A Tale of Two Home Secretaries or how Politics has changed- or not- in 50 years

This is the story of two Home Secretaries who were both Scots but who visited Leek approximately 50 years apart. One had been a prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials after the Second World War and the other a former Communist whose rise in the Labour party under Tony Blair single him out as a potential Prime Minister. David Maxwell Fyfe the Home Secretary visited Leek in April 1953 and over half a century later John Reid came to Leek in November 2006.

The intervening years have indicated how changeable politics has been. For instance Maxwell Fyfe represented a working class seat in Liverpool including the Croxteth and Norris Green council estates. At the last General Election the Tories came fourth in this seat. He even managed to hold the seat in the Labour landside of 1945. I supposed it helped having a glamorous wife: he was married to Rex Harrison’s sister. During the War he served in the coalition as Solicitor General and became one of the principal prosecutors of the trial of Nazi War Criminals at the war’s end. He came out of that experience with his reputation enhanced being one of the only prosecutors to have bested Herman Goering in cross examination over the fate of prisoners of war who had escaped Stalag Luft III. Following the judgement of Nuremburg he became interested in Europe especially rebuilding the continent after the ravages of war on a legal framework of human rights. He was the principal architect of the European Convention of Human Rights which Britain ratified in 1951 by which time he had become Home Secretary.

His most controversial decision was his refusal to grant a reprieve to Derek Bentley who was hanged at the beginning of 1952. This was despite a petition of 200 MPs and the fact that Bentley was mentally retarded having only a mental age of 11. The decision had resulted in a great public outcry and strengthened the movement for the abolition of capital punishment.

When Maxwell Fyfe came to Leek in April 1953 the event was widely trailed with newspaper reports and publicity weeks before the event. Over 600 people went to the meeting at Leek Town Hall. He was in an emollient mood and spoke of the need to guarantee full employment to build 300,000 houses a year and drawing on his Liverpool experience to give decent people a decent chance by having a decent home.

When people think of the 1950s they think of peace security and of a time which was relatively crime free. In the words of Andrew Marr in his TV series on Modern Britain a time of lost content an orderly restrained Britain where men wore hats and all married women are housewives. It does not seem that from the newspapers accounts. Maxwell Fyfe’s priorities as Home Secretary have a decidedly modern ring as he told his Leek audience. His priorities were making the carrying of weapons illegal and doing something about the growth in violent assaults, increasing the numbers in the police force, making more prison places available and making Britain a more moral place.

The newspaper report from 1953 is comprehensive and gives a detailed account of all the questions that the Home Secretary is asked including the strange questions that are often the bane of politician’s life at a public meeting. One questioner asks Maxwell Fyfe he feeling that Communists are ever present trying to undermine British life by acts of sabotage and agitation in places of higher education. A Baptist minister asks him about the current crime wave. He responded by saying that cooperation was needed to raise moral standards.

John Reid became Home Secretary in May 2006. His background could not have been more different from David Maxwell Fyfe. He came to Leek last November and attended a meeting in the town following the conviction for murder of Mark Goldstraw earlier that month. The meeting, which was in front of an invited audience of 400, was organised to allay fears that local people had over the operation of the Criminal Justice system. The meeting was hurriedly arranged and Reid arrived late for the meeting. In the nature of modern politics the questions were controlled although one rogue questioner managed to raise a point on identity cards.

Both men during their time in office have had to tackle threats. In the case of Maxwell Fyfe it was the danger poised by a militant Soviet Union with nuclear weapons in a time of great instability. The month prior to Maxwell Fyfe’s visit saw the death of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and the uncertainty of who would succeed one of the greatest tyrants of the 20th century. John Reid had to battle with the threat of Islamic terrorism especially after the attack on London in July 2005. Both men wanted to see a greater emphasis on a moral or respect agenda. Even when Reid announced his retirement from Parliament he gave time to castigate human rights agenda born out of the European Convention on Human Rights which his fellow Scot and predecessor had framed.

But history has one further trick to play on Maxwell Fyfe later on his career as Lord Chancellor he said to the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that ” I am not going down in history as the man who made sodomy history” if this is so then the late Home Secretary must be spinning in his grave. As Home Secretary he was a stern supporter of the laws which at the time criminalised homosexual acts. Prosecutions rates for offences increased five fold during his tenure of office. When he spoke at Leek he said that he was opposed to Communism but he would not use Communist methods to fight illegality. This was not case in his crackdown on gay men. The actor John Gielgud among many men was arrested for importuning in 1953 by the use of entrapment. Maxwell Fyfe sanctioned the use of traps, tapped telephone calls, surveillance and forged documents in order to gain a conviction- all actions unlawful under the Convention of Human Rights that he had bought into the world. And it was that piece of legislation which was used to declare Britain’s Sexual Offences Act illegal in that prohibited certain homosexual acts.

2007 saw the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Wolfenden Report which arrived at the conclusion that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults should be no longer a criminal act. The Report had been commissioned by Maxwell Fyfe four years earlier and it was a further 10 years before the law was changed in 1967- the year that Maxwell Fyfe died. The values that he espoused were torn apart by the very document that he did so much to bring into being.