houghton the reputation of being an indecisive and uncomfortable minister. Besides, Anthony Crosland at Education, Dick Crossman at Housing, Peggy Herbison at Pensions and Kenneth Robinson at Health, directly responsible for major Departments of State, were hardly the easiest colleagues to co-ordinate. But it was precisely the skills developed over 40 years that made Houghton an outstanding PLP Chairman, at a time of inordinate party difficulty over Vietnam, Prices and Incomes, and In Place of Strife. Had the querulous and capricious Emmanuel Shinwell continued as PLP Chairman past 1967, there would have been chaos in the parliamentary ranks of the governing party.

It is difficult to identify anyone else who could have been so acceptable to the Left, the Trade Union Group, the Loyalists, and indeed the Cabinet itself from which Wilson had gently sacked him at the age of 69. Gruff and pugnacious, Houghton was a broker par excellence. It was a measure of his success that it occurred to no one to challenge him, between November 1970 and February 1974, when it was his task to help Labour in Opposition ride the colossal tensions generated by Ted Heath's entry into the EEC. No septugenarian ever rendered more service to his political party. Devoid of vanity, Houghton had a wry, peppery, funny, self-deprecating humour that defused many an ugly situation, though chairing the PLP in fraught circumstances, at the age of 75, risked in one of his favourite phrases "driving this ancient war-horse to apoplexy".

An Indian summer, which lasted for 20 years, began in 1974, when Houghton was created a life peer. "I am free as a bird to pursue the issues that I care about." And those issues included the Reform of the Constitution, Population and Development, the House of Lords Industry Study Group, Commonwealth Scholarships, and Teacher's Pay, on which he chaired the 1974 inquiry.

But two issues, in particular, dominated the evening of Houghton's life, and both were close to the heart of his wife, the truly formidable Vera Travis - animal welfare and abortion law reform. No vice-president of the RSPCA was more active, and no abortion law reformer more vigilant.

In 1986, when those of his contemporaries still alive were over eighty, more than 60 of them gathered in the House of Lords to pay tribute to Houghton. Understandably.

One of my lasting memories of Douglas Houghton was in the House of Lords, listening to the silver voice of his supporter, the distinguished law lord Lord Templeman at 10pm on Wednesday 27 March this year, then seeing him stagger to his feet, shielded by the caring arms of Lord Graham of Edmonton, to make the final speech on the Dogs Bill which was so dear to his heart. Even in his 98th year he was a crusader for the causes he believed in.

Arthur Leslie Noel Douglas Houghton, politician: born Long Eaton, Derbyshire 11 August 1898; Secretary, Inland Revenue Staff Federation 1922-60; Alderman, London County Council 1947-49; Member of Parliament (Labour) for Sowerby 1949-74; member, General Council, TUC 1952-60; Chairman, Staff Side, Civil Service National Whitley Council 1956-58; Chairman, Public Accounts Committee 1963-64; PC 1964; Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 1964-66; Minister With- out Portfolio 1966-67; CH 1967; Chairman, Parliamentary Labour Party 1967-70, 1970-74; created 1974 Baron Houghton of Sowerby; married 1939 Vera Travis; died Caterham, Surrey 2 May 1996.

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