Electronic Telegraph Features

ISSUE 1680 Friday 31 December 1999


Lady White

Labour MP who became the first woman Minister of State for Foreign Affairs

THE LADY 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 Affairs.

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 Regional Secretary.

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 1970.

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 1966.

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 the Spanish.

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.

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 1999.