Roper, John Francis Hodgess, Baron Roper
- Roger Liddle
Roper, John Francis Hodgess, Baron Roper (1935–2016), economist and politician, was born at Aspland Road Maternity Home, Norwich, on 10 September 1935, the eldest of six children of the Revd Frederick Mabor Hodgess Roper, known as F. M. Hodgess Roper (1904–1994), a Congregational minister, and his wife, Ellen Frances, née Brockway (1910–2002). At the time of his birth registration the family lived at 52 Christchurch Road, Norwich. His paternal grandfather and great-grandfather had also been Congregational ministers. While not a regular churchgoer, Roper remained fascinated by church institutions, ecclesiastical pedigrees, and Christian ethics throughout his life. His mother, Ellen, was the daughter of the Revd William George Brockway, a London Missionary Society missionary, and the half-sister of Fenner Brockway, a hero of the Labour left, First World War pacifist, and veteran campaigner against colonialism, the bomb, and racial discrimination. This family background shaped Roper’s lifelong internationalism: different from Fenner Brockway’s, but just as deep.
Early life and career
Congregational ministers moved frequently. First a pupil at William Hulme’s Grammar School, Manchester, then Reading School, Roper won a place to read philosophy, politics, and economics at Magdalen College, Oxford (1956–9). Before university came national service: Roper proudly served in the Royal Navy on HMS Undaunted, where he became wine steward. The Suez crisis, which blew up just as Roper started at Oxford, was his formational political experience. Active in Oxford’s United Nations Students Association (which he later chaired), Roper campaigned against Eden’s policy. He also later co-chaired the university branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, organizing a student referendum against the H-bomb. A consistent advocate of disarmament, he came later to believe in multilateralism not unilateralism. On Britain’s deterrent, his views became more nuanced.
At Magdalen, Roper’s circle included fellow social democrats David Marquand and Giles Radice, all three future Labour MPs. His most significant Oxford encounter was with another fellow student, (Valerie) Hope Edwards (1937–2003). Once a couple, their Oxford contemporaries dubbed them ‘the Webbs’ (private information): intellectual in appearance, earnest in manner, precise in speech. They married on 11 August 1959, immediately after Roper’s graduation, and before Hope completed her degree. Hope brought John Roper closer to Labour politics through her father, (Lewis) John Edwards, a Labour MP, Attlee minister, and one of the first leading Labour pro-Europeans: he died, aged fifty-five, weeks later, with a room in the Council of Europe’s Strasbourg building dedicated to his memory. John and Hope Roper had one daughter, Kate.
Roper had won a Harkness scholarship to study economics and statistics at the University of Chicago, which he held from 1959 to 1961. He then obtained a Manchester University post, initially as a research fellow in economic statistics (1961–2), then as assistant lecturer (1962–4), lecturer (1964–70), and faculty tutor (1968–70) in economics. As was common in 1960s academia, he did not complete a doctorate. His sole economics publication was a cross-country comparison of economics teaching. Yet as an MP he subscribed to the Economic Journal and was proud of his vice-presidency of the Manchester Statistical Society.
Roper’s labour movement activism grew, as vice-chair of the Manchester Fabians and the Withington constituency Labour Party and director of the Hyde Co-operative Society, then the Co-operative Wholesale Society (1969–74) and the Co-operative Insurance Society (1973–4). He co-authored a Fabian pamphlet, Towards Regional Co-operatives (1967), and won crucial Co-operative Party sponsorship for parliamentary selection.
Roper first stood for High Peak in 1964, losing by 1337 votes in a three-way contest, the Liberal slipping back from a strong by-election performance. Though Labour won High Peak in 1966, Roper chose not to seek renomination. Having failed to be selected for the Hull North by-election, he won the candidacy for Farnworth, a collection of textile towns along the River Irwell, between Manchester and Bolton, on the retirement of Ernest Thornton, a cotton trades union official of the social democratic old school. In June 1970 he was returned with a comfortable 8525 majority, seemingly on course to serve as a Labour MP for his remaining active life.
In the Commons, Roper majored on economics. Hyperactive by back-bench standards, he was teased by contemporaries as ‘rush-about Roper’ (private information), always with piles of paper under his arm, scuttling off to his next meeting. He served on multiple committees inside and outside Westminster, including as delegate to the Western European Union (WEU) and Council of Europe parliamentary assemblies, chairing the latter’s culture and education committee (1976–9), where he was particularly remembered for the ‘Roper report’ of 1978 on the protection of historic shipwrecks, which formed the basis of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage of 2001.
The parliamentary votes on accession to the European Communities in 1971 defined Roper’s politics as one of sixty-nine Labour rebels. ‘I … advocate development toward political unity because, as a Socialist, I can see little point in having a common economy without having common governmental institutions to control that economy in the interests of the people’, he said (Hansard 5C, 821.1795, 22 July 1971). His Europeanism was not ‘a set of abstract principles which transcend party divisions’, but ‘because I believe that we shall be able to do those things that I came into Labour to do, better from within the European Community than we can from outside it’ (ibid.).
In the passage of the European Communities Act (1972) Roper played an extraordinarily daring role. The Jenkinsites agreed through gritted teeth to oppose the government’s legislation. Roper, however, acted as unofficial whip of about a dozen staunch Labour pro-Europeans (mainly elderly, often trade unionists, not intending to stand again) prepared to put their Europeanism before party loyalty. As Ken Clarke, then a junior government whip, acknowledged, this was crucial to the bill’s passage. It outraged those Labour MPs who believed a government defeat could force a general election. In a supportive gesture, Roy Jenkins, then Labour’s deputy leader, journeyed north to speak at a Farnworth constituency party tea. Roper’s pro-Europeanism remained undiminished. He co-authored (with David Marquand) the pamphlet A Labour Britain in Europe. In 1976 he succeeded Dickson Mabon as chair of the Labour Committee for Europe.
Roper hoped for office in the governments of 1974–9: for him, as for most able pro-Europeans, the call never came. Bill Rodgers, the de facto ‘chief whip’ of Labour’s pro-Europeans (whom Wilson reluctantly re-included in the government as Roy Mason’s deputy at defence), suggested that Roper might switch his focus from economics to defence, in which few ‘mainstream’ Labour back-benchers took a serious interest: yet within the Parliamentary Labour Party centre ground, there was much more unity than on Europe.
This advice determined Roper’s future course. After Labour’s defeat in 1979, Callaghan appointed Roper as number two in Rodgers’s shadow defence team. They were immediately plunged into controversy as the Labour left sought to overturn key Callaghan decisions on Polaris renewal and Cruise missiles. However, at Labour’s conference in September 1980, Labour’s social democrats were clearly facing a much broader challenge from the Bennite insurgency than ‘legitimate left’ unilateralists.
The Social Democratic Party
Roper became a saddened but determined supporter of a breakaway party, despite the personal anguish, and he joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP) on its launch in March 1981. His own constituency party was loyal. His wife, Hope, was adamant she would not leave the Labour Party: in 1983 she provided him with personal support in his campaign but refused to canvass for him. She worked as a volunteer in the Fabian Society’s London headquarters until her death.
Roper gave his all to the SDP as chief whip. As a back-bencher, he had put unusual effort into understanding the ‘ways of the House’ and developed good relationships with the clerks—a distinction that served him well in the Lords two decades later. He ensured the group’s coherence and effectiveness in the face of determined Labour attempts to deny the SDP legitimacy. Always busy, he could be somewhat lacking as a soulmate of MPs risking their careers. He was tireless outside the Commons, with meticulous attention to detail in building organization in his north-west base, laying the successful groundwork for the Warrington by-election of July 1981, and leading the region’s difficult seat negotiations with the Liberals to make possible the SDP–Liberal Alliance, about which, unlike David Owen, he had no existential doubts.
These efforts brought scant reward: at the general election of 1983, despite the Alliance receiving more than 25 per cent of the national vote, the SDP group in parliament was reduced to six (with a further seventeen Liberals). Roper came a respectable third with 27.1 per cent of the vote in his heavily redrawn constituency of Worsley. He returned sadly to London having been defeated in his once ‘safe’ constituency, and, at forty-eight, without an income or obvious future career.
Chatham House and Stasi allegations
Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) came to the rescue. Roper became editor of Foreign Affairs and later director of Chatham House’s international security programme and director of studies. His strengths were as a convenor of cross-country dialogue, building on his Königswinter experience. Studies, with leading continental experts, concentrated on how Britain had to rethink its NATO and European roles as a close collaborator with France and Germany, rather than depend solely on the so-called ‘special relationship’. In 1990 he was appointed director of the WEU’s newly established Strategic Studies Institute in Paris. His work focused on reimagining Europe’s role as a ‘strategic actor’ in the post-cold war world. In 1995–6 he served on the Tindemans commission on the Balkans, and in 1996 he returned to Chatham House as an associate fellow, also holding visiting professorships at the College of Europe (1997–2000) and Birmingham’s Institute for German Studies (1997–2007).
In the mid-1980s Pauline Neville Jones, head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)’s planning staff, commissioned Chatham House to manage exchanges with experts in the smaller Soviet bloc countries. Roper, who had first visited East Germany in 1957, took the lead in organizing a series of Anglo-East German ‘round tables’ from 1985 onwards, developing contacts with the East German embassy. In 2003 the historian Anthony Glees published The Stasi Files, exploring the relationship between the East German security service and the UK. The book was widely reported as claiming that Roper had been an East German spy, with a 32-page chapter entitled ‘The Kewa and John Roper’ in a section headed ‘Penetration and recruitment’. Glees later protested: ‘if Lord Roper was accused of being a Stasi spy, it was not by me. What I wrote and stand by is that he became an East German agent of influence’ (The Times, 5 March 2016). Glees’s distinction between spy and agent was unlikely to be clear in a British culture so fond of James Bond and le Carré thrillers. The suggestion that Roper had secret Stalinist sympathies (or was tempted by money or any other favour) to disclose ‘state secrets’ to East German interlocutors was dismissed by him and by his friends as preposterous. He had engaged in open dialogue with the East German regime, as the FCO had encouraged him to do. He did take on an East German researcher at Chatham House whom he later discovered to be a Stasi officer: Roper regretted his carelessness. But at Chatham House such a person would have had no access to highly classified documents. These allegations distressed Roper: his self-image was as a backroom operator not a self-publicist. Worse still, the ‘scandal’ emerged shortly after Hope’s death from cancer.
Later career and assessment
Roper was by then Liberal Democrat chief whip in the Lords, succeeding Lord Harris of Greenwich in April 2001. He went on to serve until 2005 when, approaching seventy, he retired. As chief whip he cemented the effectiveness of a rapidly growing Liberal Democrat group in the Lords. He later resumed office as principal deputy chairman of committees (2008–12), responsible for the activities of the various House of Lords select committees on the European Union. He became a quintessential Lords figure, a habitué of the long table where he would delight in animated conversation with bishops, former diplomats, retired civil servants, and past cabinet grandees. Solicitous in helping new members find their feet, he was no fan of Nick Clegg’s plans for an elected upper chamber.
Roper gave up his chairmanship in 2012 to give him time to travel. He never learned to drive but loved railways. He made some adventurous trips to Vietnam and China on the trans-Siberian railway. But his health began to fail. In 2015 he retired from the Lords, having been diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He spent his last months in a nursing home near Maida Vale, with his daughter, Kate, a successful Edinburgh actuary, organizing a systematic visitor programme. As the disease progressed, he could no longer speak, but communicated via his iPad. The last images were of a gravely ill man, surrounded by newspapers, with television news channels keeping him abreast of politics, full of concerns about the forthcoming referendum on the European Union and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. He died at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, on 29 January 2016, of community-acquired pneumonia. His younger brother, Geoffrey (b. 1940), conducted his funeral at the Lumen United Reform Church in Bloomsbury.
Roper’s friends always thought him something of a mystery. He and Hope were very private figures, never entertaining political colleagues at home. He never wrote anything of substance that would have been a lasting memorial. Yet he was a man of remarkable intelligence and erudition, pulling the most extraordinary facts over wide ranges from the recesses of his mind and cutting through the seeming complexities of any question with clarity and good judgement. Some may have found him aloof, even pompous: his friends found him warm, engaging, and, with his love of good wine, convivial company. He did not fulfil his early promise: in politics, he would never have risen to the very top. He could alternatively have been a distinguished public academic, top-ranking diplomat, or civil servant. But he showed no regrets. He could feel proud that he had remained wholly true to the internationalist and social democratic principles at the core of his being, and that he had been blessed with a varied, stimulating, and unpredictable life.
- obituary photographs