Body, Richard (1 of 1). The History of Parliament Oral History Project
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Interviewee's home, near Reading
Richard, Body, 1927- (speaker, male)
Greenwood, Mike, 1959- (speaker, male)
Part 1: Early life –grew up locally in countryside. Father was a good horseman. Describes country childhood [01.00]. Parents not rich but had high standard of living-father was a cavalryman in the Life Guards –hunted a lot. Horses and grooms were paid for by the army. Privileged way of life –describes the house his parents had bought for £2000. Father had fought in the First World War in the Middle East, and fought in the Desert again in WW2 in his fifties [04.20]. Sent back to England by Wavell and was demoted to Major. Mother was an ambulance driver in the Blitz. When war broke out the house had to be sold and all the animals were shot –hated it! [05.50]. His father was anti-politics but they talked endlessly at home about the coming war and how it might be avoided. He became politically-minded and decided then (aged 12 or 13) that he would become an MP [07.10]. Realised that politics was v important. Knew that his wonderful way of life would come to an end. His father had been pro-German – impressed by them from his wartime experiences (“they always treated their animals well –unlike the French or Italians” [09.10]. Father thought Hitler was a remarkable man in some ways - describes rise of Nazi party [11.00]. They realised that they would have to fight him some time before the war broke out. [13.32] He felt v patriotic –not nationalistic. Became convinced of the importance of politics –more than being a soldier or doctor. Aged 16 he told his father he wanted to be a Barrister –he could combine that with being an MP [15.50]. Served in RAF for three years; on release, aged 21, he went to Conservative Central Office and said he wanted to be an MP. Was told to wait twenty years. He had a place at Cambridge but didn’t take it up in order to pursue a candidacy. Rebuffed by Central Office, he approached the agent in Rotherham (where the Tory candidate had resigned). Invited to meet committee –was chosen for his energy and determination, aged 21 [18.00]. Used to attend political meetings as a young man and at school. Played truant to speak at Hyde Park –v. precocious at 16. Spoke at Open Air meetings for Society of Individualists –anti-socialist, pro-free enterprise. Awful row for playing truant –punishment was to write a political essay. House Master was a big influence. [21.00] His own politics were set from the start as a conservative-founded Reading Young Conservatives. 1943 helped with Chippenham by-election during school holidays [22.00]. Stood in school election; organised a campaign. One of his opponents was John Lee (subsequently also an MP and lifelong friend). [23.50] Had read Disraeli’s speeches –impressed him and confirmed his beliefs. [25.20] Describes service in RAF in India at end of the Raj. He was impressed by what the British had achieved in India –describes family connections with India. By then the Empire was a burden to us [27.00] (Interview interrupted at this point by jet plane flying overhead) Selected for Rotherham –nursed the seat v hard whilst studying for Bar Exams. Steel Nationalisation was key issue in constituency –describes the way that miners and steelworkers in Rotherham did not mix [29.40] with different attitudes and cultures. Austere times –rationing and regulations. It was easy to criticise Labour Government. Conservative party was different then –v patriotic [31.45]. Describes election –didn’t canvass, used loudspeaker car, held 2 meetings a night –well attended and challenging –good fun. Electioneering had more meaning on the ground –didn’t cost millions of pounds; no television then. The candidate mattered. He had learnt to make a good speech from street corner meetings –a good discipline [35.40]. He reduced the Labour majority-got the credit for it. Stood a few months later in a South Wales by-election (Abertillery). First Tory candidate ever to save his deposit. Describes election –“I had a few stunts” – stage-managed a friend to heckle him so he could give clever replies [38.30]. Talks about how to make use of a loudspeaker van. Party was now pushing his name to constituencies. Fought a third by-election the next year (1951) at Leek. Disappointed not to win. Describes the constituency. Continued to be put forward for seats. Eventually became candidate for Billericay. Meanwhile he was a practising Barrister, not earning much and supplementing income with law lecturing and writing articles for professional journals [44.30]. Would stay with parents when campaigning. You could get by then on a modest income but there were some dark moments – had to stay in a Salvation Army Hostel [46.30]. Describes life in the dormitories. Got a grant from the government to get by. He had been alright financially until after standing for Leek –the election had cost him money –buying rounds of drinks, travelling; no party funds available [49.30] and he was hard-up. Leek local party helped him –he stayed with local party officials. Went to monthly meetings of Association of Adopted Candidates –met the future Prime Ministers –Home, Heath, Thatcher. Describes meeting with Thatcher. Stood for London County Council at Deptford –Thatcher helped him by speaking –earnest and intelligent [52.40]. Joined several Dining Clubs –e.g. Bonar Law club to meet other candidates, and the United and Cecil Club –very influential and people would help you. They held drinks parties and dinners –networking. [54.50] Legal career –didn’t like the Law but needed a living and thought it would help his political ambitions –didn’t work out like that. When elected he had got into a good and busy set of Chambers and the work conflicted with his parliamentary commitments –got into trouble for missing votes [55.30]. He didn’t have a “pair” in the pairing system. Whips complained about his poor voting record due to his presence in Court. Could also miss party Committee meetings and Question Time. Realised early on he couldn’t mix the Bar (“low grade knock-about work”) with Parliament. Describes finally winning a seat –he beat two women for the candidacy in Billericay. He had failed to get the candidacy in the Paddington seat. 1955 Election campaign. He had some knowledge of the constituency –he had founded the East London Poor Man’s lawyer Association. Set up offices in the constituency – a foothold for him. This coincided with the start of the practice of MPs holding surgeries –his experience helped him. Describes another “dodge” during the campaign - getting a friend to dress like him and play records of his speeches whilst he was campaigning in another area, in order to cover the large constituency [1.04.30]. His co-conspirator became a High Court Judge. Billericay was a new seat –population was growing fast. Won with a majority of 4000. Describes subsequent boundary changes to constituency. Talks about old dockers who used to retire to a shack and a smallholding –fiercely independent, refused social security supplements –a vanishing breed; v conservative in a “John Bull-ish” way [1.08.55]. The new town has since smothered that community. Describes his opponent –Brian Clapham (a Barrister) –idealistic –campaigned on anti-H Bomb issue and didn’t do well. [1.11.00] Recalls Election night –didn’t believe that Billericay would manage to be the first to call the results that night –so went to bed. Decribes lengths Returning Officer went to to be first to call. Had a hunch that he needed to get to the Count after all –got there just in time for the results [1.13.30 plane interrupts interview, anecdote is repeated]. Had to make a speech; the first MP to be announced on live TV [1.16.00]. Impressions of Westminster –overawed by it. Had only been into the House once as a schoolboy. [1.18.30] Something historical, a great honour- MPs were looked up to then, they were different in important ways – [1.20.10 interview interrupted again by plane noise; question is repeated] Jack Weatherall anecdote about MPs wanting more and more to be a Minister –not always like that, because many Members came to the House in later life, having had other careers. Some couldn’t afford to be Ministers. People were more content to be simply a Member –worthwhile public service [1.22.35] Public Service ethos gave way to self service. 1955 there were still a number of aristocratic younger sons who were expected to do public work. Salary was negligible went up from £600 to £1000, out of which you had to pay for secretary, postage, phone. Not easy for professional politicians to survive [1.24.30]. He was quite well off from his other legal career by then. Bought his farm out of a single year’s income. Bernard Braine was an ally who took him in hand and showed him around; introduced him to Clement Attlee. Relations between parties were v good –there were friendships across the floor of the House. Describes the Dress of Attlee and the traditional attire of MPs (Black coats, striped pants and gold watch chains). Socialist intellectuals like Crosland were out of step (“brown shoes”). Tells story about Keith Joseph being given dress advice –a waist coat was de rigueur. Story about an MP being derided for having no waist coat and having jacket unbuttoned (“yellow braces!”) [1.31.35]. Keeping up standards. Geography of the building –Dining Rooms downstairs could be hired by Members –nowadays they are frequently used by Pressure Groups –which didn’t exist then. Traditionally the Tea Room used to be used by Labour, and the Smoking Room by Conservative –but it was even more complicated, with different factions e.g. the “Bevinite corner” of the Smoking Room 1.35.00. Anecdote about Heath, as a Whip, being sent into Smoking Room to investigate a row in the Smoking Room between Churchill and Bevin about the relative importance of the Reformation and the Civil War [1.37.00] –you don’t get that kind of argument now. He got involved in issues of Crime and Divorce through his contact with the Probation Service. Maiden speech was about Premium Bonds –sat next to Keith Joseph making his Maiden speech on same subject; both v nervous [1.40.10]. Spoke a lot in the Commons –remained nervous to the end. Advised to speak on Fridays –less formal. Colleagues recognised that he knew his subject. Depended on colleagues to learn the ropes. Advice from Whips was limited, Clerks were helpful and v pro Parliament. Mentions some key political figures at the time –Peter Thorneycroft, Alan Lennox Boyd, Macmillan, RAB Butler, Doulton, Bevan (“a shadow of himself, drinking more and losing heart”). Admired Macmillan (“a genius”) who spent much of his time in the Commons and listened to everyone. Brought party together [1.48.20]. Contemporaries included Thatcher –later he worked hard to make her PM. Heath was “a strange man”. [1.50.15] Recounts a story by a parson (John Raven) about how his sister was engaged to Heath but was forced to break it off by her father. Heath fired by ambition to prove himself –became very competitive. Conservative party changed with Heath, who disdained people who were not ambitious. He (Body) never wanted to be a Minister, but loved Politics [1.53.45]. 1959 Realised he couldn’t carry on with two careers –one had to go. Decided to stay at the Bar, earn a lot and then come back into Parliament later [1.55.00]. Risky thing to do. Also had some bother with constituency over his opposition to Hanging –based on his experience in Court. Suggested Capital Punishment should be suspended for 5 years. Stood down at the next Election. Bought his house and a farm from his legal earnings. Worked v hard. When he thought he could afford to give up the Bar he went back to Central Office –pleased to see him-and got back on Candidates list. Re-entered Parliament in 1966 for Holland and Boston [1.59.25]. Saw that Parliament had changed in the meantime- not many people had been in the War by then; more ambitious people, better pay (now over £3000 -as MP for Billericay his salary had been £1000 plus two guineas a night for every day the House sat-you could stay in a good hotel for £1 a night then) [2.00.35]. Describes Holland and Boston constituency –Market Gardening was important. He was himself a working farmer and pig breeder then but his views on farming differed from his constituents’. Discusses having to deal with disagreements with constituents eg over Capital Punishment [2.03.40]. Sometimes they would refuse to help with his election expenses –but would still vote Conservative. Falling out of step with his party [2.05.30] over European Community. Had originally supported negotiations to enter. Invited to Brussels at some expense–a turning point against it because of his sense of a moral duty to former colonies to buy their produce. Describes how colonies suffered by being abandoned in favour of the EEC. Always been a Free Trader [2.10.30]. Explains why Common Market was also bad for British farming [2.11.40]. Attempt to woo him to pro EEC stance backfired. Things got nasty in the Commons –party became factionalised [2.13.30] (“it wasn’t a happy ship”). He had become an anti EEC zealot. Lots of factions e.g. Dining Clubs [2.15.25] –e.g “Nick’s Diner” –Nick Scott gathered acolytes who helped each other out over jobs –describes how officers of party groups and committees are appointed [2.16.30]. Members of Dining Club turn out to vote for fellow diners. The Lollards (“left wing of the party”); the Monday Club. He didn’t like them and kept away from them (although he did stand for Chairmanship once). Involvement with single issue groups e.g. Get Britain out Referendum campaign (“a happy little group”). Central Office worked to get him out of his constituency [2.19.15]. His “rascal of an agent” spent time organising meetings to undermine him. Tone of politics’; responds to infamous John Major quote “Every time I hear the name Body I hear the sound of white coats flapping”). Major “wasn’t up to the job”. Describes being accosted by Major for an alleged slight he had harboured. Talks about the Major quote and the response to it. [2.26.55] Resigned the Tory Whip in protest over Maastricht Vote of Confidence on having to contribute additional money to Spain (to be used for re-equipping their fishing fleet). Nine MPs resigned the whip –“great fun, I enjoyed that!”. Chief Whip and Fishing Minister tried to get him back [2.32.50]. Eight whip-less MPs enjoyed a great reception around the country. Resumed the whip; didn’t stand as an Independent. Local Conservative Association were v supportive. [2.36.00] Parliamentary career drawing to its close –had wanted to leave at age of 70 in 1997. Wife was keen for him to leave, but constituency was about to be redrawn so he was persuaded to stand again to secure the seat. Won with v low majority (600). Stayed on until 2001 and age of 74. Regretted it –“awful Parliament…the whole place was full of damned ambitious people” [2.38.00]. Didn’t belong. Reflects on earlier career in Parliament in 1950s and how it was possible then for an MP to have influence e.g. via Chairman of 1922 Committee –not so now. [2.40.45] MPs’ activities now becoming more localised –like a local Ombudsman. Describes how an MP can intervene in local issues. [2.42.50] Importance of having a relationship with the media. [2.43.45] Speeches are no longer reported in full by the press. [2.45.00] Wouldn’t have wanted a career in the Lords. Talks about his beliefs as a Quaker (“been a bit of a nuisance”) and Church of England. Quakers “are awful for writing letters” to an MP. [2.47.05] Doesn’t use e mail; the people who write a letter are the ones who most need the help. [2.48.30] Thought the Hunting ban was a great mistake (he had his own pack of hounds). The House of Commons wasn’t well equipped to deal with it. Out of Parliament but still involved in politics. Owns a Journal The New European which he distributes free to interested people, which discusses issues like the EC and Money. Single Currency is “a disaster”. [2.52.35] No longer involved in Party politics-doesn’t like Conservative party today. Has subscribed to UKIP in the past. Parliament is changing for the worst. Doesn’t like the way candidates are chosen today [2.54.45] –choosing people who are ambitious and useful to the party –doesn’t suit the country or constituents. People like Macmillan and Churchill were able to “kick over the traces” of the party and not toe the line. No regrets about the moves he made; might have handled his opposition to hanging differently [2.57.30]. Stands by his position on EC. Perhaps he should have remained as an Independent rather than returning to the Whip. Aged 12 he had read about Lloyd George being an MP for 50 years –he has only done 40 years but no regrets as a career.
Life story interview with Sir Richard Body (1927-), former Conservative Member of Parliament.