Lord Bruce of Donington 1912-2005

Pugnacious and authoritative, Lord Bruce of Donington, who has died aged 92, was a misleading man. With his hunched, stocky build, weatherbeaten face, beetle brows and slit eyes, he had the look of a Lincolnshire Tory farmer who had inherited his title.

In fact, he was a chartered accountant from Surrey, who had won Portsmouth North for Labour in 1945 and served as Aneurin Bevan’s parliamentary private secretary for five years at the Ministry of Health, during the crucial early days of the national health service. He became a life peer in 1974, having nagged Labour leader Harold Wilson for years to allow him to carry the flag in the Lords for “the greatest socialist of them all”.

For the next 25 years, apart from the period 1975-79, which he spent in the European parliament, Bruce served Labour actively in the Lords. As a loyalist Keynesian accountant and expert on the EEC, he was one of his party’s little-noticed frontbench spokesmen – on the Treasury, economics and industry (1979-83), trade and industry (1983-86) and the Treasury (1986-90). He was on the Lords’ select committee on the European communities from 1991.

This all ended in 1997. With the election of the Blair government, Bruce announced himself as “having been excluded from all committees connected with the European Community”. Age may have been a factor, since he was 84 years old, albeit hale and hearty. But, crucially, he was a bitter foe of Euro-federalism, and had fought its advance since the 1970s, though with none of the chauvinism of Tory Europhobe peers.

Bruce was born in Norbury, Surrey, the son of an insurance broker, WT Bruce, and his wife, Mary. After Norbury preparatory school, he attended grammar school in Donington, Lincolnshire, served his articles and be came a chartered accountant and industrial economist.

At 19, he joined the Territorial army and entered politics as a Young Conservative, only to leave in 1931 when “we came off the gold standard after having said in the election campaign that we did not intend to do so”. The crisis precipitated what Bruce described as “a great deal of thinking”, after which he joined the pacifist Independent Labour party, and then, in 1935, the Labour party. He became a devoted reader of Tribune – and later a contributor – from its first issue in 1937.

Having left the Territorials in 1935, he rejoined in 1939, and, within months, was commissioned in the Royal Signals in signals intelligence, rising to the rank of major in 1942. Appointed to the general staff in 1943, he joined General Eisenhower’s supreme allied headquarters in 1944. Early in 1945, he returned from France to interrogate a captured high- ranking German staff officer.

Bruce first met Bevan when he called in at the Tribune office with some articles on the Balkans. “He was somewhat surprised to see an army major in front of him,” Bruce wrote, “and long afterwards confided that his first thought was that I was from special branch. Although our initial encounter was brief, we corresponded frequently thereafter and, aside from our political affinity, I found much common ground in our shared appreciation of the works of Lewis Mumford, including the famous Culture Of The Cities.”

Immediately after his unexpected election win in May 1945, Bruce was asked by Bevan to become his parliamentary private secretary. His work on the emerging NHS included visits to Sweden and Denmark to observe those countries’ socialised health provisions. He was known to political insiders as “Nye’s hairshirt” because of his resistance to the compromises that Bevan sometimes thought necessary. Intriguingly, in the light of his later views, in 1947 he co-authored a Keep Left pamphlet urging a federal Europe.

Then, in 1950, Bruce lost his redrawn Portsmouth seat by 945 votes. When, in 1951, Bevan, John Freeman and Harold Wilson resigned from the Attlee government’s US-instigated rearmament programme, Bruce had only a walk-on part in the ensuing Bevanite movement, having become a director of two con struction companies. He sat out the next two general elections but stood again in 1959 and 1964, failing to win the Wrekin. After that, he reportedly wrote to Wilson every six months asking to be allowed to work for Labour in the Lords. Wilson capitulated after unexpectedly returning to power in 1974.

In the 1975 referendum debate on Europe, Bruce warned of the threat of increased VAT if Britain remained in the EEC. Despite this, he was delegated that year to the European parliament, which he found “infuriatingly well-behaved”. He also became rapporteur on the European budget, and, in 1979, refused to sign the EC accounts because of “scandalous duplicity” in the handling of its financial controls.

His interest in Tribune continued, and, in 1983, as a holder of 60 shares, he backed the resistance of fellow shareholder John Silkin MP against the attempted takeover by the Bennites, led by the magazine’s then editor, Chris Mullin.

After his return to the Lords in 1979, Bruce continued his anti-EC activities. He felt the European budget should be used to redistribute wealth from rich to poorer regions, and, in 1986, he opposed Margaret Thatcher’s Single European Act as leading to a “pan-European unitary state”. That November, it looked as though he was making progress, when he succeeded the pro-European Lord Barnett as chief Labour Treasury spokesman in the Lords.
In October 1990, when John Major opted for the exchange rate mechanism (ERM), Bruce correctly warned against joining it at an over-valued rate. The following year, he warned that European Monetary Union (EMU) “propelled by a non-elected commission bent on establishing itself as the new executive arm of a new European supranational state” would be backed by “well-heeled support from corporate power in the UK”.

He was livid when, in 1995, Peter Mandelson dismissed the Eurosceptics as “xenophobic and fundamentally unpatriotic”. As a former officer, mentioned in dispatches, he unsuccessfully demanded a retraction.

A fellow former officer, Lord (Hugh) Jenkins of Putney, once described Bruce as “a fine and vigorous friend of mine. If I was in real trouble, I would go to him. He would not ask me whether I was guilty. He would just make sure that the other man did not show his face in public for a long time. He is that sort of friend.”
Bruce is survived by his second wife, Cerena Shaw, whom he married in 1981, and a son and a daughter from his first marriage. Two daughters predeceased him.
• Donald William Trevor Bruce, Lord Bruce of Donington, politician and accountant, born October 3 1912; died April 18 2005

The Guardian