John Barnes, Historian

Sir Reginald Bennett

Reggie Bennett was a psychiatrist by profession, a yachtsman who represented Britain in international races against America and was unlucky never to take part in the Olympics, a long serving Conservative MP and a thoroughly nice man. His penetrating intellect and popularity in the House should have secured him a ministerial post, but at a time when MPs were expected to take life and themselves seriously, his inability to conform denied him the chance that he richly deserved. Had Macleod lived, it is more than possible that Bennett, whom he understood well, might have found a place in the Government's ranks. But in reality it was too late. It was said that his prowess as a helmsman did him no favours with Heath, but his whole style was out of keeping with that of his leader and, just as he backed Macleod, until the latter dropped out of the leadership race, he would have felt far more at home with a party led by Reggie Maudling. As one of his opponents, Tam Dalyell, observed, "There is an awful temptation for people to become caricatures of themselves in the House of Commons and he rather played at being the bon viveur to the extent that it damaged his chances of being taken seriously." Later entries in Dod's Parliamentary Companion solemnly record him as Chevalier du Tastevin 1971, de St Etienne (Alsace) 1972, de Bretvin (Muscadet) 1973, Commander de Bontemps-Medoc 1959. That tells its own tale. But in addition to chairing the Catering sub committee of the House of Commons Services Committee from 1970 to 1974, he had chaired the Parliamentary Scientific Committee from 1958 to 1962, and that too should be remarked.

Born in 1911, the son of a civil servant, he won scholarships to both Winchester and New College, where he read physiology, before completing his medical training at St George's Hospital and the Maudsley. It was his proud boast that he had qualified as a pilot with the University Air Squadron before he had learnt to drive a car and he subsequently joined the London Division of the RNVR. As a Surgeon Lieutenant Commander he served first in Western Approaches and then with the Northern Patrol. He twice survived being torpedoed. He gained his wings with the Fleet Air Arm in 1941 and served first in Tanganyika and then in Ceylon. He was awarded the Volunteer Reserve Decoration in 1944.

At Oxford he had been awarded his blue for sailing each year from 1931 until 1934, the year in which he sailed for Britain against Germany at the Kiel Regatta and won the City of Hamburg Cup. In 1934 and 1935 he took the helm of Sir Richard Fairey's J-Class yacht Shamrock V in the races against the United States, but was reserve for the 1936 Olympics. Had the war not intervened it is likely that he would have taken part in the 1940 Olympics. From 1936 until 1938 he raced the 12-meter Evaine and after the war represented Britain in the British-American Cup races in 1949 and 1953. By then he was a Conservative MP and helped found the House of Commons Yacht Club, eventually serving as its Commodore.

He had been adopted for Woolwich East in 1937 and had contested it unsuccessfully in 1945. He was elected for Gosport and Fareham in 1950 and continued to represent the seat until it was divided. From February 1974 until he retired from the Commons in 1979 he continued to represent Fareham. He served as PPS to the Home Secretary from 1951 until 1954, to the minister of Fuel and Power 1954-55 and was then invited by Iain Macleod to become his PPS in 1955. "As someone who's had two ministers shot from under you", Macleod scribbled, "I wonder if you would consider coming and looking after me." The two had met in the late 1940s when Macleod was at the Research Department and Bennett had offered to brief the party on health. Fond, some would say excessively so, of the camaraderie and gossip of the smoking room, proved to be an ideal pair of ears and eyes for his minister, not least when Macleod was in deep trouble with the right of his party as Colonial Secretary in 1959 to 1961. A shrewd judge of his fellow Members and wholly streetwise, he warned Macleod during the leadership contest in 1963 that the choice would fall on the Foreign Secretary, Lord Home. According to Bennett, this news was greeted with total disbelief, but nevertheless in the early hours of 12 October, with Bennett serving "long thin scotches", Macleod briefed two of the leading political correspondents that Home was in the running. Bennett would never say, and may not have known, whether this was part of a bid to stall the leading candidates in mid-fight, thus enabling a younger candidate to come through. In the end, "quixotically" in Bennett's opinion, he told Home to his face why he should not be Prime Minister and, unable to serve, retired to the backbenches. Had he run in 1965, Bennett would have been amongst those organising his candidature, but his public denunciation of the "magic circle" that had picked Home had denied him any chance of victory.

It was at Bennett's invitation that Macleod joined the Thursday Club, which met over lunch at Wheeler's restaurant in Soho to drink Chablis and establish the proposition that the weekend was about to begin. Later this evolved into the so-called Wessex Hunting Club, an occasion for foolery and hard drinking. Prince Philip was a member of the Thursday Club and was subsequently invited to join the Imperial Poona Yacht Club, a convivial and very select institution founded by Bennett when at Oxford for the purpose of challenging current undergraduates to take part in a backwards sailing race down the Thames.

There was a more serious side to Bennett. As a young MP he became a member of the Inner Temple and took a great interest in the affairs of the Medico-Legal Society. He spoke several languages including Arabic, Swahili and Italian, and he chaired the Anglo-Italian Parliamentary group 1970-79. He was also a long-serving member of the executive of the Interparliamentary Union. He wrote Why Executives Die Young in 1953 and Psychological Disturbances of Young Married Life in 1954 as well as a number of medical pamphlets. He took a considerable interest in polio research and the effects of polluted seawater, making the memorable comment that swimming in the Solent was "not so much swimming as going through the motions". Three years ago he published a memoir Three Chousing Reers.

He was knighted for his services just before he retired from the Commons. A large man in every sense of the word, always convivial and good tempered, he was an excellent judge of both men and wine. He had an eye for the follies of mankind, and if at times he appeared to take life too lightly, he was certainly nobody's fool. There is little doubt that the Tory party could have made better use of his talents, but life might then have been much more dull.