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  (Robert) Michael Maitland Stewart (1906–1990), by Elliott & Fry, 1947 (Robert) Michael Maitland Stewart (1906–1990), by Elliott & Fry, 1947
Stewart, (Robert) Michael Maitland, Baron Stewart of Fulham (1906–1990), politician, was born on 6 November 1906 at 20 Minster Road, Bromley, the only son and youngest of three children of Robert Wallace Stewart DSc, lecturer and author of scientific textbooks, and his wife, Eva, daughter of Samuel Blaxley. In 1910 his father died and his mother, for whom Stewart had a deep affection, went to work in a mixed school. Stewart used to complain that she was paid four-fifths of the salary of her male colleagues, some of them bachelors. He gave this as one explanation for his passionate advocacy of equal pay and conditions for women teachers when he became secretary of state for education. After attending Brownhill Road elementary school in Catford during the First World War, in 1918 Stewart went by scholarship to Christ's Hospital, Horsham, which was unique among public schools for closing its doors to the sons of the rich, or even of moderately well-off parents. In 1925 Stewart won an open scholarship to St John's College, Oxford, where he obtained first classes in classical honour moderations (1927) and philosophy, politics, and economics (1929). Stewart spent a formative summer vacation in Dresden in 1927, which accounted for the complaints from intelligence corps superiors during the Second World War that he had a Saxon accent. He was elected president of the Oxford Union in 1929, an unusual post for a Labour supporter.

After Oxford Stewart became a teacher at Merchant Taylors' School (1930–31) and Coopers' Company School (1931–42), which gave him the opportunity to contest, unsuccessfully, the parliamentary seat of West Lewisham for the Labour Party in 1931 and 1935. He joined the army intelligence corps in 1942, transferred to the Army Educational Corps in 1943, and was commissioned and promoted to captain in 1944. In 1945 he was elected as Labour MP for Fulham East. He went into the government whips' office and took to parliamentary life with the greatest of ease. He was comptroller of the royal household in 1946–7 and was then appointed under-secretary of state for war (1947–51), where his performance led R. H. S. Crossman, for whom he had a mutual antipathy, to brand him ‘an inveterate cold warrior’. Stewart's parliamentary seat from 1955 to 1974 was Fulham and from 1974 to 1979 Hammersmith and Fulham.

In thirteen years of Labour opposition (1951–64), Stewart was one of the workhorses of the opposition front bench, specializing in housing and local government. Appointed education secretary in 1964 by Harold Wilson, he became secretary of state for foreign affairs in January 1965, remaining in this post until August 1966, when George Brown had to be accommodated. Deeply resentful, Stewart was appointed first secretary for economic affairs (1966–7), a post in which it was thought that his clarity of mind would ease the government's difficulties over its prices and incomes policy. Such hopes were unfulfilled, partly because trade union leaders, whose co-operation was essential, regarded Stewart as a ‘cold fish’.

In March 1968 Stewart returned to the Foreign Office, which was now linked with Commonwealth Affairs, after the resignation of George Brown. Vietnam apart, the main issues were Rhodesia, where Stewart was anathema to the white population, and Nigeria. He returned to the back benches in 1970, when the Labour government fell, after suffering a crushing defeat in the elections in the Parliamentary Labour Party for the shadow cabinet. Stewart was an excellent choice as leader of Labour's first delegation to the indirectly elected European parliament (1976), where he enjoyed an Indian summer. The obvious quality of his mind and his dignity impressed European politicians. In the words of a Conservative, Sir James Spicer, ‘he was a steady hand on the tiller at a time when Labour was deeply divided over EEC membership’.

Stewart's two stints as foreign secretary involved him in bitter controversy. He infuriated the left by his unswerving support of the American position in the Vietnam war. Then he outraged a wider section of opinion by stridently supporting the federal government's crushing of the secessionist Biafrans in the ferocious Nigerian civil war. During his first stint, his relations with back-bench MPs were safeguarded by his parliamentary private secretary and friend Laurence Pavitt, the popular MP for Willesden. When Pavitt, a committed member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, withdrew from Stewart's service on grounds of policy differences, the foreign secretary became curiously estranged from the Parliamentary Labour Party. On the other hand, he was, according to Sir Nicholas Henderson, who was once his private secretary, ‘an unsung foreign secretary’. Henderson argued that, by strength of reason and integrity, Stewart prevented many possible disasters, such as a serious deterioration in British relations with the USA as a result of the Vietnam war, or the setting of a dangerous precedent for Africa, if he had equivocated over Biafra. Yet it was Russia that dominated Stewart's thinking.

When he retired from parliament in 1979 Stewart accepted a life peerage. He also became president of the trade union committee for transatlantic understanding and of the H. G. Wells Society (from 1982). St John's College, Oxford, elected him to an honorary fellowship in 1965, and he became a freeman of Hammersmith in 1967. He had honorary degrees from Leeds (1966) and Benin (1972). He was sworn of the privy council in 1964 and appointed CH in 1969.

Stewart was no orator but a good debater, in his nasal, flat, toneless voice. He made a memorable return to the Oxford Union in 1968 in a televised debate in which he put the American case for intervention in Vietnam better than the Americans. His capacity to speak from brief notes was remarkable, and yet he was not a good conversationalist. He tended to display his knowledge of the classics too readily, acting in a patient and expository manner which he probably acquired as a schoolmaster. He was inclined to be prim and austere. He was dapper, with soulful serious eyes; because of his dark hair, in his younger days some of his friends called him Black Michael. Spare of frame, he became grey and distinguished in later years. He wrote five books on political subjects, as well as an autobiography.

In 1941 Stewart married Mary Elizabeth Henderson Goodyear, teacher, daughter of Herbert Birkinshaw, commercial traveller. There were no children of the marriage. A pillar of the Fabian Society, his wife was created a life peer in her own right in 1974, as Baroness Stewart of Alvechurch. When she died on 28 December 1984, Stewart was stricken with grief, but contrived to speak fluently and logically in the Lords until he died in a London hospital on 10 March 1990. A memorial service was held at St Margaret's, Westminster, on 17 May 1990.

Tam Dalyell, rev.

Sources  

M. Stewart, Life and Labour: an autobiography (1980) · N. Henderson, Private office (1984) · The Independent (12 March 1990) · The Times (12 March 1990) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1990) · personal knowledge (1996)

Archives  

CAC Cam., corresp. and papers


Likenesses  

Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1947, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, 1965–70, Hult. Arch. · photograph, repro. in The Independent · photograph, repro. in The Times

Wealth at death  

£223,936: probate, 20 Aug 1990, CGPLA Eng. & Wales