The 'dotty peer' who cared more for the despised than for his own dignity
When he was approached, at the tender age of 92, about writing a regular column in this newspaper, Frank Longford was delighted. "I haven't had a job since I resigned from the Labour government in 1968", he told me. "How much do you think they will pay me?"
He was almost blind at the time and, after falling over and knocking himself out near his country home at Hurst Green in Sussex, had been forced, reluctantly, to use a stick. Yet the effects of ageing were minor inconveniences to this redoubtable, always youthful and seemingly immortal man. A successful Labour politician who spent a record 22 years on the front bench in the House of Lords, held junior office under Clement Attlee in the 1940s and later sat in Harold Wilson's cabinets, Longford could, when he resigned over the failure to implement an election pledge to increase the school leaving age to 16, have rested on his laurels, written his memoirs and taken pride in his large and talented family. But he was not a conventional politician and retirement gave him the freedom to take up the unpopular cause that had always been closest to his heart without fear of damaging his party.
Longford continued until almost the bitter end to travel the country, visiting prisoners who wrote to him seeking his help. He saw the abandoned, marginalised and despised in jails up and down the country. Though the tabloids liked to portray him as a man who got a kick out of contact with infamous killers, sucb "names" made up only one per cent of those Longford journeyed to see.
In the late 1980s, to quote just one example, he was contacted by the solicitor for a young Dutch man, convicted of a drugs offence, sent to Albany Prison on the Isle of Wight, suffering from the effects of Aids and cut off by his family. Longford was the only person to visit this dying man, a noble gesture much appreciated by its recipient and repeated many times over in countless episodes that never made headlines but which brought succour and relief to needy individuals.
As well as visiting offenders. Longford initiated practical measures to ease their reintegration back into society on release. In this, he was the most persistent prison reformer of this century in this country and history may well judge him both prophetic in the issues he raised and cruelly undervalued in his lifetime. He founded the New Bridge in 1955, the first organisation dedicated to the welfare of ex-prisoners. In 1970, he established in New Horizon the first drop-in centre for homeless teenagers. an antidote to the drift into a life of crime on the streets of London. Until the end he would regularly go and spend time at New Horizon's offices, talking to its users, oblivious to their sometimes rough teasing and torments, anxious only to understand what it was that had alienated them from mainstream society.
Longford also contributed a series of learned reports on penal reform, completed during Labour's period out of office between Attlee and Wilson. He chaired the committee which in 1963 recommended the setting up of the parole system. When Labour was returned to power the next year, the report was acted upon and remains the bedrock of the current system. In retirement, however, he became something of a national figure of fun. The reason was two very particular campaigns that he espoused at the cost of distracting public attention away from the greater goal of prison reform. The two crusades made Frank Longford a household name but they were an odd combination. The first, launched in the early 1970s to the delight of satirists, aimed to outlaw pornography and presented Longford as a prurient reactionary and a shameless hypocrite touring the very sex clubs that he wanted to close down.
The second, which continued for the last three decades of his life, attempted to win parole for the Moors Murderess, Myra Hindley. Here Longford was at his most liberal, Christian and hopeful arguing that Hindley could be rehabilitated if only society was prepared to forgive. It was a deeply unpopular position but it was, equally, an entirely logic offshot of his belief that all offenders, no matter how heinous their crimes, were capable of reform and redemption. Of the two campaigns, it was his lonely and unflinching battle to help Hindley that revealed the true Frank Longford. The pornography escapade wa.s an aberration, embarked upon against the advice of old friends and under the influence of Mary Whitehouse and anti-libertarians. From the day his report came out Longford rarely if ever returned to the subject.
It was not only his appearance with noble cranium and mad scientist's tonsure that set Frank Longford apart from his colleagues in government. Though a committed member of the Labour Party and a regular attender at PLP meetings and the annual conference well into his 90s, he saw politics less as a career or an electoral gamble and more as part of a moral crusade, where conscience came before party loyalty and the heart before the head.
Such a stance was rare in Westminster in the second half of the twentieth century, belonging more to the philanthropic tradition of such figures as William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury. And in many senses Frank Longford was a nineteenth-century figure. struggling, often with a healthy dose of humour, to deal with the problem of being born too late. Like Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, his was a privileged upbringing. Like them he was a devout Christian who was determined to translate faith into action. And like them he was an odd and unpredictable combination of political savvy and child-like clear-sightedness as he attempted to win over a hostile Establishment and instigate far-reaching social reform.
The essential difference between the three, however, was that while Wilberforce reformed the slave trade and Shaftesbury the factories, Frank Longford only aspired to alter the penal system. His failure could not be put down only to the changed climate of the twentieth century. His own character played a part. Never one to see through the details of a concerted campaign, never one to push and cajole friends to a cause that many of his cabinet colleagues regarded indulgently as "Frank's hobby". he was too much the individualist, too fond of argument for argument's sake — a lasting effect of his time in the 1930s as an Oxford politics don — and ultimately too lightweight in the corridors of Whitehall to carry the day.
It had all been very different when he entered Parliament, the younger son of an Anglo-Irish adstocrat. Clement Attlee admired Longford's passion for society's outcasts and tried — often against the advice of colleagues — to harness it. In the 1945 Labour landslide Longford — then Frank Pakenham — stood for Oxford but was defeated by Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham. Attlee was persuaded after the election by Longford's friends to elevate him to the peerage and bring to the sparsely-populated Labour benches in the Lords a youthful thinker who had been Sir William Beveridge's right-hand man on his landmark war-time report on the welfare state.
Longford was tempted to decline Attlee's offer and wait for a byelection to enter the Commons, but feared that any career there was doomed. His childless elder brother was in poor health and it was therefore inevitable that one day soon he would inherit the family titles as Earl of Longford with a seat in the Lords. To take up Attlee's suggestion was, in these days before disclaiming titles was possible, only a matter of anticipating events.
Initially, he won rapid promotion. In 1947 Attlee gave him a sensitive task, well-suited to his delicate conscience. He made him, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, responsible for the British zone of occupied Germany. It was, senior Labour figures like Denis Healey and Michael Foot were later to argue, Longford's finest hour as a minister. For a year, he worked tirelessly to stop the defeated and dispirited Germans starving to death. He reopened schools and hospitals and worked with his American and French counterparts on the currency reform that would later bring economic and political stability to West Germany.
Longford fought the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, for a reappraisal of the industrial dismanding of the occupied zone under the reparations policy, but Bevin refused him, clinging to the hope that the war-time allies could work together in Germany. On the ground Longford saw sooner than his superior that co-operation with the Russians was impossible and that partition was inevitable. Konrad Adenauer, the founding father of West Germany, came to regard Longford as his people's one true friend in London.
Such a tribute — often repeated by Adenauer — was prompted perhaps by Longford's over-optimistic avowal to his German subjects that the British had forgiven them their war-time excesses. His remarks about the plight of the Germans and his own personal response to it were picked up by journalists who ran such headlines as: "Conditions in British zone appalling. Pakenham prays for Germans".
They caused a storm of outrage in a country still suffering rationing. Longford was becoming an embarrassment to the government. Attlee was persuaded to move him sideways to the Ministry of Civil Aviation where, despite his affectation of incompetence with anything technical or bureaucratic, he proved a successful minister, save for the mishandling of the report from a crash enquiry that almost cost him his job. Attlee stuck by him and later raised him to First Lord of the Admiralty, just outside the cabinet.
In opposition after 1951, Hugh Gaitskell, who had shared rooms with Longford at Oxford and referred to him as his "oldest friend", kept him at the centre of Labour affairs even when he took on a day-job as the chairman of a City clearing bank. The appointment caused some raised eyebrows in the Square Mile where the former Labour minister was blackballed from at least one financiers' club.
After Gaitskell's death in 1963, however, Harold Wilson had no time for such an unpredictable figure. Though included in the 1964 Cabinet as Leader of the Lords, Longford knew he was only there as a sop to the Gaitskellites. Wilson treated him with personal kindness but professional contempt. He once remarked that Longford — who got a double first at Oxford — had a mental age of 11.
i th Elizabeth Harman, whom he married in 1931, Longford
found the emotional warmth and love that had been denied him as a child by a difficult and often cruel mother. Sent away to school at an early age and made painfully aware of his insignificance in her eyes next to his elder brother, Longford only recovered a sense of self-esteem while at Oxford. At a summer ball, he was asleep on a couch when spotted by Elizabeth, one of the most beautiful and sought-after undergraduates of her generation, the object of proposals of marriage from Gaitskell and Maurice Bowra.
"The face was of monumental beauty," she later wrote, " as if some Graeco-Roman statue...had been dressed up in modern clothes". It was not fireworks at once, but two years later, when they were both lecturing for the Workers Educational Association in Stoke at the height of the 1930s depression, love blossomed.
It was Elizabeth, a great-niece of Joseph Chamberlain, who convinced Longford to put aside his worries about Labour's economic policies and join the party. In return, having been converted to Catholicism while at Oxford by the Jesuit Father Martin D'Arcy, Longford persuaded his wife to join him in the Church of Rome. He found great strength in the moral certainties of Catholicism, and his abhorrence of sin was counterbalanced by a corresponding love of sinners.
The Longfords' was an extraordinarily happy marriage, touched by tragedy with the death in 1969 of their daughter Catherine in a car crash. With friends and family, Frank Longford's razor-sharp wit could flourish, while in public he felt he had to restrain it in the interests of being a better Christian. All the best stories about his eccentricity — and there were many — were first told, and no doubt embellished, by Frank himself.
Myra Hindley became part of his extended family, the large group of writers, politicians and activists who satisfied his continuing need to be in touch with what was going on in the world. Such consultations would usually take place over lunch at the House of Lords. I saw him there not so long ago. He was a man I respected deeply and loved like a favourite uncle.
Though he was convinced that Hindley would one day be his guest there, he died with that wish
— Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford's authorised biography of Lord Longford is published in paperback by Mandarin.