British Labour Politician
Born 1907 Died 1980

Patrick Gordon Walker was the Member of Parliament for Smethwick (1945-1964) and Leyton (1966-1974) following which he sat in the House of Lords as the Baron Gordon-Walker. He was briefly a Cabinet minster under both Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson, but became most famous for losing his Smethwick seat in the General Election of 1964.

Early life

Born on the 7th April 1907, Patrick Chrestien Gordon Walker was the eldest child of Alan Lachlan Gordon Walker and Dora Marguerite Chrestien. Although he was born at Worthing in Sussex, he spent much of his childhood in the Punjab, where his father was employed in the Indian Civil Service as a land settlement officer, and later as a judge in Lahore. Naturally he was sent back to England to complete his education and attended Wellington College in Berkshire between 1921 and 1925 where he ended up as a prefect and head of house, before going up Christ Church, Oxford where he read history. Despite his failure to gain a first, he became Gladstone memorial exhibitioner in 1929 and received a B Litt in 1931 for a thesis on the national debt. He was subsequently appointed a history tutor at Christ Church in 1931, apparently as much for his "reliable games-playing" as for his "sound scholarship". He then became interested in politics after making a number of visits to Germany during the 1930s, which also inspired a number of articles for the Daily Telegraph, and enabled him to develop a parallel career as a journalist.

Thanks to the influence of the left-wing Oxford academic G.D.H. Cole he became an active figure in local Labour politics and stood unsuccessfully as the official Labour candidate for Oxford City in the 1935 General Election. However when the sitting member for Oxford died in August 1938, Patrick stood down in the resulting by-election in favour of the 'Popular Front' candidate, A.D. Lindsay the master of Balliol, who had decided to stand against the Conservative Quintin Hogg in protest at Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. Although Patrick claimed that he was acting in accordance with the wishes of the local party, this decision didn't go down well at Labour Party headquarters and he was replaced as the city's prospective candidate. Despite this rebuke from Party headquarters, together with Anthony Crosland and Roy Jenkins, he helped established the Oxford University Democratic Socialist Club to further the Labour cause at the University, a neccessary evil at the time since the University Labour Club was run by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain such as Dennis Healey.

In 1940 he joined the BBC European Service and by 1942 was the Assistant Director of the German Service and responsible for arranging the BBC's daily broadcasts to Germany. In late 1944 he was seconded to the recently liberated Radio Luxembourg, and in that capacity travelled with the troops into Germany. His radio broadcasts describing the scenes he witnessed on the liberation of the German concentration camp at Belsen brought home to many the true horrors of the Holocaust.

Parliamentary Career

With the conclusion of the war Patrick was naturally eager to restart his political career. His opportunity came with the death of Alfred Dobbs, the Labour member for Smethwick, in a car crash on the 27 July 1945 a day after the General Election. Patrick therefore won the very first by-election of the new parliament held on the 1st October 1945, and within a year of entering the House of Commons became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Herbert Morrison, the number two in the government, in October 1946. Another year on, and he was appointed to his first government post as the Under-Secretary of State at the Commonwealth Relations Office in October 1947. There he helped devise the London Declaration of the 28th April 1949 which defined the monarch merely as "head of the Commonwealth" and therefore permitted republics to remain within the British Commonwealth. This sufficiently impressed Clement Attlee to appoint him as the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations on the 8th February 1950, after the General Election of that year. Unfortunately his brief time in the Cabinet proved to be an unhappy one as he was forced to defend the prior decision to send Seretse Khama, the chief of the Ngwato tribe in Bechuanaland, into exile for the crime of marrying a white woman.

Forced into opposition from 1951 onwards he endeavoured to become the party's expert on the Commonwealth and wrote an exhaustive tome on the subject, naturally titled The Commonwealth, whilst in the internal party squabbles of the 1950s he sided with Hugh Gaitskell against Aneurin Bevan, and indeed became one of Gaitskell's closest allies and confidants. He voted for Gaitskell in the 1955 leadership contest and supported Gaitskell's attempts to loosen the party's links with the trade unions and jettison its commitment to nationalisation. He subsequently became one of the leading figures in the Campaign for Democratic Socialism, which was active in the Revisionist cause during the years 1960 to 1964.

Smethwick and beyond

Following Gaitskell's unexpected death on the 18th January 1963 there was talk that he might stand for the party leadership, but in the end he became George Brown's campaign manager, who of course lost out to Harold Wilson. Nevertheless Wilson made him Shadow Foreign Secretary and with the Labour victory at the General Election in October 1964, Patrick duly became the Foreign Secretary on the 16th October. There was just one problem, as Patrick had failed to get elected to the House of Commons having lost his seat at Smethwick by 1,174 votes.

This not entirely unexpected defeat arose as largely as a result of local agitiation around the issue of immigration. The inner city district of Smethwick in Birmingham was one of the first parts of the country to experience the effects of post-war immigration from the Commonwealth, and there was an element within the constituency which was not happy with this development and regarded Patrick, who had earlier led the Labour oppositon to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 which sought to restrict immigration, as someone who could be blamed for this development. The result was a local campaign against the Labour Party which most famously featured a leaflet bearing the slogan 'If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour', and although such sentiments were not officially endorsed by the ultimately victorious Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths, he refused to condemn the slogan whilst calling for a complete ban on coloured immigration.

As it happened although Wilson didn't particularly like Patrick, he didn't want to suffer the embarrassment of losing his Foreign Secretary so early in his administration. The safe Labour seat of Leyton was found where the sitting member Reginald Sorensen could be persuaded to give up his seat in return for a life peerage. With a Labour majority of 7,926 this seemed a fairly safe bet. Unfortunately the local party was unhappy at having an outside foisted upon them and unenthusiastic about fighting an unnecessary by-election, whilst Patrick was again dogged by anti-immigration campaigners who appeared dressed in monkey suits bearing placards 'We immigrants are voting for Gordon Walker'. Patrick duly went and lost the by-election held on the 21st January 1965 by 205 votes to the Conservative Ronald Buxton and resigned as Foreign Secretary on the following day. Patrick was then sent off on a fact finding mission to South East Asia and became Chairman of the Book Development Council and an advisor to the Initial Teaching Alphabet Council. Although he won Leyton by over 8,000 votes at the subsequent General Election of 1966, his political career never really recovered from the setback of the successive defeats.

Following the vacancy created by the resignation of Douglas Houghton he rejoined the Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio on the 7th January, where he was responsible for conducting a review of the social services and for negotiating defence arrangements with Malta. He briefly served as the Secretary of State for Education and Science from the 29th August 1967 to the 6th April 1968 when he lost office during a cabinet reshuffle. Although publicly his departure was announced as being as a result of his own decision to retire from office (he was made a Companion of Honour afterwards), in reality his "resignation was asked for".

Now out of office he spent his time organising backbench support for various attempted coups by Roy Jenkins which never quite came to fruition, before writing The Cabinet which appeared in 1970. He decided to stand down from the House of Commons at the General Election of February 1974, after which he was created a life peer as the Baron Gordon-Walker on the 4th July 1974, and was later briefly a member of the European Assembly between 1975 and 1976. He was found dead in the back of a taxi on arrival at the Palace of Westminster on the 2nd December 1980, it being later determined that he had died of natural causes.


Patrick Gordon Walker was married to Audrey Muriel Rudolf who bore him two sons and three daughters. He was also the author of a number of works including, The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1935), An Outline of Man’s History (1939), The Lid Lifts: An Account of the Author’s Experiences During Two Visits to Occupied Germany in the Spring of 1945 (1945); Restatement of Liberty (1951), The Commonwealth (1962), The Cabinet (1970), and Patrick Gordon Walker: Political Diaries, 1932-71 (1991) which appeared after his death being edited by Robert D. Pearce.

A good linguist, he was one of the few Foreign Secretaries this century who spoke German, although his three brief stints in the Cabinet were notable by the absence of any clear political achievments. As his obituary in The Times noted, he bore the "puzzled look of a don who had strayed into politics and wondered what he was doing there".


SOURCES

  • Race Prejudice Could Oust Labour M.P, The Times, Friday, Nov 22, 1963
  • Obituary: Lord Gordon-Walker Former Labour minister ,The Times, Wednesday, Dec 03, 1980
  • Robert Pearce, ‘Walker, Patrick Chrestien Gordon, Baron Gordon-Walker (1907–1980)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008
  • The Papers of Baron Gordon-Walker http://janus.lib.cam.ac.uk/db/node.xsp?id=EAD%2FGBR%2F0014%2FGNWR

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.