John Barnes, Historian

Sir Harry Legge-Bourke KBE (1914-1973)

Harry Legge-Bourke was only 59 when he died, but he had spent almost half his life in the House of Commons, where he was one of the most senior, most independent and most respected members of the Conservative party. He never held office, no doubt because it was known that his views on foreign policy were out of tune with the way in which the Government that he supported was handling Britain's retreat from power. He was elected chairman of the 1922 Committee in 1970 and for many of his colleagues the rightness of the choice they had made was confirmed by the open, direct and constructive way in which he tackled the role. When ill health forced his resignation in the autumn of 1972, his decision was accepted with widespread regret. The Times thought his death "a loss not only to his party.... but to the House. He was one of the last of the English country gentlemen who chose a life of public service from a conviction of duty and obligation, seeking nothing more for himself, certainly not office; but modestly and very effectively doing his best for his constituents and for the national interest as he saw it." It was a well deserved tribute.

Edward Alexander Henry Legge-Bourke was born at Clewer Green, Windsor on 16 May 1914, the son of a Coldstream guardsman, N.W.H.Legge-Bourke, and his wife, Lady Victoria Wynn-Carrington, whose father was the Marquess of Lincolnshire. Hi father was killed in action on 30 October 1914 and his mother married again in 1916 to Major Edric Weld-Forester. In the course of a moving speech on the decision to join the Common Market in October 1971, he said: "The House may find it difficult to believe this, but when I was nine months old, in February 1915, I remember my mother's brother coming to see us before he went off to France. That was the last time we saw him. He died of wounds in May 1915. I do not remember my father, because he was killed in the first battle of Ypres when I was six months old. His name is on the Menin Gate today."

Educated at Eton and Sandhurst, he was for six years a page of honour to King George V. He was commissioned into the Royal Horse Guards in 1934. He married on 10 June 1938: Catherine Grant was the daughter of Sir Arthur Grant, 10th Baronet of Monymusk, and they had two sons and a daughter.

During the war Legge-Bourke served in the Middle East and took part in the Greek campaign in 1941, where he was wounded. He spent a year as ADC to the British Ambassador in Cairo, Sir Miles Lampson, and much later wrote about his experiences in an article in The Times in March 1973. Among his duties was the typing of the instrument of abdication, which Lampson presented to King Farouk during the crisis of February 1942. Returning to active service, he fought with the 7th Armoured Division in the North African campaign. He was promoted Major in 1944.

In 1945 Major Legge-Bourke was released from the army to stand as a Conservative in the 1945 election. He wrested the Isle of Ely from the sitting Liberal MP, James de Rothschild, in a three-cornered fight, winning by more than 2000 votes, and he remained its MP for the rest of his life. A farmer himself, he was a diligent representative of his Fenland constituents and when he was not speaking on foreign affairs, he would be contributing to debates on land drainage and agriculture. He farmed 50 acres in the Isle of Ely and 600 in County Meath. Shortly after entering Parliament he became Vice President of the Association of Drainage Authorities.

He recalled the 1945 Parliament as one in which the Labour Party was forced to abandon its illusions and come to terms with reality. He also recalled the attempts made to bring the Liberal an d Conservative parties together: "one private dinner party took place in the early years of the 1945-50 Parliament at the National Liberal Club with this particular aim in view, and a selection of senior and junior Members of the Parliamentary Party attended a dinner there together with the Liberals in the House of Commons, and leading members of the London Liberal Party. The discussions could certainly not be regarded as a rapprochement, although I noticed with amusement that, hanging on the wall was a picture of my own maternal grandfather, who had been Campbell Bannerman's Minister of Agriculture." The sticking point, as he recalled it, was the Liberal Party's agricultural policy and in particular their attitude to the land, which was very close to the longer term ain of the Labour party to nationalise it. Nevertheless there were discussions at the 1922 Committee where Peter Thorneycroft was put up to suggest that the party change its name in order to make it easier for the Liberal party to make common cause in the fight against Socialism. However Quintin Hogg and Strauss pulverised the idea with the evident approval of their fellow Members and the meeting broke up "with Sir Winston not entirely delighted with the outcome."

In 1950 he became the Chairman of Grant Production, a company dealing with photographic equipment and offset printers, and remained in that position throughout his parliamentary career. He served as secretary of the Conservative backbench defence committee from 1948 to 1951 and subsequently took the chair of the party's horticultural subcommittee in the 1955-59 parliament. In 1953 he was elected to the executive committee of the 1922 Committee. But he often found himself at odds with his party and in particular was one of the Suez group who opposed the Anglo-Egyptian agreement to withdraw troops from the Suez Canal zone in 1954. He felt so strongly about this that he resigned the Conservative whip on 14 July 1954, and two weeks later voted against a motion approving the withdrawal of British forces from the canal Zone. At his own request, the whip was subsequently restored to him in October 1954. Unsurprisingly he was a strong supporter of Eden's during the Suez crisis.

In 1955 he was one of only two Conservatives to vote against the increase of purchase tax in Butler's autumn budget. He felt strongly that the country's economic problems could only be solved by a return to protection, in his eyes the traditional creed of his party.

Legge-Bourke had been knighted in 1960 for political and public services. In 1962 he voiced public criticism of the party leadership and suggested that the time had come for the Prime Minister to stand down. The historian of the 1922 has lauded the deft way in which he phrased his unpalatable remarks. Equally striking was the way in which he accompanied his action with an act of self sacrifice. He had recently been elected as chairman of the party's Parliamentary Defence Committee, but he felt that to be incompatible with the views he needed to express and resigned. Truly it could be said of him that "he was a man of shining candour and faultless standards of personal conduct". A year later he was one of those urging John Morrison, the Chairman of the 1922, to ensure Macmillan's departure in the aftermath of the Profumo affair. In 1963 when the Opposition sought to censure the Home Secretary for deporting Chief Enahoro to Nigeria, he abstained in the division which followed. More surprisingly he was one of 31 Conservatives voting for an oil sanction on Southern Rhodesia when the party split three ways. Three years later he voted against House of Lords Reform.

As Chairman of his party's Science and Technology Committee from 1961 to 1964 and its Vice Chairman 1964-70, he was profoundly critical of the choice of a former Aldermaston marcher as strategic overlord of industries so closely linked with defence, but he was scarcely less critical of "that ardent interventionist Anthony Wedgewood Benn". He believed that the education system gave too little attention to what he described as "the three Ks - knowledge of science, the know-how of technology and the knack of technique" and that it had taken his party a long time to appreciate the importance of science. One of the reasons he valued the thinking Heath did in opposition about the modernisation of government, thinking that was carried over into government, sprang from his knowledge of operational analysis and his belief that it needed to be carried over into the operations of Whitehall. He chaired the sub committee of the Select Committee on Science and Technology that carried out the investigation of coastal pollution after the Torrey Canyon disaster in 1966. He also chaired the sub committee which reported on the Natural Environment Research Council. He had been a Vice President of the Institute of Patentees and Inventors since 1966 and in 1971 he was elected Chairman of the Parliamentary Scientific Committee.

Legge-Bourke was hard of hearing and although this did not prevent him serving as on the chairman's panel in three parliaments and as an additional deputy chairman of ways and means in 1964-6, during which time he stood down from the executive of the 1922, he did not become deputy speaker.

Legge-Bourke had first been elected to the executive of the 1922 Committee in 1953 and eighteen years later became its Chairman in July 1971. There had been five candidates for the position and Legge Bourke was elected in large part because of his known independence of spirit, but some votes probably came to him because he was known to be something of a sceptic where membership of the EEC was concerned. He found the task of conveying backbench opinion to the Prime Minister a hard one. As John Ramsden notes, "Heath was not noted for his responsiveness to backbench disquiet"; and more than one member of the executive thought the committee not very influential during this particular parliament. Julian Critchley noted that when the Prime Minister addressed the full committee, he treated it "as he does the party conference." In consequence perhaps, Legge-Bourke was more vocal than some of his predecessors. In particular he questioned the continuation of sanctions against Rhodesia on 23 May, but was pacified by the points made by Sir Alec Douglas-Home at the party's foreign and commonwealth committee. In particular the notion that the Soviet Union might offer to run the Beira patrol had persuasive force. Nor, although his doubts about European entry were evident from a lecture that he gave at Swinton Conservative College, did he voice dissent when the relevant legislation went through the House.

But it was a very different matter where the Industry Bill was concerned. We do not know what he said the Heath in private, but he was evidently far from satisfied with the result. Clause 7 authorised spending on the assisted areas where it would provide or safeguard employment, while Clause 8 of the Bill enable the Government to spend up to 550 million over five and a half years even if it was outside the assisted areas so long as it was in the national interest or likely to benefit the economy. Major disquiet was expressed at the party's trade and industry committee on 16 May and this spilled over into the 1922, although only Jock Bruce-Gardyne was ready to divide the House on second reading. Although the Government accepted amendments at the committee stage, disquiet continued and it was reinforced by the similar doubts voiced by the CBI. Legge-Bourke made a critical intervention at the report stage: "I note those who have put their names to Amendment No 13 and I hope that my right hon. Friend will also do so. Apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry [John Biffen, chairman of the party's trade and industry committee].... There is the vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe [John Hall]; my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield [John Osborn], a secretary of the 1922 Committee and chairman of another very important party committee; my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham [Peter Hordern], the chairman of the Finance Committee as well as a member of the executive Committee and many others of my hon. Friends. Although I speak here only for myself and I do not pretend to attempt to express the collective view of the 1922 Committee or any other committee, I have to take note of the measure of influence which those Hon. Members have in various specialised spheres of activity in the political consideration given to these matters by the Conservative Party. I hope my right hon. Friend has given full weight to the important support given to Amendment No. 13 and that he will find a way of accepting it." This was a clear warning to the Government, and Legge-Bourke went on to describe the Bill as "obnoxious for many reasons" and declared that had some areas not been desperately in need of help, he would not have supported the Bill on its second reading. It was clear that when he claimed his view was widely shared, he was speaking no more than the truth and the Government decided to go beyond the amendments already promised during the committee stage. Christopher Chataway proposed that no firm should receive more than 5 million without the excess being authorised by the House and he accepted an amendment moved by John Biffen that Clause 7 as well as Clause 8 should be within the purview of the Industrial Development Advisory Board, which the Government had agreed to set up during the committee stage of the Bill. Chataway admitted that it would probably have been impossible to secure the Bill in its original form and the concessions made earned it an unopposed third reading.

Writing in 1972 of the change in character of the Conservative Parliamentary party that he believed had taken place, Humphry Berkeley singled out Legge-Bourke as a good contemporary example of "a type of MP who has been unique to the Conservative Party.... He is a gentle, honourable man, incapable, I would judge, of telling an untruth, totally without personal ambition, who sees his membership of Parliament as an act of public service. He belongs unhappily to a dying breed."[1]

Legge-Bourke's chairmanship of the 1922 was tragically brief. When the House returned after the summer recess in 1972 he announced his retirement. His health had suddenly deteriorated. In November his fellow Conservative MPs agreed on a presentation to him in recognition of his services. Six months later he was dead. He died at his home in Wilbraham Place, Chelsea on 21 May 1973.

Behind the appearance and bearing of a Guardsman -"tall, fair and handsomely moustached" as the journalist David Wood noted in The Times[2]- there was a more sensitive nature which found an outlet when he was younger in the writing of poetry. Later publications included Defence of the Realm, 1949, The King's Guards. Horse and Foot, 1951 and The Queen's Guards, 1965; but the publication that gained him most attention was a sharp attack on the influence of Sir Warren Fisher, pernicious as he believed it to be, in Master of the Offices. An essay and correspondence on the Central Control of His Majesty's Civil Service, 1950. Although he wrote no memoir, a lecture published in the Swinton Journal Autumn, 1971 reviews the post-war history of the Conservative party and is occasionally revealing about his own attitude to it.



[1] H.Berkeley: Crossing the Floor. George Allen & Unwin, 1972. Pp.26-7

[2] 'Legge-Bourke is 1922 Chairman' The Times 17 July 1970