du Cann, Edward (1 of 2). The History of Parliament Oral History Project
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Interviewee’s home, London
du Cann, Edward, 1924-2017 (speaker, male)
Greenwood, Mike, 1959- (speaker, male)
Part 1: Describes family life. Born in Beckenham; father a Barrister at Gray’s Inn, mother had been a pharmacist. Remembers grandfather’s house. 02.15 Father had twice been parliamentary candidate for East End seats before Du Cann was born; political tradition in family –great great uncle had been MP for West Country seat in C19th. Talked about politics at home- economic situation. 04.15 Education started at Roman Catholic school (not a Catholic himself). Parents divorced in 1933. Went to Grammar school at Woodbridge, Suffolk. 05.15 Father read Morning Post newspaper. 06.00 Went on to study Law. Had used to accompany his father to Court –thought Law most honourable profession. His younger brother became a senior lawyer. He himself never went to the Bar. 07.25. Wartime. Talks of military training in OTC at school. Accepted for Oxford at 16 and waited to be called up. Did enough terms to qualify for wartime degree. Served in Royal Navy as Ordinary Sailor, then Able Seaman, then commissioned at time of D-Day. Served on Motor Torpedo Boats in Coastal Command –busy time. 11.15 Politics came up occasionally for discussion whilst in Navy. Met AP Herbert. Had an interest in politics. 12.40 The war affected his whole outlook on life. Sense of team loyalty in Navy affected his political outlook. Went back to Oxford briefly after the war but wanted to earn a living –decided against going to the Bar. 15.14 Started working for a war-damaged hotel in the City, then a group of Investment Trusts –learned the business and enjoyed it. Essential for a subsequent career in politics. Earning a living gave him essential independence as an MP later. 18.40 Post-War change –sympathised with efforts to change society, albeit disagreed with way NHS was introduced. Describes how Conservative candidates post-war were impatient –Nationalisation programme was a failure –their motive was to do something about it. 21.35 Describes his own political viewpoint –more practical than doctrinaire. Admired Churchill greatly. Astounded that he’d been turned out in 1945. Politics has always been a practical thing for him. 23.45 First political experience was in his Sussex village standing for Parish Council –believes in getting people involved (feels Cameron should have done more of this despite talk of “Big Society”). Anecdote about running the local cricket pitch. 25.45 Talks about getting selected for the first time. Wrote to West Walthamstow constituency asking them to consider him as candidate (it was Attlee’s seat). A good apprenticeship. Attlee a generous opponent –learned that you can disagree with someone and still share the same objectives. 28.40 Today society has changed –people in Parliament who are interested more in themselves than in the general good. 29.40 Stood for Barrow seat. His employers had told him that his political activities were not welcome, so he had “retired” from politics. But at 1955 election he was encouraged to stand again –only two seats were available –one of them Barrow. Describes the constituency –dominated by a single industry –shipbuilding. Became a believer in diversification. 32.35 Taunton by election 1956 –“rough”. Prime Minister Eden was unpopular; had “sacked” popular local MP over gaffe in Parliament over Cyprus. Fought three-week campaign; Cyprus was the main issue. Won with majority of 600 (the previous majority had been 5000). 37.00 Describes the count. He’d arranged a secret “code” with the agent to communicate how the count was going. Held the seat until 1987 –last election he won a majority of 12,000– felt he was trusted there. 39.25 Lived in the constituency –can be a mistake. But people knew him and knew he was busy in the House on their behalf (gives example of flood relief scheme). 41.45 Brief interruption 41.55 Arrival in Westminster –“Madhouse”. Tells story of being presented to the House and taking the Oath; encounter with the Chief Whip. Most Tory whips were ex-service people who imposed a military discipline. 45.35 Wasn’t ambitious –content to achieve things at local level. Carried on his career outside -had mornings free. Easier to do then. Later the two worlds came into conflict.46.50 Describes work in the House. Became Secretary for various groups and committees. Committees were important –safety valves for opinion, forums for discussion and developing policy and as a check on Ministers. 48.10 Describes work of Select Committees –a more effective means of questioning the Executive than questions in the Chamber. Was Chairman of Public Accounts Committee. Very much involved in introducing wider range of Select Committees into the work of the House. Feels they had been doing reasonably well but more recently party interest has started to be stronger. 52.10 Describes role as Chairman of Conservative Party –appointed by Alec Home. Du Cann had been Minister of State at Dept of Trade under Heath and had steered through an unpopular bill abolishing Resale Price Maintenance –Home thought he could cope with an awkward party. Loved the role and believed they laid the foundations for Heath’s subsequent success. 54.00 Speaks of being Chair of 1922 Committee and successively re-elected. (refers back to the question of whether it was easy to keep two careers in parallel). Held many positions and never had a difficulty until a “coterie” of Tory members decided to displace him from 1922 Committee. 55.35 Describes the role of 1922 Committee –not as powerful today since present PM has tried to emasculate it. It represents the Backbenchers and can put their views forcibly. It has made and ended careers –e.g. told Heath he had to resign or stand for leader. He was himself asked to consider standing as leader; decided not to -Thatcher was emerging, and his wife was against it.
Life story interview with Sir Edward du Cann (1924-2017), former Conservative Member of Parliament.