Thursday, September 26, 2013

"Our Campaign and our Country owe him a debt of gratitude."

Tuesday morning I went to Professor Kenneth Minogue's memorial at the very fine St Bride's Church behind Fleet Street. It was a splendid occasion with good many representatives of the British, American and Australian right, two fine addresses and several equally fine readings together with three of my favourite hymns: John Bunyan's To be a Pilgrim, Jerusalem and the great Battle Hymn of the Republic, which I last sang at the memorial to Baroness Park. It is always a pleasure to leave a memorial service not only full of thoughts about the subject of it but also full of fighting spirit. There could have been no other way of remembering Ken Minogue.

On Monday, however, I heard the sad news of another death of a man who was not as well known as Ken Minogue but who, in his own way, did a great deal for the cause of euroscepticism. When and, I am afraid, if British independence will be regained Sir Robin Williams (1928 - 2013), quondam chairman of the Anti-Common Market League and for many years, through good ones and bad, the Honorary Secretary of the Campaign for an Independent Britain will be remembered as one of the heroes of the fight. (Given that Sir Robin Williams was the Hon. Sec. of that organization from 1969 to 2008, I should have expected the CIB to have something about him on the website but I cannot find anything.)

The first time I met Sir Robin was in 1992 at the first CIB meeting I attended. I went as a guest from the Anti-Federalist League to tell them, just as I had told the Freedom Association that morning that we had published the Maastricht Treaty, which the government was holding back for reasons that it never managed to explain adequately. It was an illuminating day and I met a number of people whom I was to know well in the succeeding years. One of them was a slim gentleman of slightly military bearing who tended to bark questions and instructions. He was, as I learned then, the Secretary of the CIB and a man who tended to know all the members and what they were up to.

As I became more involved in the eurosceptic movement I started meeting Sir Robin and Wendy, his wife who would grin cheerfully at people her husband was haranguing, at various events and he began to ask me when I was going to join the CIB. Eventually, realizing that I had a rooted objection to joining any organization, he solved the problem by asking my daughter and me to lunch at their Highgate home. After the lunch we went for a walk and on returning he called me into his den, where the CIB's business was transacted and where its telephone stood, put an application form in front of me and stood over me while I filled it in and signed it. I tell the story with amusement to demonstrate Robin's determination to win as many members to his organization as he could, especially those who might then be put to work.

For to work I was put and became the CIB's press officer for some years. That was the heyday of many eurosceptic organizations, who suddenly found that their cause, which had languished for years, became once again important and well-known during and after the Maastricht debates.

Though I have seen them rarely in the last few years, I became friends with both Robin and Wendy, who gave talks at the Victoria and Albert Museum to which I went several times and from which I carried away a good deal of interesting knowledge that I can still recall after some years. No lecturer could ask for more.

It could be said that Sir Robin Williams sacrificed what must have been a promising political career to his beliefs and his opposition to Britain's entry into the Common Market. His father, the first Baronet, was a Conservative MP with an unusual background for that party. Sir Herbert Williams of Cilgeraint  (1884 - 1954) received a degree in Science and Engineering at the University of Liverpool and in 1911 became secretary and manager of the Machine Tools Trade Association. He also served on Wimbledon Borough Council. From 1924 to 1929 he was Conservative MP for Reading and a member of the first Court of the University of Reading when it received its Royal Charter in 1926. This is not the career of a nostalgically minded Tory.

Sir Herbert became MP for Croydon South in a by-election in 1932 and remained that until the Labour landslide of 1945. Despite the fact that it was his close colleague, the Conservative MP for Croydon North who proposed the Beveridge Report in the House of Commons in 1944, Sir Herbert vehemently opposed it. I cannot help feeling that with that career, Robin's father would have been a supporter of Mrs Thatcher.

Interestingly, opposing government and party leadership policy did not, in those days, mean the end of your career. Sir Herbert may have lost his seat in 1945 but was re-elected in one of the reorganized Croydon seats in 1950, remaining there till his death in 1954, having been made a baronet (something his son was rightly proud of) in 1953.

There is also a curious irony to the story: Sir Herbert's daughter Rosemary married another Baronet, Sir Ian Mactaggart, a millionaire Glasgow property developer and well-known eurosceptic; their daughter and Robin Williams's niece is Fiona Mactaggart a Labour MP of extreme left-wing views and questionable veracity in statements.

Times have changed. Sir Robin Williams was set for a political career as well and as Chairman of the Bow Group in 1954 - 55 (Geoffrey Howe's predecessor) he would have become a Conservative MP at some point if it had not been for his unfortunate tendency to speak his mind, that being quite clearly a family trait. His vehement opposition to Britain's entry into the EEC meant that he had to abandon any ideas of standing for Parliament. Instead he continued at Lloyd's and devoted his political and organizational talents to the anti-EEC/EC/EU movement.

As mentioned above, he became Chairman of the Anti-Common Market League (now called Get Britain Out) when it was formed in 1969 and remained in that position till 1984. The League was a founding constituent member of the National Referendum Campaign, a cross-party organization formed to fight for a referendum and also against Britain's entry into the Common Market. Sir Robin also became the Secretary of the Campaign for an Independent Britain that grew out of that early movement and is a continuing umbrella organization for a number of eurosceptic groups of long standing. He remained that through lean years and fat ones, when the media ignored it and when it wanted to know all about it. One look at the constituent groups would indicate the difficulty any Secretary would have in keeping them all on board, all more or less at peace with each other and all supporting the umbrella organization. It is no wonder that Robin would occasionally lose his temper in committee meetings and AGMs though he usually recovered his equanimity fairly quickly.

Let me add that his support for my activities as Press Officer for the CIB and the Anti-Maastricht Alliance as well as the organizer of the Red Lion Talks (of which I really must write some time) was unstinted.

Age was beginning to tell on Robin in the last few years though he still turned up for many meetings of the Bruges Group and other events. He was there at the May AGM of the CIB but, not being a member any longer, I went to the afternoon conference, specifically to hear the Boss on the subject of Article 50 and its consequences. Robin had left. People who had been there for the AGM have told me that he was looking very frail. In a way, I am glad I did not see him though sorry that I missed that last possible occasion to exchange a few words.

As another labourer in the same vineyard wrote to me about Sir Robin Williams: Our Campaign and our Country owe him a debt of gratitude.

ADDENDUM: The Campaign for an Independent Britain have now put up an obituary, which gives a more detailed summary of his education and career.


  1. A fine obituary for a fine man. I hope he did not come to regard his unrewarded efforts as those of a life spent in vain.

  2. Thank you, Richard. I don't know what Robin's innermost thoughts were but from what I could gather I think we can assume that the thought the fight worth fighting.