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Remembering Roy Mason, the Lord Mason of Barnsley

RoyMason3.JPGThis tribute by Phil Hunt was delivered at a memorial service to Roy Mason in Barnsley on Friday 5th June

Lord Mason, Roy Mason. What an extraordinary man!

We have already heard eloquently of Roy’s towering achievements as a beloved husband and father, trade unionist, tie designer par excellence, politician and distinguished statesman culminating in his hugely important period as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

What a career and what a life story! Down the pit as a fitter’s mate at the age of 14 and a fully paid up member of the NUM. The delegate from his pit at the age of 25. An MP at the age of 28 who at his moment of triumph was worried about whether he could afford the cost of getting to Westminster by train. Brought onto the Labour frontbench by Hugh Gaitskell in 1960, he enjoyed a Ministerial Career matched by few.

Many Ministers come and go and leave not a trace – not Roy. Whatever post he filled, he did it with distinction and left his powerful mark. He always wanted to contribute. As Defence Minister, he was a strong advocate of the UK’s ship building capacity. But he was also prepared to give unpalatable messages to both employers and the unions about the threat from overseas shipyards from lack of investment and endless demarcation disputes. He even attempted to decommission the Royal Yacht Britannia. But for Harold Wilson, if not Roy, that was a step too far.

As an adopted Brummie, I am forever grateful for his work in laying the ground for the National Exhibition Centre to come to Birmingham rather than London, against huge opposition from the Capital. But it was his time in Northern Ireland that he will always be known best for. For those who lived through those turbulent and dangerous times, Roy Mason was a towering figure at one of the most difficult periods in northern Irish history.

Brave, tough, principled and resolute in the face of all that was thrown at him, providing calm, reassurance and determination. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan asked him to close things down, and close things down he did.

He took a zero tolerance approach towards terrorism. Martin McGuinness said that Roy Mason was the only Northern Ireland Secretary who impresses anybody. He explained that he impressed some of the unionists because he beat the stuffing (or words to that effect) out of us. But Roy stood up to the Loyalist strikes, too. The Reverand Ian Paisley wasn’t too complimentary.

So he upset loyalists and provisional alike. As the BBC political correspondent John Cole put it: “His colour blindness between orange and green is a positive virtue”.

Jim Callaghan had no doubts of the debt that the country owed to Roy. He readily acknowledged the pressures he was under, and personal danger he and his family were constantly in as Secretary of State. Atrocities were taking place almost daily in the province – a situation dramatically improved during his tenure.

Who could doubt in that approach he laid some important foundations towards the eventual peace settlement in that country? Who could doubt that he was one of the most important and influential members of both the Wilson and Callaghan governments? Who could doubt that he was a fine parliamentarian? His maiden speech in the Commons, 62 years ago, was in the debate on the Finance Bill.

In what is traditionally meant to be a non-controversial speech, he laid into the then Tory government for its exploitation of what he saw as the greed of the capitalist for profit and the exploitation of the fear of unemployment being instilled into the worker. As he so trenchantly put it: the wealthy made more wealthy and members of the lower income groups made relatively worse off.

He became a Life Peer in 1987. For such a distinguished member, he could have easily come and gone into the House to suit himself. But not Lord Mason.  There were only 117 Labour peers at the time when the Lords was dominated by Conservatives who could rely on hundreds of Hereditary Peers to turn up when necessary.

Lord Mason always knew where his duty lay and was an assiduous attender. In this as in much else, he was strongly supported by his wife, Lady Mason in her frequent visits by his side, as she did throughout his political career. In his wonderful autobiography, he says of his wife: “Madge was the rock on which my life was built”.

It was some measure of his stature and reputation, that shortly after his arrival, he was made a member of the most powerful Committee in the Lords – the Offices Committee, on which his wise counsel and experience were hugely valued. Intriguingly, he was also appointed to what many in the House still consider to be the most difficult committee of all: the Refreshment Committee. Difficult because 700 different Peers have 700 different views on the food they like to eat. Easy meat though I suspect to one of the toughest politicians around.

Roy enjoyed the quality of debate in the Lords and the independence of its members. I was very struck by his maiden speech in the House back In November 1987, in a debate on the pending privatisation of the electricity and coal industries. He had lost none of the fight and vigour he brought to the Commons, and railed against privatisation – something he described as a fetish, pandering to greed and a get rich quick society. He also used his experience of going underground at the age of 14 to argue against the breakup of the industry – fearing for the impact on the Barnsley area where unemployment was then at 17.4%.

In 1993, when substantive privatisation of the coal industry was being piloted through the Lords, he was withering in his criticism of the government for running it down to leave a rump of highly profitable pits for the privateers. He never gave up on his former colleagues in the pits. In November 1998, he paid tribute to his great friend Lord Lofthouse for his long campaign for recognition of emphysema as an industrial disease qualifying for compensation. Plus of course, his wonderful campaign to get recognition for the Bevin Boys; those conscripted, balloted or volunteered into the mines during the Second World War. How thrilling it was when it was announced in both Houses that the first badges would be issued in 2008.

I asked some of my colleagues in the Lords who knew Roy what they most remembered most about him. This is what they said: “Decent”, “Determined”, “ Straightforward”, “A man of complete integrity”. Quite an epitaph.

And our former Leader Ed Miliband on hearing of Roy’s death said: “He was a formidable man with a deep passion for social justice. He never forgot where he came from and was a champion of equality and fairness”. Amen to that.

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords. He tweets @LordPhilofBrum

Published 7th June 2015

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