John Barnes, Historian

Sir Charles Morrison

Perhaps the most surprising fact about Charles Morrison's long parliamentary career was that he was never given office. 'Given', because in the great tradition of the English gentleman, it simply was not done to be seen to exert oneself. But the languid air and rather laidback approach to politics concealed a sharp mind and good political judgement. "He would have made a good minister," Ken Clarke observed, "but he would never have pushed his claims for office." Instead he found himself chairman of Nick's Diner, "the obvious man to choose" from amongst their seniors by a rather leftish group of new MPs, "delightful, good company, highly intelligent and witty." Between 1967 and 1970 he had spoken for the Conservative Opposition on sporting matters and many of his friends were critical of Heath when Morrison was left out of the incoming government. But he remained a loyal Heathite, one of Ted's circle, and Sara, his more dynamic and outgoing wife, became an influential counsellor as Vice Chairman of the party organisation 1971-5. After Mrs Thatcher became leader, Morrison became more and more detached from the party and while he long remained an influential backbencher, he became something of a serial rebel. It was nevertheless characteristic that, when he was thinking of running for the chairmanship of the 1922 Committee against Edward du Cann in 1979, he should have tossed a coin with Paul Bryan to decide which of them should run. Morrison lost, but remained Vice Chairman until 1983.

Charles Andrew Morrison was the second son of John Morrison, Conservative MP for Salisbury 1942-64 and the highly influential chairman of the 1922 from 1955 until 1964. Morrison was educated at Eton and after two years at Cambridge, completed his education at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester. He joined the Life Guards for national service 1950-52 and served with the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, a territorial unit, until 1966.

Elected on to the Wiltshire County Council in 1958, he became Chairman of the Education Committee in 1963, but the death of the MP for Devizes in the spring of 1964 led to his selection to fight and hold the seat in a critical by election in May 1964. He increased his majority in the General Election and held the seat until he retired from the House of Commons in 1992. He was an enthusiastic campaigner for Heath's election to the leadership in 1965 and a loyal supporter thereafter. After a brief spell as secretary of the Conservative backbench Education and Science Committee, he became Chairman of the South Western Sports Council in February 1966 and was appointed Conservative front bench spokesman on sport in 1967. Although he must have been disappointed to be left out of the Government in 1970, he remained on close terms with his leader. He accepted Margaret Thatcher's offer of the Chairmanship of the Young Volunteer Force Foundation 1971-4 and served first as Vice Chairman 1970-72 and then Chairman of the Conservative backbench Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Committee 1972-4. He had first been elected to the 1922 Executive in 1966 and in March 1974 he was elected its Vice Chairman, a position he held until 1983, beating off a challenge from Marcus Fox in 1982, but finally losing the position a year later.

Morrison can best be characterised as an establishment liberal, almost the exact opposite of his younger brother, Peter, who became Mrs Thatcher's PPS. He was an opponent of capital punishment, a supporter of abortion and a proponent of population control in the context of aid for the underdeveloped countries. He was to serve as a director on the Global Committee of Parliamentarians on Population and Development from 1984 until 1991. In the 1960s he was a strong supporter of radical local government reform and he was always a strong European.

In 1976 he became vice chairman of the Conservative backbench Constitutional Committee, succeeding to the Chair 1979-84. Within the party, he was a leading exponent of the case for proportional representation, backing the added member system for the European elections in 1977 and advocating PR at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Conference in 1978. Inevitably the return of a Conservative Government in 1979 diminished enthusiasm for the idea in the party's ranks, but Morrison was elected Chairman of the National Committee for Electoral Reform in 1985 and two years later launched a fair votes campaign. In 1988 he advocated proportional representation for County Council elections.

By then he was an open critic of many of the Thatcher Government's policies. Like his close friend, Sir Ian Gilmour, he remained a Keynesian, arguing for cuts in interest rates and a fall in the value of the pound in February 1981 and for full-blooded reflation later in the year. In October 1984 he warned Mrs Thatcher that the Government could no longer rely on market forces to fight unemployment and he was a sponsor of Francis Pym's Centre Forward movement in May 1985. Paradoxically he warned in 1988 that water privatisation would not guarantee competition. On several occasions he went into the opposition lobby to vote against cuts in benefits and the freezing of the Children's allowance; he opposed charges on eye and dental tests in 1988 and had earlier warned against cutting the NHS to generate tax cuts. He irritated Mrs Thatcher by arguing for negotiations with Argentina about the Falkland Isles in June 1982 and was critical of the American action in bombing Libya in 1986. Like Gilmour he was a staunch Arabist, chairing the Conservative Middle East Council from 1980 on, and he attempted to generate European pressure on Israel to secure Middle East peace talks. But his most intense opposition to the Government centred on its efforts to dispose of the GLC and its introduction of the poll tax. Despite this he was knighted by Mrs Thatcher for political services in 1988.

He had chaired the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers 1973-8 and Game Conservancy 1987-94 and, towards the end of his time in Parliament, he took up green issues, urging guaranteed funds for the National Rivers Authority, co-sponsoring the Hedgerows Bill in 1989 and giving wholehearted support to the Environmental Protection Bill in 1990.

A good shot and a keen angler, Morrison also enjoyed quieter pursuits like gardening. Essentially a highly civilised man, easy going and good humoured, he was well described as the "last gentleman in England" and to some considerable extent that left him feeling very out of sorts with the party whose benches he had graced for more than a quarter of a century.