John Barnes, Historian

Sir John Page

Jack Page spent more than a quarter of a century in the House of Commons and was rewarded for his loyalty to successive leaders by a knighthood in 1984. Apart from a brief spell as PPS to the Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Home Office 1961-3, he seemed to content to remain on the backbenches. He was able to influence thinking on industrial relations as secretary (1960-61, 1964-70) and then Chairman of the Conservative Party’s labour affairs committee (1970-74), a period in which the party moved away from a longstanding belief that the law had no place in industrial relations to devise and put into operation the ill-fated Industrial Relations Act. As a member of the clerical union APEX and President of the Conservative Trade Unionists 1967-9, he was vigorous in defending an individual’s right to choose whether or not to join a union and when the Conservatives came to power in 1970 he urged the new Employment Secretary, Robert Carr to be bold in reforming the unions. Subsequently he was critical of the Conservative Government’s u-turns and voted against the introduction of a prices and incomes policy. His long-standing campaign to be rid of the benefits paid to the families of strikers, which began in 1969 and which led him to introduce a private members bill in 1973, was finally crowned with success during Mrs Thatcher’s government.

He and his wife were close friends of the Thatcher’s and were often guests at Christmas lunch at Chequers. He was, so Carol Thatcher recalled, “a terrific raconteur with a dry sense of humour”. Throughout the Westland affair he was a vocal supporter of Mrs Thatcher, and damned Leon Brittan by saying that he had put the Prime Minister into “an impossible situation”. He was always robust in his views. Earlier he was one of the few Tories to vote against the agreement that Macmillan reached with Kennedy at Nassau in 1962, believing that it compromised Britain’s nuclear independence, and he was equally critical of the withdrawal of British forces from Malta. He was bitterly critical of the Wilson Government for resorting to a prices an incomes policy – they had, he said, declared war on the unions, and was an active opponent of Mrs Castle’s decision to freeze the pay of building workers. When the IRA resorted to a bombing campaign in Britain, he was one of those who demanded the reintroduction of capital punishment in the wake of IRA bombings and urged the Home Secretary to require identity cars for all Irishmen entering the country. He was by now secretary of the Conservative backbench Home Affairs Committee, but was refused permission to observe immigration procedures at Heathrow when the Home Office decided to cease publishing immigration statistics. His response was to urge a five year ban on Commonwealth immigration and tighter rules for Irish immigration.

His own proudest boast about his parliamentary career was that he had saved the pint and the mile – “what more could a man do for England” – by a well-timed intervention when Julian Amery was shepherding the Metrication Bill through the House of Commons in 1970. But he was also responsible for a private members bill on the registration of insurance brokers, an early attempt at regulating the business of financial advice, which obtained government backing.

He achieved a certain notoriety during the Falklands War when he criticised Peter Snow and Newsnight for their imputation that the British authorities might not be telling the truth about what was going on. “I am worried that BBC Television newsreaders are giving equal credence to the Ministry of Defence Reports and Argentine reports,” he said, claiming that Snow’s remark, “If we believe the British” was almost treasonable.

Arthur John Page was the son of a Chief Justice of Burma, Sir Arthur Page QC, and he spent his early years in Calcutta. He was educated at harrow and Magdalene College, Cambridge. During the war he served with the Royal Artillery. He joined as a gunner, was commissioned in 1940, and saw action in the Western Desert, where he was wounded. He should have been involved in a combined services operation on D day, but his boat was not alerted, and he spent five frustrating days in Southampton Water awaiting a call to action which never came. subsequently served in France and Germany 1944-5, rising to the rank of major and commanding 258 Battery Norfolk Yeomanry 1945. He was proud of his part in the Battle of the Bulge and was one of those who recalled the horror of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp which he helped liberate in 1945.

After the war he went into business, eventually becoming sales manager of a rubber and plastics company. But he left the business world in 1963. He had very nearly captured Eton and Slough for the Conservatives in the 1959 election, losing to Fenner Brockway by 88 votes, and his reward came with his successful candidature in the Harrow West by-election in March 1960 and he held the seat at seven General Elections, usually by five figure majorities, before standing down in 1987.

He took an active interest in the International Parliamentary Union, becoming a member of its British Group in 1970, its Chairman 1978-82 and President of the IPU itself in 1984. From 1972 to 1987 he served as one of the British delegates to the Council of Europe and Western European Union.

Away from the Commons, he was an able chairman of the Bethnal Green and East London Housing Association 1957-70 and of the Three Valleys Water Authority 1986-2001. He also chaired the Council for Independent Education 1974-80. His major passion in life remained politics, but he was also a talented painter.