John Barnes, Historian

Sir Frederic Bennett

Sir Frederic Bennett was an unabashed, not to say pugnacious right wing Conservative, who sat in the House of Commons for nearly thirty five years. Not always popular with his own side, he was even more infuriating to the Opposition as he branded organisations like CND as front organisations funded with laundered money from the KGB and serving the purposes of the Soviet Union. He was acutely aware of the threat of Soviet expansionism, and the part that might be played by "ideological fifth columns" in weakening the resolve of the West and preparing countries for Communist take-overs. As détente became fashionable, he warned of the danger of making concessions to the Soviet Union and hailed its break up as full justification of the nuclear deterrent and the peace-through- strength policy that he had always advocated.

Frederic Mackarness Bennett was the son of Sir Ernest Bennett, who had sat as a Liberal MP in the 1906-10 Parliament, joined the Labour party during the First World War and was elected as the Labour MP for Cardiff Central in 1929. Bennett backed MacDonald in 1931 and continued to sit as a National Labour MP until 1945, serving as Assistant Postmaster General 1932-5. His son, educated at Westminster School, was articled to a solicitor, but joined the Middlesex Yeomanry in 1939 and was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1940. He was seriously injured conducting weapons research in 1941 and commended for gallantry and initiative. From 1942 until 1946 he served as a military experimental officer in the Petroleum Warfare Department and ended the war a brevet Lieutenant Colonel. During the immediate postwar period he led a technical intelligence mission in Germany.

His first effort to get into the Commons as National Liberal candidate for the Burslem division of Stoke-on-Trent in 1945 failed. On demobilisation he therefore read for the bar at Lincoln's Inn and qualified in November 1946. He was subsequently called to the Southern Rhodesian Bar in 1947, but practised mainly on the Midland circuit. But he also visited Greece twice as a guest of the Greek Government to study the operations conducted against Communist insurgents. In the 1950 election he was the unsuccessful Conservative candidate for Birmingham Ladywood and until 1952 operated as the diplomatic correspondent of the Birmingham Post. However in October 1951 at the age of 33 he was elected for Reading North and clearly found favour with the whips: in 1953 he was appointed PPS to Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth, the junior minister at the Home Office. Boundary changes briefly checked his parliamentary career. Reading became a single seat and he went down to defeat in May 1955 by just 258 votes.

Almost immediately he re-entered the House as the successful Conservative candidate in the Torquay by-election at the end of 1955 and continued to command a comfortable majority until 1974, when his seat was shorn of its South Hams wards and renamed Torbay. He retained this seat until 1987, despite a series of strong Liberal challenges. His successor finally lost the seat to the Liberals ten years later.

Although he loyally served Reggie Maudling as PPS in a whole series of ministerial posts between 1955 and 1961 and was one of the organisers of his leadership campaign in 1965, the only time that he was considered for office was in 1962 when the Chief Whip suggested him to Duncan Sandys as a possible junior minister at the Commonwealth Relations Office. Sandys was persuaded by his Parliamentary Under Secretary, Nigel Fisher, that Bennett was too committed to his own line on Africa and the job went elsewhere. As a leading member of the party's Commonwealth Affairs Committee (successively its secretary and vice chairman) Bennett had been openly critical of Iain Macleod's handling of African policy and had resigned as PPS when Maudling took his place as Colonial Secretary in June 1961. He wished to remain free to comment on affairs in Central Africa. Subsequently he became one of Welensky's staunchest supporters. After voting in 1976 for the eleventh time against the renewal of sanctions against the Smith regime in Southern Rhodesia, he pointedly remarked that almost every African country which had achieved democracy on the basis of one man, one vote, had held a single election and had then relapsed into authoritarian rule.

Although correctly regarded as a bitter critic of his own Government's policies in Africa, Bennett was by his own lights a realist. He had been ready to contemplate the break up of the Federation in 1960 so long as Southern Rhodesia gained its independence and as an executive member of the demi-official Joint East and Central Africa Board had not objected to Kenyatta's release. Subsequently at the second Kenyan Constitutional Conference, he acted as adviser to the minority tribal party, KADU. He was knighted in 1964. Not surprisingly he was a stalwart of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, serving at one time as its Treasurer and chairing its executive committee 1971-3.

Bennett remained an active backbencher until his retirement, specialising mainly in foreign affairs, although he served on the public accounts committee 1974-79. He had been appointed to the British delegation to the Council of Europe and Western European Union in 1974 and in 1979 was appointed its leader. He also led the European Democrat Group on the Council and chaired the Assemblies before standing down in 1987. Mrs Thatcher appointed him to the Privy Council in 1985.

He wrote a pamphlet in 1960 that lived up to its title Speaking Frankly and published on Détente and Security in Europe (1976) and the bearing that first China (1978) and then the Near East (1979) had on these questions. But his most typical publication was Reds under the Bed, or the Enemy at the Gate - and Within, first published in 1979, which went through three editions by 1982.

After leaving politics Bennett concentrated on his business interests. He was a director of several financial institutions, among them Kleinwort Benson Europe and Commercial Union Assurance, and of other companies, including Harlech Television. He was a long-standing Lloyds underwriter. While representing Torquay, he lived at Kingswear Castle, but he also owned land in Wales and delighted in being Lord of the Manor of Mawddwy. Yachting, shooting and fishing were his principal means of recreation.

Inevitably a man of such strong and often unfashionable convictions aroused dislike, but Bennett did not care. As he studied the state of the world in the closing years of his life, he could see much to justify the views that he had held with such tenacity.