Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A rareity - A nice man in Politics

The death on October 9th at the age of 78 of Sir Sydney Chapman, whilst not unexpected by those of us who saw him at the funeral of his former Association Chairman and President Don Goodman a month earlier, has nevertheless caused an immense amount of sadness to many in Chipping Barnet .

Sydney came to Barnet in 1979 having been Chairman of the National Committee of the Young Conservatives ( when they were a power in Land) and four years as Member of Parliament for Birmingham Handsworth  . Having lost his seat in the "who governs Britain " election of February 1974, Sydney spent 5 years fruitlessly touring the Country looking for another seat until being selected ( unexpectedly beating the local favourite Bob Brum ) in Chipping Barnet following the death of the alcoholic former Home Secretary Reggie Maudling .

Maudling despite holding two of the Great Offices of State , Chancellor under Sir Alec Douglas Home and Home Secretary, until disgraced, under Edward Heath had an appalling reputation as a Constituency MP . Maudling lived just outside Potters Bar but was seen rarely in his constituency, rumour has it only twice a year for his Association Christmas Bazaar and AGM. Every five years he turned up at his re-adoption meeting .

This was not a mistake Sydney Chapman was going to make . He was an assiduous Constituency MP moving into Ravenscroft Park and later Salisbury Road, sending his children to local schools and at weekends carrying out endless engagements at school fetes , Church services , community activities and even turning up on Christmas Day to greet the elderly guests at the Barnet and East Barnet Rotary Club Lunch. He was an Honorary  Member and assiduous supporter of the Rotary Club and so many other local organisations . However Monday to Thursday and sometimes Friday he was at Westminster as being a traditional MP he believed his constituents had elected him to turn up at Westminster and speak up for them there. Not for him the "glorified Social worker " approach which some modern MPs have adopted.

This approach paid off not least in 1997 where at the count at Hendon Sports Centre , Sydney saw colleagues from neighbouring constituencies fall on huge swings to Labour . As Portillo , John Marshall and the bone idle Sir John Gorst disappeared under the red tide Sir Sydney became more and more agitated "I'm out, I'm out, I'm finished " he told despondent constituency workers . Having been instructed to pull himself together by his now former wife Claire he survived by 1035 votes after a fraught recount at 5.30am in the morning . The swing in Chipping Barnet was one of the lowest in North London . I lost count of the number of doorsteps in that campaign where voters said we are fed up with the Tory party but will vote for Sydney . That election was a new experience for Sydney as rather than tour the Country supporting friends in marginal seats he found himself defending one , indeed I remember his shock at having doors slammed in his face ( Mayfield Avenue )  although Arsenal were playing a European match that night which probably had more to do with it . His usual relaxed election day routine of touring Committee rooms and have a leisurely dinner was dumped at the urgent entreaties of his more realistic agent , in favour of sitting on the telephone knocking up

Diligent in dealing with Constituency correspondence his wife Claire was an advert for why MPs should employ their relations , he never interfered or commented on matters which were the remit of his local Councillors . He was always totally loyal to his Conservative Councillor colleagues not least he realised they were his eyes and ears on the ground in the Constituency. Indeed when spending cuts forced the closure of the underused Totteridge Library, constituents who wrote to him received a polite reply in which he pointed out Barnet Council had lost a substantial amount of it's central Government grant and as ever it was the fault of the wicked Labour Government .

Sydney immensely enjoyed his years as a whip especially  in his dealings with Her Majesty the Queen whilst serving as Vice Chamberlain of the Household . His clever, amusing and easy to read memoirs "Back to the drawing Board" clearly show his rapport with HM . When John Major sacked him in 1995 he apparently said to Sydney whilst sitting at the Cabinet table "Sydney , there is good news and bad news , the bad news is I need to make room for younger men but the news is the Queen has approved an immediate Knighthood for you " . The reaction from the newly knighted Sydney Chapman was " I really wanted to be a Privy Councillor" .

It was rare to hear Sydney say a cross word about anyone . However he was no pushover and had firmly held views. In 2001 I heard him firmly put down Roger Gale MP who was canvassing support for a possible David Davis leadership bid with "Where was David in the 97 Parliament when I had to return to the front bench to be shadow Minister for London ? Off indulging himself as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee ! " A supporter of William Hague's Leadership campaign in 97 Sydney was firmly in the Ken Clarke camp by 2001.

He enjoyed his work on the Council of Europe and was as supporter of Cyprus not least because it allowed him to travel around Europe with his mates from the House of Commons of all Parties. Indeed his friendship with the late Rudi Vis MP for Finchley and Golders Green was strong and Rudi came  to the renaming of the Hadley Green Slip Road as "Sydney Chapman Way" when Barnet Council marked Sydney's 25 years as MP for Chipping Barnet . They both also shared a mutual antipathy to the Borough's then third MP .

It was no secret that Sydney enjoyed a drink and a convivial dinner. Indeed at  Sydney's retirement Dinner at Hatfield House in 2005 the guest speaker William Hague remarked in his speech " that Sydney was so well regarded in Chipping Barnet that the Council had named a road after him , Sydney Chapman Way , presumably the way to the Pub !" That brought the house down with Sydney leading the laughter . However Sydney's after dinner speeches were legendary and it seemed to me the more red wine he had consumed the funnier the speech . At the 2000 Party Conference it fell to Sydney to deliver the speech at the Agents dinner, the then customary black tie curtain raiser to the week and despite it being past 11pm and the end of a long evening Sydney's speech was one of the cleverest and funniest I have ever heard.

Never stuck in his ways and always available to listen , I am not sure he quite forgave me for getting him out canvassing on a Sunday afternoon in my 2000 GLA election . "Is this really necessary ?" he asked but when I won by a narrow margin of just 551 he conceded it had been !

However Sydney Chapman was that extreme rarity , a genuinely nice man in Politics , loyal to his Party , loyal to his friends , and loyal to his constituents.


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