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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Julia Langdon

Lord Clinton-Davis obituary

Stanley Clinton-Davies in 1978.
Stanley Clinton-Davies in 1978. Photograph: ANL/Shutterstock

Stanley Clinton-Davis, Lord Clinton-Davis, the former Labour minister, who has died aged 94, had a lively political career for more than half a century, as a councillor in his native London borough of Hackney, as a government trade minister in both houses of parliament, and as a UK member of the European Commission in Brussels. It was as a far-seeing environment commissioner in 1987 that he first drew attention to the extent of pollution in British water caused by sewage and waste disposal, warning prophetically of the speed and scale with which this problem was likely to grow.

Clinton-Davis was also a successful lawyer who founded and built a thriving practice of solicitors, and he used both law and politics to try to improve the quality of people’s lives and to defend and foster the environment.

He wrote his name into parliamentary history as the first MP to ask a question of Margaret Thatcher after she became prime minister in 1979, challenging her on pensions, fuel policy and her reputed stridency, on her first Commons outing. He could also lay claim to having given Michael Heseltine the nickname “Tarzan”. He dubbed the then opposition industry spokesman with this lasting sobriquet following a disorderly scene, in 1976, when Heseltine had angrily grabbed the Commons’ mace and waved it in protest at the Labour government’s controversial legislation to nationalise part of the aircraft and shipbuilding industries.

Stanley was born in Hackney Downs, in north-east London, the only child of Sidney Davis, an East End tailor, and his wife, Lily (nee Levene). He went to Hackney Downs school before winning a scholarship to Mercers’ school in the City of London, and from there a place to study law at King’s College London. He graduated in 1950 and was admitted as a solicitor in 1953.

He had joined the Labour party aged 15, formed the Labour Society at King’s during the heady days of the postwar Attlee government and joined the executive council of the National Association of Labour Student Organisations.

He fought his first general election in the safe Conservative seat of Portsmouth Langstone in 1955 and in 1959 was selected for Yarmouth, a Tory-held marginal, which he might have won, had it not been the year of Harold Macmillan’s “never-had-it-so-good” triumph. He stood again in Yarmouth in 1964, this time halving the Tory majority, but by now was ensconced in local politics, having joined Hackney council in 1959.

He chaired its welfare committee from 1967 until 1968 and was proud of having introduced the novelty of continental holidays for disabled people in the borough. He was mayor of Hackney from 1968 until 1969

His election as the MP for Hackney Central in 1970 proved somewhat dynastic. He inherited the seat from Herbert Butler, also a former Hackney councillor and mayor who had been political agent to Herbert Morrison who, likewise, had been Hackney MP, councillor and mayor.

In his maiden speech Clinton-Davis invoked the philosophy of Martin Luther King to call for racial justice, tolerance and equality and won praise for an “accomplished” contribution. When Harold Wilson returned as prime minister in February 1974, Clinton-Davis was appointed to the frontbench as the junior trade minister with responsibility for companies, aviation and shipping.

He retained that post until 1979, attracting national attention as the minister dealing with the sensational collapse of the Court Line holiday business in 1974, when 49,000 holidaymakers were stranded abroad, and the sinking of the supertanker Amoco Cadiz, which caused a major Channel oil spill in 1978.

In opposition, Clinton-Davis was deputy trade spokesman and then joined the foreign affairs team during Michael Foot’s tenure as party leader. He lost his Commons seat in 1983 when his constituency was abolished and he failed to secure selection for either of the two new Hackney seats. In the bitter aftermath of the 1981 Labour deputy leadership election, he was rebuffed by local party leftwingers for having supported Denis Healey, who had defeated the left’s candidate Tony Benn.

He returned to the political fray in 1985 as one of the two UK European commissioners. He did not secure the development brief as he had hoped, but went on to make a considerable impact as the member of the commission headed by Jacques Delor, with responsibility for the environment, transport and nuclear safety.

He repeatedly criticised the Thatcher government’s policies on green issues and water pollution, telling the 1988 Labour conference that the UK was “the dirty man of Europe”. The following year Thatcher refused to allow his nomination for a second four-year term and after his return home he was appointed to the Lords in 1990.

Clinton-Davis (who hyphenated his name by deed poll as a peer) was a busy and popular member of the upper house. He was opposition transport spokesman until 1997, when he returned to the ministerial front bench as minister of state at the Department of Trade and Industry during Tony Blair’s first year of government. Thereafter he returned to legal practice. He stood down as a peer in 2018.

In 1954 he married Frances (Frankie) Lucas, a former journalist who became a magistrate. She survives him, together with their four children, Joanna, Henry, Susanna and Melissa.

• Stanley Clinton-Davis, Lord Clinton-Davis, politician and lawyer, born 6 December 1928; died 11 June 2023

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