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Tue, 7 July 2020

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50 years on - Lord Speaker Norman Fowler on his half century in Parliament

50 years on - Lord Speaker Norman Fowler on his half century in Parliament
6 min read

Norman Fowler lost a stone in weight while campaigning to become an MP at the 1970 general election. Fifty-years since the start of his Parliamentary journey, the Lord Speaker looks back with fondness at his initial years in Westminster

The 1970 general election was neither the best nor the worst contest I took part in – but it was certainly one of the most surprising. With four days to go to polling on Thursday 18 June, the best-known opinion poll showed Labour ahead by no less than 12 points. 

For a Conservative candidate like me, fighting a closely marginal seat in South Nottingham with a Labour majority of 316, this was the worst possible news. It was so bad that my campaign team tried to keep it from me. It was no better news for my next-door neighbour in Rushcliffe, Ken Clarke, also fighting a marginal Labour seat.  

On the basis of the opinion polls, it looked as if Harold Wilson was about to sweep the country. And that was perhaps Labour’s biggest mistake. Wilson toured the country in what seemed like a triumphal lap of honour.

In Nottingham, it seemed that all faith was placed on the leader. A complacency seemed to enter the Labour campaign showing locally when the great man himself turned up over an hour late for his pre-advertised meeting on the Clifton Estate. By that time many of his supporters had gone home and the depleted crowd displayed as many ‘Fowler’ posters as for the old Master.

On the ground in Nottingham it never seemed to me that Labour were heading for a comprehensive victory. We had easily out-postered them and our canvassing was relentless. Together with my then wife Linda we worked every day from seven in the morning to nine or ten at night.

I lost a stone in weight during the campaign and my feeling was that we were winning, but then I reflected that was probably the reaction of any candidate standing for the first time. It was not until the day of the election itself that we had an evening newspaper opinion poll which showed Ted Heath ahead, albeit by only one point.

I never have understood in my 50 years in Parliament why it is ever suggested that loyalty is the Tory party’s secret weapon.

Armed with this slender finding, I stood on Trent Bridge that evening and extolled the returning traffic to West Bridgford urging them that a vote that night would not be wasted.  Indeed, it was not. When the votes were counted, I had a majority of almost 4,000. Ken Clarke had also won and of course, nationally Ted Heath had achieved a comfortable majority of 30 seats. A whole bunch of newspaper columnists now revealed that they had always thought this would be the outcome.

A high-level party meeting to consider who should take over from Heath was abandoned. I never have understood in my 50 years in Parliament why it is ever suggested that loyalty is the Tory party’s secret weapon.

The new victors now made their way to Westminster. Most of us knew little about life there. As a journalist, I had avoided becoming a political correspondent but on one occasion I was called up to serve. 

In the summer of 1968 both the two excellent political correspondents on The Times, David Wood and George Clarke, had departed on holiday at the same time, leaving me in charge with the assurance that nothing very much happens in the first week of August.  

Nothing much but a Cabinet reshuffle when amongst other changes Dick Crossman was made the first secretary of state for both health and social security. With the other regular political correspondents I went to the briefing in Wilson’s own office in the Commons so that I could be told, without attribution, just what an important post this was – a point I remembered when I started a six year stint in the same job in 1981.   

For we newly-elected MPs it was a strange and rather spartan life. There were no research assistants and no question of an office of one’s own. My first office in the Commons was a narrow room in the office building opposite the Palace above a chemist’s shop. I shared this not only with Ken Clarke but with John Prescott and Tom Pendry, together with Cyril Smith who happily never in my experience turned up. One of my earliest decisions was to transfer my working life to the Commons Library where I shared a table with Enoch Powell and watched as he wrote out in long hand the weekly speeches that he distributed to the press.

I still look back on Nottingham with the fondest memories of a proud city with a rich past – and for me, a city that gave me the opportunity to start a 50-year career.

The pay was scarcely exorbitant at just over £3,000 a year and allowances were enough to employ half a secretary. In those years if you wanted to make a telephone call to your constituency you had to go through the switchboard and explain your case. The one point where generosity crept in was that any rail journey to Nottingham was first class. 

This is not the time to describe my Parliamentary career for the next 31 years but there was one comforting point when I moved to the House of Lords in 2001. I there began to meet many of my old mates including one or two who were 1970 victors like John Gummer and Patrick Cormack who had won a famous victory in the June election. It is a distinction of the Lords that old battles fade, and new alliances cross the party divide. 

There was one postscript to my 1970 story. I had been undoubtedly fortunate in being selected for South Nottingham for my first seat to contest but in politics nothing is quite as good or as bad as it seems at the time.

One of the issues of the 1970 election was the redistribution of seats following the Boundary review. Controversially the then Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, had marched his troops to vote down the Orders that would have implemented the review.

The result was that Heath made this an election issue and promised that he would implement the changes immediately. The result was that my constituency disappeared and a few months after my election I was on the market again. I could hardly complain. After several adventures, I was selected for Sutton Coldfield, 40 miles to the west and a seat that even I could not lose and where I was very happy. Even so I still look back on Nottingham with the fondest memories of a proud city with a rich past – and for me, a city that gave me the opportunity to start a 50-year career. 

Norman Fowler was elected as the Lord Speaker in 2016.

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