Tuesday, August 14, 2007

John Biffen 1930-2007

I was saddened to learn of the death of John Biffen this morning. He was a tremendous character who had the rare ability to entertain, inform and educate and the same time. It is sad that he will best be remembered for Bernard Ingham's cutting comment in 1987 that he was a "semi-detached" member of the government, to which he replied that Ingham was the "sewer, not the sewage."

Last year I had the pleasure of working with Lord Biffen on his autobiography. It was a characteristically honest account of his own life and his own failings. The childhood section was a pleasure to read, because although it was from a different era, it reflected my own rural upbringing in many ways, and like all good books, it sparked of many childhood memories of my own.

His account of the first few years in parliament was especially gripping, as he became an adherant of Powellism and had a testy relationship with Edward Heath.

John Biffen was perhaps too honest a politician for his own good. But as a failing, it's not a bad one to have.

Members of the Conservative History Group always appreciated his attendance at their meetings, where he would be ready with some great insight and a good joke. We will all miss him terribly.

My best wishes go out to Sara, John's wife, who has been a tower of strength to him throughout his long illness. They got married comparatively late in life but have been a totally devoted couple. I'm thinking of her today.

UPDATE: I've created a facebook group where you can leave tributes and 'vurtually' sign a condolence book HERE.
UPDATE: Margaret Thatcher has paid tribute to John Biffen. She said: "John was an outstanding Parliamentarian, a widely respected Leader of the House of Commons and a great British patriot."


Archbishop Cranmer said...

His Grace is immeasurably saddened to read of this, and sends his sincere condolences to Mrs Biffen and the family.

John Biffen was not only honest, he was a man of principle, and was also a staunch believer in the sovereignty of the House of Commons - three attributes sadly lacking in the overwhelming majority of the present incumbents.

Andrew Ian Dodge said...

The death of Biffen is very sad. He was a good man and one of the characters in the Commons.

After losing yet another one could Cameron, since he seems to love them, come up with a quota for "interesting" characters on the MPs list. The HoC is in desperate need of the sort of person Biffen was.

Sen. C.R.O'Blene said...

Always ammired his straight-forward eloquence.

I reckoned in his day, he knocked spots off most of his colleagues, purely by his attitude to talking sense, and being able to make things happen.

Johnny Norfolk said...

Spoke his mind and did what he said he would do.

Not many left like that.

I send my condolences to his family and friends.

Anonymous said...

I am not a Conservative, but would like to read at least the early part of John Biffen's autobiography. Has it been published?

I lived in the same parish as he grew up in and attended the same school, Dr Morgan's Grammar School for Boys - although rather later than him.

Anonymous said...

Iain, you write:

"John Biffen was perhaps too honest a politician for his own good. But as a failing, it's not a bad one to have."

Hmmm......... so 'honesty' is to be considered a failing amongst today's politicians. And you wonder why 39% of the electorate didn't vote last time.

I would argue that the Brown bounce is largely attributable to his 'apparent' honesty. If one looks just a little below the surface it's clear that it's just spin. And spin is a euphemism for deceit.

If the Tories were to adopt an underlying policy of Integrity, they would sweep the country. The trouble is nobody would believe them.

Sadly this is the inevitable consequence of bicycling (not forgetting his chauffeur) Dave aping the deceitful ways of Bliar, Campbell and Mandelson. And now we've got the ex editor of the News of the Screws in on the act.

Would that there were a few 'Biffen' types lurking in the wings of today's Tory party.

Unsworth said...

Comments here emphasise the great public yearning for honesty and integrity in our politicians. Biffen had both in spades, together with a decent brain.

It's not solely a loss to the Conservatives, his death represents a loss to the nation. We need people like him, rather than the incompetent show-biz manipulators of recent years.

kinglear said...

I knew his wife Sara when she was just marrying JB - good Scots lass.
JB had principles - something sadly lacking am,ongst many of our present leaders

Matt Buck said...

I think Biffen was one of the nominees for Betty Boothroyd as first femaile speaker of the HoC. Now, there's something to be proud of.

The following copy is from the Grauniad in 1992.

> Her proposer, the former Conservative Leader of the House, John Biffen, promised she would protect dissent in all its forms and urged his Tory colleagues to adopt a 'doctrine of constructive myopia' and overlook her party affiliation in favour of her five-year apprenticeship as a deputy speaker and her 20 years among 'the fraternity of suffering' as a backbench MP.

And he was also brave and principled (or, honest) enough to fall out with Mrs T.

A sad loss.

strapworld said...

I send my sincere condolences to Mrs Biffen and the family.

"John Biffen was perhaps too honest a politician for his own good. But as a failing, it's not a bad one to have." said Iain, which I can take it he is telling the electorate that what they have long considered, that all politicians are not honest!

He was a great supporter of Enoch Powell and I believe Mr Powell greatly appreciated that support.

My father was Enoch Powell's agent in Wolverhampton and I met that great man many times.

What towers he and Mr Biffen were! So many pygmies these days.

Anonymous said...

What? Ten comments, and no puerile comment from a Labour Party sock puppet yet?

Anonymous said...

I knew John Biffen quite well. He was not only brave and principled, but he had a wonderful sense of humour. He was remarkable also in the way that he coped with his weekly dialysis, treating it in a matter of fact way, and once recounting a medical emergency one summer as if it was just one of those things; indeed, he recounted it with a smile. He observed the world with wry and insightful bemusement; it is difficult to think of an occasion when he did not deploy his sense of humour. He was a modest man who enjoyed observing what was happening. He was also an excellent judge of character. I shall miss him enormously.

Anonymous said...

As a scottish constituent and nationalist I can't say I have much knowledge of John Biffen (nor much fondeness of the government he served!). But I have read a book by John Biffen called 'Inside Westminster'. An interesting read about the speaker, whips office, public gallery, motions, petitions, guillotine, maiden speeches etc. Basically covering all the weird and wonderful ancient things that characterises the Westminster Parliament. A very factual book with some personal insight and not at all biased in any way. From his writing he sounded like and a thoroughly decent fellow and I appreciated enthusiasm for parliament and respect for its traditions.

Tapestry said...

John was our MP at Oswestry in the '50s. In his bachelor days, my Mum invited him to lunch at our farm most Sundays. He taught me to play cricket on the lawn when I was 4 - a game he loved although he had little skill!

Later on in the mid-70s I lived for a while in his apartment in Vauxhall, from where he biked to the HoC every day (no Lexus behind). He always came back late and left early so I rarely saw him.

Pre-Sara he led a quiet home life and worked extraordinarily long hours. He then became a very well known figure on the national scene.

He assisted one or two campaigns I ran (mostly frustration with early EU regulations in the 1990's) by forwarding letters to relevant Ministers. As he was in the Cabinet, this carried considerable weight, and we had some successes such as making it much easier for developers of new buildings to get regulators to work together rather than in competition with each other.

If only it was possible to get a John Biffen letter to achieve as much nowadays. It's always impossible now as the reply comes back - 'sorry. the proposal is impossible because of our treaty obligations etc.

John often had a wry smile on his face, and would throw his head back when he laughed. He always asked in detail after everyone.

Despite his illness he still attended the Lords until fairly recently, and was always interested to talk about the latest developments in the Party.

It is a sad day that he is gone as everyone who met him liked him. He always had time for everone else. Shropshire will not be the same without him around, where he and Sara would attend Point to Point Races and the like.

Sara should get his autobiography published when she is ready, as people would love to know all about John as a person as well as a politican.

Sea Shanty Irish said...

Some really fine tributes here, esp. from those fortunate to know Mr. Buffen personally. His humor, humanity, intelligence & integrity all shine through.

Iain's own tribute to John Biffen is especially interesting given ID's undying devotion to Margaret Thatcher. Who of course provided the raw "sewage" against Biffen that her willing & able "sewer" Bernard Ingham pumped out so industriously to kill JB's career. (Not that I'm blaiming MT or BI, politics is a rough trade all right, but 'tis a fact.)

Biffen's story is a cautionary tale for today's Tories. Because JB was a man of the right (back when Thatcher's own views were indistinguishable from Ted Heath's) who was the canary in the coal mine, warning that the wretched excesses of Thatcherism would end up with the Tory Party deeply shafted.

PS: How come JB never got the PEERAGE for which he was so obviously suited . . . when you guys hand them out like hot muffins to polecats like Lords Archer & Black?

Tapestry said...

I remember asking him in the 1980s about the shadowing of the D-Mark when Lawson was all for it, and Thatcher was against it. He said he definitely thought Thatcher was right.

Sadly as we know the Europhiles wrecked the golden inheritance.

If she had been able to control Lawson, we would not have got so far into the ERM, and Black Wednesday would never have happened. The whole of British politics might have taken another turn.

John was too intelligent for the bulk of the others, but was not a forceful character. He accepted that in politics the wrong side often wins, and you have to make the best of it. He just smiled his wry smile...He told me last year that he thought Liam Fox would have made a good leader.

Iain Dale said...

Sea Shanty. I don't understand your point. He did get a Peerage - he was Lord Biffen of Tanat.

Sea Shanty Irish said...

PLEASE ignore the ignorant first paragraph of my comment above - should have read Tapestry's excellent testimonial a bit more thoroughly!

BTW, Tapestry, your own comment above is truly outstanding. Should consider putting it in the local Shropshire paper(s) am certain folks there would really appeciate it.

Sea Shanty Irish said...

Iain, that should be ignorant LAST paragraph . . . at least I think so . . .

Newmania said...

Strap world - Enoch Powell achieved nothing was a bloody awful poet and made calamitous speech that the right has still not recovered from.

Can`t say I share your admiration

Anonymous said...

Not only was John Biffen elevated to the peerage but he was also a good House of Lords man. He attended regularly, including up to the summer recess, and the environment suited his reflective and always interesting speeches. He was widely respected and the House will miss him.

Anonymous said...

I shared a lift with him once, and he mentioned that he was, among other things, a Fabian.

This would have got him a vote in Labour Party leadership elections. Wonder whether he ever used it?

Anonymous said...

"Enoch Powell achieved nothing was a bloody awful poet and made calamitous speech that the right has still not recovered from."

I am grateful for Newmania posting the above total ignoramus comment as it signals to me that I should ignore all his future comments, if that is his level of knowledge and understanding. Strange sort of lack of "recovery" that led to 18 years of Tory rule. Strange sort of "nothing" achievement that was the precursor to Mrs T's economic policy, the intellectual foundation of euroscepticism and the greatest parliamentary speaker of the second half of the 20th century. He may be right about Enoch's poetry for all I know. As for John Biffen, he was Enoch with humility and humour (and without the scope for misinterpreting as racist) - a winning combination which many of us will always remember with the greatest fondness.

strapworld said...

newmania..you sir are typical of people who get their 'knowledge' of that 'calamatous' speech from soundbites and selective reporting.

Mr Powell was a scholar, indeed a Greek Scholar and I would suggest, before you mind gets warped by 'rivers of blood' selective comments that you read Simon Hoggards quite brilliant book on a great man.

Poetry, is like beauty, in the eyes of the beholder!

Your comment does show a definate lack of research.

Paul Linford said...


I think you mean Simon Heffer.

Anonymous said...

Re strapworlds' confusion of Simon Heffer with Simon Hoggard (a humourist I think): whilst I agree that Heffer's book on Powell is very fine (although also too long; I have never succeeded in reading it all), the confusion of one who was once a serious commentator (Heffer) with a humourist (Hoggard) is not surprising since Heffer has made himself such a figure of fun with his pathetically obsessive and tabloidesque Saturday column in the Telegraph. The only problem is that Heffer is not funny.

"Why oh why" has the Telegraph adopted this Daily Mail ranter? All the more sad as we know he could be intelligent if he tried.

Anonymous said...

From what i've read about John Biffen over the last couple of days it appears fitting that so many tributes are being paid not only here, but elsewhere to a figurehead who was unafraid to share his honest opinion in parliament. I would therefore like to share with you all a fitting tribute to John Biffen which I found here

Anonymous said...

When is his autobiography coming out? It has been two years now. His other book "Inside Westminster" is great!!!