Baroness White of Rhymney

Formidable committee woman, passionate about Labour, libraries and Wales

Lena Jeger
Monday December 27, 1999
The Guardian

Eirene White, Baroness White of Rhymney, who has died aged 90, was the first woman to hold the office of minister of state for foreign affairs in Harold Wilson's second Labour government of 1966. She was born into the lap of scholarship and politics: her mother came from an academic background and her father was Tom Jones, the deputy cabinet secretary to four prime ministers — Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Ramsay MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin — and had a traditional Welsh hunger for learning.

Eirene was educated at St Paul's girls' school, London, and Somerville College, Oxford. She worked for a period in the ministry of labour. At the end of the second world war she spent time in the United States studying housing conditions and the provision of public libraries. While there she discovered that she and Paul Robeson could not go together to the same restaurant. This she never forgot and she fought all her life against racial discrimination.

On her return to England Eirene joined the Manchester Evening News and, in 1945, became the first accredited woman political correspondent. She unsuccessfully contested Flintshire for Labour in 1945 and entered parliament in 1950 after winning East Flint with a majority of 70. She held the seat for 20 years.

She became parliamentary secretary to the colonial office in 1964 and, in 1967, after her period at the Foreign Office, returned home as minister of state at the Welsh office.

Eirene served for years on Labour's national executive committee. She was first elected in 1947, when her companions included the prime minister Clement Attlee, Harold Laski, Hugh Dalton, Herbert Morrison and Emmanuel Shinwell, and was a member, on and off, until 1972. She had always done her homework before those stormy meetings, yet for all her ability and industry, she often lacked the lubricant of tact and persuasion in those rough days.

Eirene White was not always a favourite with Welsh nationalists. It was not her fault that she was born in Belfast, where her father was working at Queen's University, and that his work made them a peripatetic family, often living where Welsh was not much spoken. There were frowns after she failed to deliver in Welsh when the national festival was held in her constituency. But the worst heresy was that she preferred Hugh Gaitskell to Aneurin Bevan.

Some of the criticisms she faced were unfair. She cared about Wales and its problems, but her interests were worldwide and she feared parochialism. In her maiden speech in the Commons, she spoke knowledgeably about the iron industry and made it clear that she knew, unlike most MPs, the difference between a bloom and a billet, or an ingot from a slab.

She was not easy to talk to because her conversation was often a series of statements which did not always invite a response. Not all of us were economical of chat and gossip, but as we wondered how Joan Vickers kept her hair blue while Pat Hornsby-Smith kept hers red, and why Irene Ward always wore a hat in the chamber, Eirene would keep her eye on a green paper, a white paper or yesterday's Hansard.

She was among the most industrious of MPs. In addition to her ministerial work, she was active in promoting equal pay, nursery provision and further eduction. She prepared a bill on divorce law reform but withdrew it when the government agreed to set up a royal commission, the report of which was followed by legislation which reflected many of her ideas. She supported the successful campaign to end the punitive earnings rules for widows, which caused their small pension to be reduced — or often eliminated.

In 1948, she married a gentle, erudite journalist, John Cameron White. After 20 happy years with homes in Hampstead and in Wales, he developed lung cancer and she nursed him until his death. There were no children.

It was perhaps a pity that she did not write more. Eirene and her brother, Tristan Lloyd Jones, were kept busy for years preparing their father's mountains of papers for publication, including his unfinished manuscript on Lloyd George. But somehow she managed to be chairman of the Fabian Society (1958-59) and then chairman of the Labour party (1968-69).

She did not stop when she went to the Lords in 1970. She soon became chairman of the select committee on the European communities and was a deputy speaker from 1979-89. It seemed to some that the government had only to set up a royal commission, an authority or an inquiry and Eirene would be asked to chair it. At home, she was president of Coleg Harlech, governor of the national library of Wales, and a member of the court of the university colleges of Aberystwyth, Bangor and Cardiff.

If one could overcome the difficulties of getting close to her, there was a palimpset of a woman — a quiet sympathy, silent generosity, a love of the classics and music, and for walking in the hills.

There are two books by Eirene — one about Thomas Jones, the founder of the adult education centre Coleg Harlech, and The Ladies Of Gregynog, a true story of two sisters, Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, whose generosity and liberalism helped to set up the Gregynog Press. Both are alive with an understanding and love for the history and culture of Wales, much warmer than she showed in her public life.

Mary Stott writes: When Eirene White joined the Manchester Evening News in 1945, I was the only woman on the sub-editing staff, and I normally handled her reports, occasionally pepping them up a bit to provide me with a headline.

After leaving Oxford, "not knowing what to do", as she said later, she became a temporary reader's adviser in the New York library on 42nd Street. "You could not find a more prestigious library in the world," she claimed. Later, she spent some time in the US Library of Congress, "not working, but just looking around".

Her two lifelong interests were Wales and the public library system. In her 80s, she made a notable speech in the House of Lords, during a debate on public libraries, in which she boasted of growing up in a household "with an ample supply of books", related her experience in New York, and spoke of her concern for the position of the public library system in "the principality of Wales, to which most noble lords will know I am designated."

What she called for was "a highly dynamic and active service in our library system in Wales, which will combine modern and up-to-date information services with the traditional cultural and recreational uses of public libraries". Her own service to the public was exactly that: "highly dynamic and active".

Eirene Lloyd White, Baroness White of Rhymney, politician, born November 7 1909; died December 23 1999

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