The Last of the Tory Squires

I first met Tom Stuttaford in the mid-1960s when he attended a conference at Swinton Conservative College in Yorkshire, where I had the entertaining job of Junior Tutor. My colleague David Alexander and I were told in advance that some particularly able and ambitious young Tory candidates would be present whom we should cultivate on the grounds that they were rising to higher things. We had heard that before, of course. On this occasion, however, the three rising stars turned out to be Norman Tebbitt, Cecil Parkinson and Tom Stuttaford.

Swinton rules of hospitality allowed a tutor to buy himself a drink whenever he bought one for a guest. So we all got to know each other pretty well over the weekend. And all three became friends to David and me. The three candidates all rose together too, entering Parliament in the 1970 election. I joined them that year—in the building, at least—as correspondent for RTE and later parliamentary sketch-writer for the Telegraph. I felt I had friends at court and excellent sources too. For it was undeniable by that time that Cecil, Norman and Tom were all rising, all independent-minded, and in time all potential ministers or potential rebels.

Norman Tebbitt and Cecil Parkinson rose to the highest positions (bar one) that Britain’s public life has to offer. They also met with savage disappointment and tragedy that spread to their families—Margaret Tebbitt was severely disabled by the IRA bomb at the 1984 Tory Conference. Norman divides his time between their home and the House of Lords. Cecil died a few years ago. Tom died six months ago. I delivered a eulogy, on which this column draws, at Tom’s memorial service at Saint Bride’s Church off Fleet Street in early December.

Tom was in many respects the most traditional Tory of the three—Gresham’s school (head boy), Oxford, the Army (national service in the Tenth Hussars), service on the parish council—and he might have risen accordingly. But it was not to be. In the 1970 parliament Tom attracted attention as the Tory MP who rebelled against the Heath government more often than any other, with the exception of Enoch Powell. In 1973 he led a group of eight Tory MPs to protest against the levying of Value Added Tax on children’s shoes (academic research had shown that poor footwear in childhood led to permanent disability in later life). They had a late-night meeting with the Chancellor who, when they refused to budge, promised to refer the matter to a special committee. Surprisingly, the committee found for Tom and his colleagues. VAT has never been imposed on children’s shoes or indeed their clothing ever since. Tom was always very proud of this achievement.

Tom and three other Tory doctors used to meet for a regular monthly dinner. At one of these they fell to discussing whether or not the Prime Minister, Ted Heath, had the right psychological make-up to be an effective national leader. They concluded that he hadn’t. The question then arose as to which of the four should tell the Chief Whip. Tom was selected. In the event the Chief Whip seems to have discouraged such long-range diagnosis and, still more, conversations about it.

With this record of rebellion, Tom would not have found promotion easy. But that became academic in 1974 when he lost his Norwich seat in the election that returned Harold Wilson to power and a year later Ted Heath to the back benches. That blighted Tom’s chances of rising further as both Norman and Cecil did under the new dispensation of Thatcherism. Tom might have done well in the second 1974 parliament if re-elected. He had found his feet in the House, was popular with other MPs, and he liked and supported Mrs Thatcher, who returned the favour. It’s often said that Mrs Thatcher liked good-looking, well-tailored, upper-class men, which describes Tom rather well. More important, she liked commonsense men who knew their subject and were ready to argue with her from a standpoint of mutual trust and loyalty. That describes Tom rather well too.

Tom did not despair of a political career after that first defeat. He fought two more elections in the Isle of Ely and he came tantalisingly close to winning in 1979. Indeed, local Labour tacticians, seeing that he was likely to win, shrewdly advised their supporters to vote tactically for the Liberal Clement Freud. Tom fell just short. It was a serious reverse. He had wanted a political career, and it now looked beyond his grasp. That realisation, I think, is the only serious public reverse that Tom sustained in his life until the end.

So he returned to his first love: medicine. He had started after qualifying as a doctor as a second string to his uncle, who ran a modest rural practice which was a good training in how to diagnose patients who were not always clear in describing their own symptoms. That experience taught Tom the value of looking carefully at people and listening to what they said if he was going to be able to help them.

He had moved to a nearby city and set up his own practice when one day he received a telephone call telling him that his uncle had died. Tom went to the surgery to find that the patients had put Uncle Tom’s corpse under a table. He knelt down and confirmed that his uncle was indeed dead. The patients stood around respectfully. And they stayed around. Then one patient, speaking for the group, said: “Well, doctor, seeing as how you’re here …”

Tom’s pre-parliamentary experience as a GP had helped him politically. After political defeat, he needed a wider range of medical work and more money. He expanded his work for a BUPA consultancy, running some of the earliest health checks for business executives. He established a private practice in Devonshire Place. He resumed working for the NHS (of which he was a strong supporter), working at a clinic in East London treating sexually-transmitted diseases which, of course, in the 1980s included the new scourge of AIDS. Tom had always kept up with advances in medical science, and he now became an expert in this field too.

Tom now moved into journalism. He had always been a lively writer. Encouraged and advised by Times editor Harold Evans, he put this skill to work as the paper’s medical correspondent. Together with Evans, Tom had helped to expose the thalidomide scandal and to get justice and proper compensation for its victims and their families during his time in Parliament. As with his successful campaign on VAT on children’s shoes, he was immensely proud of this. He became better and better known for his Times column and was delighted to be satirised in Private Eye as Doctor Utterfraud. Tom didn’t bear grudges. He became a friend of Private Eye’s editor Richard Ingrams, who later invited him to join the Oldie.

All this added up to a work output that was positively Stakhanovite. He wrote a regular column, often daily, for twenty-seven years, some of which became front-page scoops for the Times, occasional books of popular medicine, and his Oldie articles. When you add this journalistic work to his various medical jobs, it’s amazing that he had time for anything else. But he was famously gregarious, a member of at least five London clubs, and a popular speaker for both medical events and political friends. On top of all this, he gave freely of his time and advice to members of the public who sent him medical inquiries. Sister Wendy, the art historian, told the Times after his death that when she did so, he not only devoted his next column to the topic she had raised but also sent her a personal letter discussing it at greater length. Tom was a living exemplar of the saying that it’s always the busiest man who has time to help others.

Almost all the obituaries mentioned that after his final political defeat, Tom and his wife Pam set about restoring and upgrading old historic buildings, starting with the one in which they still lived, and returning others to the market. Obituaries gave the reason as the need to pay school fees. I think there was more to it than that. Tom was proud of living in one of the earliest brick houses in England. Restoring old and valued things, making them useful again, extending their life, bringing out their beauty for our time, encouraging others to see how they could do the same in their town or village—those activities seem to me to give a better description of Tom’s deep Toryism than any attempt to fit him into current ideological categories.

When one stands back and looks at Tom’s life, it seems like the Roman’s cursus honorum: head boy and captain of rugby at Gresham’s, graduation in medicine at Brasenose, national service in a good regiment, a term in Parliament, success in several fields of medicine, and a late much-lauded career in journalism. That life was rewarded by success in all but politics. But it was a life inspired less by ambition than by obligation and by gratitude. He had given service in the Army, in medicine, on the local parish council as well as in Parliament, and in journalism. He could look back on a long and happy marriage to Pam, whom he had nursed through her final illness. He had a fine family, which he knew was shortly to be joined by a new grandchild. He was the last of the Tory squires, and the best of them, but he was not sad as he rode slowly to the sea.

I felt that strongly in our last conversation, full of jokes and hilarity, two weeks before the death we both knew was approaching (though not how fast). Tom was content. He may have justifiably felt the world was better in a modest way for his blend of good humour, common sense and practicality—and (as his other eulogist, Norman Lamont, observed) because he had learned as a doctor to listen to people.

It often seems that today’s Tory party has forgotten how to do that. It will need Tories like Tom if it’s to restore the fabric and health of British society.

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