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They don’t make politicians like this any more (and it’s probably just as well, really)…

In today’s media age, politicians are subject to such a high degree of scrutiny that it encourages a culture of blandness and conformity. Where are the mavericks? Consider Sir Gerald Nabarro, whose autobiography I discovered one day. Apparently he was rather famous fifty years ago…

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I instantly warmed to Sir Gerald’s aristocratic demeanour and ridiculous moustache. He looked like a man who said what he liked, regardless of the party apparatchiks, because he was probably rich enough to be incorruptible and had a strong sense of noblesse oblige.

However, a brief amount of research (i.e. Wikipedia) reveals a different story:

Nabarro was born in North London, the son of an unsuccessful shopkeeper. He was born to a prominent Sephardic Jewish family but later converted to Christianity. He was educated at schools run by the London County Council, belying his later image as an aristocrat. On leaving school in 1930 at the age of 16 he enlisted in the Royal Army, in which he served for seven years, rising to the rank of Sergeant. In 1937 he left the army to work as a machine-hand, being swiftly promoted to be factory manager.

In the 1950 General Election, Nabarro was elected as an (MP) for Kidderminster, Worcestershire, which he held until 1964. He characterised himself as an old-style Tory: he opposed entry to what is now the European Union, was a proponent of capital punishment, and supported Enoch Powell. In 1963, during an appearance on radio, he said “How would you feel if your daughter wanted to marry a big buck nigger with the prospect of coffee-coloured grandchildren?” – remarks which were excised from a repeat of the programme the following week.

Comments that like that could have been the kiss of death to Nabarro’s political career, but he continued to sit as a Conservative MP and was one of the most popular figures of the 1960s. Nicknamed ‘the abominable showman’, Nabarro claimed that ‘Half of Britain swears by me, the other half swears at me.’

However, in 1971, Sir Gerald and his company secretary, Margaret Mason, were accused of driving the wrong way around a roundabout. Nabarro was eventually acquitted, but the general consensus was that he had been driving and encouraged his secretary to take the blame. It was hardly Chappaquiddick, but Nabarro found the whole episode very traumatic. A normally healthy man, he suffered two strokes and died at the age of 60.

You may think that this is leading up to a point, which could probably be something along the lines of conceding that however bland today’s politicians are, at least they don’t talk about ‘big buck niggers.’ But I was more struck by how Nabarro’s bigoted comments and eccentric persona could only be the product of someone who was an outsider, insecure about their own social status. If Sir Gerald had been genuinely aristocratic, I doubt that he would have felt so threatened by change.

For all his faults, Nabarro did do the British public one inestimable service. He was responsible for the Clean Air Act of 1955, which bought an end to the dreadful London smogs and probably helped to save thousands of lives.

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Steerforth is a gentleman bookseller from East Sussex, who blogs at The Age of Uncertainty.

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  1. George on Monday 10, 2014

    “But I was more struck by how Nabarro’s bigoted comments and eccentric persona could only be the product of someone who was an outsider, insecure about their own social status.”

    The history of US politics suggests otherwise. There is no definable aristocracy here, but there are families that have exercised social and political power for several generations. Not all have favored toleration.

  2. Worm on Monday 10, 2014

    this chap would be a shoe-in for UKIP these days. Nigel Farage should get some mutton chops

  3. Nige on Monday 10, 2014

    In those days, the handlebar moustache denoted a distinguished wartime flying career with the RAF – all part of the imposture. Didn’t he drive a Roller with the personalised numberplate NAB 1? What a complete arse.

    • malty on Monday 10, 2014

      Indeed Nige, his constituents would not have had him in any other motor. His party, the Tories post the fall of the house of Attlee were an absolute shower, patrician two plankers including Macmillan, bumbling Bertie. One of Nabarro’s colleagues, the minister of transport Ernie Marples instigated the motorway building programme, who built ‘em? why Marples Ridgeway of course.

      Their greatest crime..governing the country so ineffectively that the voters, in desperation, booted them out and allowed in the Wilson government, truly the most abjectly useless group of politicians in the history of abjectly useless groups of politicians.

    • Philip Wilkinson on Monday 10, 2014

      I think his preferred car was a Jaguar, although I seem to remember that he had a small fleet of various cars, all with personalized number plates, from NAB 1 to about NAB 6. So what he gave with the Clean Air Act he took away with his exhaust pipes.

  4. Brit on Monday 10, 2014

    Interesting that his driving ‘scandal’ is very similar to that of Chris Huhne (another complete arse).

  5. jonathan law on Monday 10, 2014

    I’m just about old enough to remember this guy, or more accurately to remember my parents talking about him in unimpressed terms. That said, I’m not sure I ever got him completely disentangled from Tom Jackson, the leader of the postal workers’ union, who sported a similar handlebar-mutton-chop combo (facial hair as mixed metaphor). And then there was that other nightmare figure for a sensitive boy, <a href=http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/politics-obituaries/9507100/Sir-Rhodes-Boyson.htmlDr Rhodes Boyson, who combined the mutton chops with deeply alarming waistcoats and neckwear – the full Dickens villain look, in fact. Disturbing times, the early 70s.

    • Frank Key on Monday 10, 2014

      If I can prod my memory sufficiently, I will write a post entitled “Clash Of The Titans – Rhodes Boyson vs. My Father”. The details are hazy, but I remember the Evening Standard and the old (London) Evening News ringing repeatedly to elicit my father’s side of the story (whatever it was).

  6. Gaw on Monday 10, 2014

    A life with curious parallels to another moustachioed faux-aristocrat, Terry-Thomas. The disappearance of this species of cad is an interesting social phenomenon. I suspect the Etonian faux-Cockney is today’s equivalent, though obviously moving in the opposite direction.