Liberal MP and human rights campaigner who threw the Tories into turmoil by winning the landmark Orpington by-election in 1962.
Lord Avebury, who has died aged 87, was, as Eric Lubbock, the victor of the sensational Orpington by-election in 1962 which sparked hopes of a Liberal revival. An irrepressible, boyish technocrat reminiscent of the young Tony Benn, he campaigned for human rights during a lengthy parliamentary career, most of it in the Lords.
Avebury converted to Buddhism and tried to bequeath his body to Battersea Dogs Home to vary the inmates’ diet. Yet he was rated highly enough by his peers to be one of three Liberal Democrat hereditaries elected to represent their colleagues when Tony Blair began reforming the Lords.
When elected to Orpington council in 1961, Eric Lubbock was indistinguishable from the herd of besuited commuters from the Kentish dormitory suburb. Yet within a year “Orpington Man” was a household phrase after his overthrow of a 14,760 Conservative majority.
The seat fell vacant when the incumbent, Donald Sumner, was appointed a county court judge. The Liberal candidate stood down amid rumours of bigamy and Lubbock, then 33, took his place. The Conservatives delayed the poll for months before installing Peter Goldman, head of the Conservative Political Centre, as their candidate.
Having come third in 1959 the Liberals were discounted, the Labour candidate Alan Jinkinson presenting Lubbock with a hot water bottle “to stop him getting cold feet”. Lubbock – who wore out five pairs of shoes during the campaign – branded Goldman “a hack foisted on Orpington by Conservative Central Office”; Tories in turn accused the Liberals of slurs against Goldman, whose family were Jewish converts to Anglicanism.
Lubbock and his vivacious Austrian-Irish wife Kina campaigned frenetically at Orpington station during rush hour. It appeared an early Liberal surge had petered out; then an opinion poll put Lubbock ahead, and on March 14 1962 he swept home by 7,855 votes, handing his party a momentum it had not dreamed of recovering.
His victory exploded a depth charge under a weary government; Harold Macmillan’s sacking of seven Cabinet ministers, and the abolition of Schedule A Income Tax – deeply resented by Orpington’s housebuyers – ensued. Labour soon became the prime beneficiary of the mood for change, but Orpington helped the Liberals maintain the gradual recovery begun at Torrington four years before.
It took the Conservatives three more elections to oust Lubbock. A giant poster outside the station reading “Vote for Eric” was for a time more than a match for the massive effort mounted to unseat him. In 1964 local Tories, among them Margaret and Denis Thatcher, fielded the redoubtable Norris McWhirter, but Lubbock won by a comfortable 3,072 votes; two years later he survived by 1,622, again against McWhirter, and it was 1970 before Ivor Stanbrook finally ousted him.
Eric Reginald Lubbock was born on September 29 1928, the only son of Wing Cdr Maurice Fox Pitt Lubbock, sixth son of the first Baron Avebury, and the Hon Katherine Stanley, daughter of the 5th Baron Stanley of Alderley. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Harrow and Balliol College, leaving Oxford with an Engineering degree and a boxing Blue; he returned to the ring for a charity bout at 36 but was knocked out.
After National Service with the Welsh Guards he joined Rolls-Royce, working as an export salesman and, later, technical assistant to the foundry manager at Derby. In 1953 he moved into management consultancy with his father’s firm Production Engineering, then in 1960 joined the Charterhouse Group.
As “new boy” in a seven-strong parliamentary party, Lubbock’s efforts to acquire gravitas were not helped by Private Eye launching a diary by “Eric Buttock” describing the Commons through the eyes of a prep school oik. Lubbock campaigned over the deficiencies of his commuters’ train service, and became the toast of Fleet Street by fighting the discontinuance of the sub-editors’ night train home to Petts Wood.
He soon showed his interest in human rights, petitioning for incitement to racial hatred to be made a criminal offence; accusing the Portuguese and Spanish governments of “suppressing the rule of law”; and joining the committees of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the United Nations Association. He opposed American military action in Vietnam, campaigned for fluoride in water, was an early advocate of a ban on cigarette advertising and urged a halt to obscenity proceedings against the novel Fanny Hill. Jo Grimond rated him a quick learner and in July 1963 appointed him party whip.
In 1964 Lubbock secured a review of the Timothy Evans case, which brought exoneration 15 years after Evans’ execution for the murder of his wife and baby daughter. To the fury of Tories eager to oust Harold Wilson’s infant Labour Government with its tiny majority, Lubbock reduced the effective voting strength of the Opposition by striking a deal for a Liberal to be installed as a non-voting deputy speaker, thus countering the loss to Labour of a voting member through the election of Dr Horace King as Speaker.
In 1966, with Liberal strength boosted to 12, Lubbock became spokesman for technology and power. He remained chief whip, requiring all Liberal MPs to declare their business interests and securing more parliamentary time at the expense of the Tory Opposition.
He was one of the first MPs to warn of rising tension in Ulster; accused the Transport and General Workers’ Union of breach of privilege for instructing its general secretary Frank Cousins on how to vote in the House; and encouraged Labour MPs to rebel over the Nigerian civil war. He promoted the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, which gave security to many mobile home dwellers .
The high point of Lubbock’s party career came in 1967 when Grimond stood down as leader. Lubbock staged the election with panache – using a champagne cooler for a ballot box – and an interest in the outcome. Three MPs backed him, three supported Emlyn Hooson and six backed Jeremy Thorpe; Lubbock, after pressing Richard Wainwright to go for the job, gave Thorpe his enduring support, repeatedly attacking loose cannons in the party for criticising his leadership.
Thorpe valued Lubbock’s loyalty, and when in the 1970 election – a disaster for the Liberals – the Conservatives regained Orpington, he found this defeat the hardest to take. Lubbock, in turn, stood bail for Thorpe eight years later when he was charged with conspiracy to murder his former lover Norman Scott.
Lubbock was only out of Parliament for a year. In 1971 the death of his cousin, the 3rd Baron, resolved a dilemma over whether to contest Orpington again. As an MP he had indicated he would renounce his peerage, but after some hesitation he took his seat as the 4th Baron Avebury. He kept his interest in elective politics, standing for the Greater London Council in 1973 and chairing the Liberals’ 1974 General Election Committee. Lady Avebury, however, failed in her own bid to recapture Orpington.
Avebury resumed his business career with the technical publisher Morgan Grampian, remaining with them until his retirement, and took up several directorships and consultancies. For three years from 1972 he was President of the British Data Processing Society, and in 1976 he was appointed to the Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life, arising from the Poulson affair.
In the Lords Avebury became a valuable spokesman, first on technology and, from 1977, on energy and race relations, but he always championed his chosen causes, more than once urging Liberals to repudiate supposedly racist candidates. He became a regular signatory of letters to the press from the Left-of-centre establishment, the signature “Avebury” usually appearing at the top.
He led the defence fund for the then Young Liberal Peter Hain when he was cleared of robbing a bank, and promoted a Bill to end imprisonment for soliciting. He travelled widely for Amnesty International, denouncing Bolivian elections as “crooked”, being expelled from Sri Lanka, refused permission to see detainees in South Africa and harassed by police in Guyana.
As chairman for two decades of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, Avebury condemned the Marxist regime in Ethiopia, Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor and Turkey’s treatment of Kurds. He led the campaign against the Soviet Union’s detention of dissidents in mental hospitals, being arrested during a demonstration at the London offices of Aeroflot. He also campaigned for more flexible immigration rules; by the early 1980s ministers were complaining of borderline cases arriving at UK airports armed with Avebury’s telephone number.
Avebury quietly converted to Theravada Buddhism in the 1970s. He showed his first public sign of self-denial in 1981 when, now a teetotaller, he delivered an attack on drinking by politicians which prompted anger in the Commons, particularly over a claim that Churchill was “paralytically drunk” for much of the war.
Then, in 1987, he delighted the tabloids by announcing he would leave his body to the Battersea Dogs Home in protest at the cost and environmental impact of cremation. Avebury, who, the Sun noted, would “fill 168 1lb tins of doggydins”, met a rebuff from the Home, whose manager said: “The dogs aren’t fussy, but we just could not do it.”
His proposal provoked a tide of ridicule, Labour’s Tony Banks asking the minister of agriculture for an undertaking that “we will not have an EEC mountain of dead Liberals”. Avebury – who threatened to disinherit his children unless he got his way – persisted, saying: “If the dogs won’t have me, perhaps the cats will.” Forced to consider an alternative, he pondered burial at sea before opting for interment – minus a coffin.
Avebury retained a nose for the big story, and in 1998 came close to derailing Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary by exposing the Sandline affair, in which British diplomats had reputedly connived at the supply of weapons and expertise to mercenaries hired to reinstate the elected government of Sierra Leone after its removal in a coup.
It took several embarrassing select committee sessions and an inquiry under Sir Thomas Legg before ministers were cleared of misleading Parliament. But radical changes followed in Foreign Office procedures after the discovery that crucial telegrams had never been read and that the High Commissioner in Freetown was unaware of Government policy.
In 2001, when knocked from his bicycle outside the Lords, he complained that of three cameras supposedly monitoring the scene, two were not working and the third faced the wrong way.
Avebury’s main recreation was music; he was president of the London Bach Society and the Steinitz Bach Players. He was also president of the Conservation Society for a decade, attacking in his inaugural speech the “illusion that there can be an everlasting growth in wealth and incomes”.
He married first, in 1953, Kina Maria, daughter of Count Joseph O’Kelly de Gallagh, with whom he had two sons and a daughter; the marriage was dissolved in 1983. In 1985 he married secondly, Lindsay Stewart, the daughter of the novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson. She survives him along with their son and the children of his first marriage.
He is succeeded as 5th Baron by his eldest son, the Hon Lyulph Ambrose Jonathan Lubbock .
- Lord Avebury, born September 29 1928, died February 14 2016