Labour MP who became the first woman Minister of State for Foreign Affairs
WHITE, the former Labour MP Eirene White who has died aged 90,
represented East Flint, Wales, from 1950 to 1970; she was also the
first woman to hold the office of Minister of State for Foreign
Eirene White first came to prominence in 1947 when, as a little
known Labour activist, she was elected to the Women's Section of the
party's National Executive.
Six years later, she created a sensation when, in a
characteristically independent and courageous protest against what
she called the "bludgeons of the Right and poisoned arrows of the
Left", she refused to stand for election to the Executive again.
This was a gesture that reflected the feelings of many moderate
Labour supporters at that time, although it was to little avail as
the quarrelling between the supporters of Hugh Gaitskell and Nye
Bevan went on unabated.
Eirene White waited a further six years before standing again. In
spite of being on the Right of the party, she won and retained her
seat on the Executive until stepping down in 1972. She was Party
Chairman from 1968 to 1969.
This success within the party, combined with her ability to hold
on to a highly marginal constituency for 20 years - albeit with a
majority which at one point fell to 72 - reflected the respect that
her political courage and intelligence inspired. But her career
failed perhaps to fulfil all it had once promised.
She was born Eirene Lloyd Jones in Belfast on November 7 1909,
the daughter of Thomas Jones, who later became Deputy Secretary to
the Cabinet under four Prime Ministers, from Lloyd George to
MacDonald, and was known as "the man of a thousand secrets".
After attending St Paul's Girls' School, she went up to
Somerville College, Oxford, to read PPE. She celebrated her 21st
birthday with a party given for her at Cliveden by Nancy Astor, a
friend of her father's. Eirene Jones then spent a year in Heidelberg
before working for the New York Public Library.
Returning to England, she studied housing policies and the
problems of the homeless in parts of Europe. On the outbreak of war
she joined the Women's Voluntary Service and rapidly became Welsh
She was soon recruited by the Ministry of Labour to help with the
training of workers in Wales, particularly women, for the war
effort. In 1945 she resigned from the Civil Service to fight
Flintshire for Labour, though without success.
She turned instead to journalism, representing both the
Manchester Evening News and the BBC at the House of Commons - the
latter as their Welsh parliamentary correspondent. In 1947 she
became one of the first women lobby correspondents. "Women of your
qualifications and antecedents," she was informed by George Bernard
Shaw, "do not grow on gooseberry bushes."
A year later she married a fellow member of the lobby, John
Cameron White. "We fell in love at Downing Street briefings," she
said. In 1950 she won East Flint, which she held until retiring in
Soon after becoming an MP, Eirene White introduced a Private
Member's Bill making seven years' separation grounds for divorce. It
received a second reading, but she withdrew it after receiving an
undertaking from the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, that he would
appoint a Royal Commission to report on all aspects of marriage and
the divorce laws.
Her Bill not only stirred the Government into action, but the
vast amount of correspondence she subsequently received enabled her
to present evidence for reform of the law which might otherwise
never have emerged.
Both as a journalist and a politician, Eirene White was immensely
active and earnest, although she rather lacked the sense of humour
necessary to appreciate the failings of the two callings.
While a backbencher she formed an interest in colonial policy,
and in 1964 was appointed Parliamentary Secretary at the Colonial
Office before becoming Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in
Tact was not her strong suit, and in 1966 she caused a minor
diplomatic fracas with the Spanish Government when, after an
official visit to Gibraltar, she said she would not holiday in a
country "determined to bully them [the people of Gibraltar]". This
observation certainly reflected Gibraltarian opinion, but distressed
the Foreign Office, which was eager to reach a modus vivendi with
After Eirene White had been at the Foreign Office for a year,
Harold Wilson moved her nearer to home as Minister of State for
Wales. She held the post until 1970, when she was created a life
peer as Baroness White, of Rhymney, Monmouth.
She subsequently held a number of Government appointments. She
was chairman of the Land Authority for Wales (1976-80), deputy
chairman of the Metrication Board (1972-76), and a member of the
Royal Commission on Environment Pollution (1974-81).
She was also chairman of Coleg Harlech (1974-84), a post her
father had held, and a member of the British Waterways Board from
1974 to 1980. She was a Deputy Speaker in the House of Lords from
1979 to 1989. Her husband died in 1968. They were no children.