Lord Wallace of Coslany, the country’s oldest Parliamentarian, died in November 2003, aged 97. He represented Chislehurst from 1945 to 1950, the first and last time Chislehurst was represented by a socialist; and Norwich North 1964-74
George Douglas Wallace was born in Cheltenham Spa in 1906, the son of a cellarman. He was educated at the Central School, Cheltenham and on leaving school became an office boy in a meat company. On moving to Kent, he became active in local politics and was elected to Chislehurst and Sidcup Urban District Council in 1937. In the Second World War he served in the Royal Air Force, as a sergeant with Fighter Command. Throughout the war he remained a councillor, taking on a series of committee chairmanships, including education and health. He also took a great interest in parks and gardens, becoming an expert amateur gardener and resident of the London Society of Residential Gardeners. He was adopted to fight the apparently impregnable Tory seat in the post-war general election. The Tory candidate was defending a 1935 General Election majority of over 26,000, but George won the seat, by almost 6300. It was an astonishing result even by the standards of that surprising landslide. From 1948 to 1950 he served in the Government Whip’s Office, under Herbert Bowden, the then Chief Whip. He lost the seat in 1950, by a mere 167. He fought it again in 1951, losing by 980; and again, for the fourth time, in 1955 but by then boundary changes as well as the prevailing mood in the leafy suburbs had given the future Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith a safe majority. In 1959 he fought, and lost, Norwich South.
His return to the Commons came in 1964, crossing the city and winning Norwich North; a seat he held comfortably until retiring from the Commons ten years later. By the time of his return to the Commons after fourteen “wasted years”, Bert Bowden was Lord President of the Council and, remembering George’s calm presence in the often frantic atmosphere of the Whip’s Office in his previous incarnation, made him his Parliamentary Private Secretary (1964-65). Following this he was PPS to the Commonwealth Secretary and then to the Minister for Housing and Local Government (1967-68).
Back in Opposition after 1970 he was a member of the Chairman’s panels (1970-74). Elevated to the Peerage in 1974 as Lord Wallace of Coslany (Coslany being a part of the city of Norwich) he served for a while on the delegation to the Council of Europe and Western European Union, and then, from 1977-79 as a Government Whip. He remained in the opposition whips’ office in the Lords until 1984 and was a front-bench spokesman on social issues.
It was his experience as a whip, in both Houses of Parliament, as well as his devotion to the Party, that gave rise to an outstandingly conscientious attendance in the chamber and the lobbies. Despite his age and failing health he continued to vote Labour in the Lords for as long as possible – though for the past few years he was on permanent leave of absence.
He never was, nor wanted to be, prominent. He did not cultivate the press, never pushed himself to make over-frequent speeches and never wanted to be fed sound-bites. He did, however, invent one – even if it didn’t stick. Opposing the withdrawal of the pound note, he nicknamed the new coin “a Maggie”, saying “it is hard, has rough edges, tends to be a nuisance and pretends to be a sovereign.” He was one of Labour’s quiet loyalists, a passionate socialist with principles undiluted, one of those who are essential to the very fabric of the Labour Party, old or new.
Alan Howarth, PLP