John Barnes, Historian

© John Barnes

7 January 2005

for The Independent

Sir Nicholas Scott

Shortly after he lost his Parliamentary seat in 1974, the news magazine, Time, hailed Scott as "a future world leader", but a promising career that took him back into the Commons in October, with an immediate place on the Opposition front bench as Heath's spokesman on housing, took a very different turn when Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party. Offered a more junior position, Scott refused to serve and became a rallying point for the "wets" within the party. Although he never budged from a stance that had led Dick Crossman to describe him as "the most liberal Tory of them all", his loyalty was never in question. When Roy Jenkins tried to enlist him for the newly-formed SDP in 1981, Scott turned the invitation down. it was only after he ran into trouble with some members of his constituency association that he consented to take a place on the front bench as . He was not included in Mrs Thatcher's first government. When Jim Prior was moved from the Department of Employment to take over responsibility for Northern Ireland, he handpicked his team and Scott was included as the junior minister responsible for education. Prior also made good use of him to make the case in the United States for Britain's approach to Northern Ireland. Subsequently Scott added to his duties responsibility for Northern Ireland's prisons and he came under heavy fire when there was a mass breakout from the Maze prison. Prior stood by him, threatening that if Scott was forced to resign, he would go too. In 1986 was rewarded for his efforts as the longest serving minister in the province by promotion to the rank of Minister of State. A firm believer in power sharing and willing to contemplate a sharing of sovereignty also, Scott was never popular with hardline Unionists who nicknamed him "Goebbels", a backhanded tribute to his effectiveness in making the Government's case.

After the 1987 election Scott was shifted sideways into the Department of Health and Social Security to take over the duties formerly exercised by John Major, and when the department was split in two, he continued as Minister of State in the Department of Social Security. Taking on the additional title of Minister for the Disabled in 1990. He made no secret to friends of his frequent discomfort at some of the policies he pushed through in efforts to constrain the social security budget, although he took considerable pride in the expansion of provision for the disabled, which by 1997 was more than a quarter greater than it had been when the Thatcher Government came to power. He was made a Privy Councillor in 1989.

Scott's long and distinguished parliamentary career came to an ignominious end prefaced by an extraordinary public row with his daughter, Victoria. She was a parliamentary lobbyist for the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation and she was extremely angry at the tactics used to kill the Disability Bill in 1994. Scott, who was then engaged on devising complex policy proposals to extend the rights of the disabled, denied that the Government had been involved in wrecking tactics and had subsequently to apologise for misleading the House. It is only fair to add that few if any governments when already engaged in policy shift are ready to welcome legislation devised outside the department, but Scott became the subject of almost continuous Opposition attack. Victoria joined in the calls upon him to resign, and after two months when Major reconstructed his Government, there was mutual agreement that he should call it a day.

Scott intended to remain in the Commons and fought a successful rearguard action against Eurosceptics in his constituency, who were determined to be rid of him. He was not helped when his car was involved in shunting another which in turn trapped a three year old boy in his pushchair. The boy was unhurt, but Scott, unaware of the knock on effect of his shunt, left the scene of the accident, leaving it to his secretary to sort it out. It was an unsavoury incident, but he was able to face down his critics and secure re-selection. Subsequently in March 1996 he was banned for a year and fined £900 for drunk driving and for failing to stop after an accident. Matters went from bad to worse when he was found slumped in a Bournemouth street at the Conservative Conference that year. His explanation, that painkillers taken for a back problem had reacted badly with a small intake of alcohol at a party given by the Irish Embassy and had caused his collapse, while true, reinforced the image of a man no longer in full control of his drinking, and it was not altogether surprising when deselection followed. With a good deal of truth, Scott blamed his misfortune on the fact that he was on the left of the party and pro-European and claimed that it was nothing to do with the drinking incidents, but it was the latter which offered his critics a fresh opportunity to be rid of him and undermined his undeniable popularity in his constituency. That he was known to be a womaniser did not help, although it did not prevent Alan Clark from succeeding him in the seat.

Nicholas Paul Scott had few of the advantages of his University-educated contemporaries. The son of a Metropolitan Police inspector and an Irish Catholic mother, he was educated at St Andrews Primary School in Streatham and at Clapham College. Later he was to study part-time at the City of London College and the London Literary Institute. His training as a navigator in the RAF came to an untimely end through problems with his eyesight. These did not prevent him from becoming a very good club cricketer and he played for the Free Foresters and for the House of Commons. His early business career in marketing and sales, first with Shell and then in the printing industry brought him a number of directorships and business consultancies as well as the managing directorship of the design and print consultants, E.Allen & Co 1968-70, and, among other chairmanships, the chairmanship of Creative Consultants Ltd 1969-79.

The Young Conservatives provided his route into politics, although he also served two terms (1956-9, 1962-5) on the Holborn Borough Council. He had joined them at the age of 19 and in 1959 fought his first General Election in the Labour seat of Islington South West. He became Chairman of the Greater London Area YCs in 1961-2 and in 1963 was elected as national Chairman. He had already shown himself to be very much on the liberal wing of the party, attempting to move a motion in support of the African policies pursued by Macleod and Maudling at the 1962 Conservative Conference and urging closer collaboration with the Commonwealth in the following year. After contesting Islington South West again in 1964, he was fortunate enough to be selected for Paddington South when Robert Allan left it to the last moment to stand down before the 1966 election and he held the seat until February 1974.

Very much a friend and protégé of Iain Macleod's, he voted against the Labour Government's decision to limit the entry into Britain of Asians expelled from East Africa and subsequently was one of the two main Conservative rebels to vote in favour of the 1968 Race Relations Act. Predictably he was a major critic of Enoch Powell's views on immigration. Macleod made him his PPS in 1970, but died within the month. In some impalpable way, Scott never seemed entirely to recover from the loss of his mentor. As a backbencher he was critical of the Heath Government for supplying arms to South Africa, and he was arguing for an incomes policy as early as the autumn of 1971. From the point of view of the Whips his activities as a major proponent of entry into the EEC were much more acceptable and he became PPS to the Home Secretary, Robert Carr, tempering his views on the admission of Ugandan Asians into the UK as a result. From 1972 he had played some part on the committee co-ordinating Government information to the public, but it was not until January 1974 that he was brought into the Government as junior minister at Employment. Almost immediately the Government was driven from office and Scott lost his seat in the February 1974 election.

In July 1974 he was selected to fight the plum Conservative seat of Chelsea, which he duly won in October 1974. Sacked from the shadow Cabinet by Margaret Thatcher, he became the President of the Tory Reform Group, opposed the sending of a Lords and Commons cricket team to South Africa, and became one of those backing electoral reform to produce a non-socialist majority in the Commons. However in his pamphlet Home Run, he advocated the discounted purchase by tenants of council houses and he wanted to free small businesses in London from rates. Although his constituency chairman sought to have him deselected in September 1977, he comfortably beat off the challenge by 69 votes to 21, and shortly afterwards was asked to take responsibility for his party's response to youth unemployment. However, he was not included in the first Thatcher Government and instead was elected to chair the Conservative backbench Employment Committee (he had served as its Vice Chairman from 1967 until 1972). His popularity with his colleagues in the House had already been evidence by his election to the Executive of the 1922 the previous year. He was also at the heart of "Nick's Diner", a convivial meeting ground for younger Conservative MPs on the centre left of the party, whose original purpose was once characterised by Ken Clarke as being "to prevent Ted Heath becoming too left wing."

When his long and valuable tenure of office came to a bruising end in 1994, John Major acknowledged the service he had given by upgrading his 1964 MBE to a KBE and when he faced deselection, he was armed with messages of support from the Party Chairman, Chief Whip, eight former Cabinet ministers and a personal testimonial signed by 130 of fellow Conservative MPs. It was to no avail. Scott did not contest the 1997 election and for much of his time in retirement he was fighting a losing battle against the onset of Alzheimers.

Although a classic example of Powell's notorious dictum that all political careers end in failure, Scott was far more influential in his party than many with more obvious successes to their name. Cheerful and easy going, he was a man of great charm and essential decency. Unfortunately his ability to win hearts served him less well where marriage was concerned. An affair with the parliamentary lobbyist for the CBI led to the end of his first marriage, already under strain as the result of adopting a handicapped child, and there followed some highly public entanglements, most notably with the Black model, Mynah Bird, before he married the divorced wife of a fellow Tory MP in 1979.