Obituary: Lord Avebury (Sir Eric Lubbock), Liberal MP

Liberal MP was a supporter of humanitarian and liberal causes. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Liberal MP was a supporter of humanitarian and liberal causes. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Born: 29 September 1928 in London. Died: 14 February 2016 in London, aged 87.

In 1962 Eric Lubbock won a sensational by-election in Orpington – deep in the Conservative heartland of the Home Counties – which, it was thought, heralded a Liberal revival.

It also sent political shivers down Downing Street and within a few months prime minister Harold Macmillan dramatically sacked a third of his cabinet – dubbed The Night of the Long Knives – in an attempt to revitalise his party. It prompted one of Jeremy Thorpe’s most famous witticisms: “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life”.

Much of Avebury’s political career was in the Lords where he proved to be a hard-working and diligent advocate of many humanitarian and liberal causes. In later years he became a Buddhist and a firm supporter of assisted dying.

Eric Reginald Lubbock was born into a well-connected family with forebears who were prominent in politics and the City. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Harrow and Balliol College, Oxford where he read Engineering and won a boxing Blue.

After National Service Avebury joined Rolls-Royce first as a salesman assistant and then as a foundry manager at their principal plant in Derby. In 1953 Avebury moved into management consultancy and in 1960 joined City merchant bank Charterhouse Group.

His decision to fight the by-election was made rather hastily. He had only served as a district councillor for one year and was selected when the sitting MP was made a judge. Years later he admitted the local agent suggested that Avebury stand and, “the next thing I knew I was asking my employers whether they could give me time off to fight the by-election.”

The 1961 by-election changed his life completely and Avebury fought a dogged and well organised campaign – skilfully concentrating on local issues notably the problems of commuting into central London. He overturned a Conservative majority of 14,760 and was given a hero’s welcome at Westminster by the other seven Liberal members – led by the redoubtable MP for Orkney Joe Grimond.

Avebury made his mark in the Commons and held the seat until 1970 – fighting three further elections – proudly proclaiming he was there to further local issues with the slogan, Vote for Eric.

His campaigning zeal on behalf of humanitarian issues was widespread – he supported the Anti-Apartheid Movement, was against both the war in Vietnam and smoking.

Such was his command of Commons’ business he was appointed the Liberal’s chief whip in 1963. He was promoted in 1966 to speak on technology but retained the office of chief whip and made all Liberal MPs declare their business interests.

Avebury formed a close working relationship with Jeremy Thorpe who he supported to succeed Grimond in 1967. Despite losing Orpington in 1970 the two remained close and Avebury stood bail for Thorpe during the Norman Scott trial in 1978.

In fact, Avebury inherited the title of the 3rd Baron of Avebury in 1971 and remained active in the Lords and chaired the Liberals’ 1974 General Election campaign.

Avebury resumed his business career and served on the board of the business publishers Morgan Grampian and in 1976 was appointed to the Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life, arising from the Poulson affair.

The Avebury family had a long connection with Scotland dating back to Sir John Lubbock who was an authority on Neolithic carved stones which he discovered in Aberdeenshire. In the 19th century Sir John donated the intricately decorated objects to the Orpington Priory Museum and Avebury took a close interest in the preservation of other donations from Scotland. Avebury also donated a book that Sir Eric had written about ‘the volcanic cones in Britain’ in which he wrote extensively on Arthur’s Seat and North Berwick Law.

Tam Dalyell knew Avebury well in the House of Commons. He told The Scotsman yesterday, “I liked Eric and thought well of him. We both sat on the science and technology committee and he arrived at all the sessions well versed in the often complicated subjects. He asked intelligent questions – as he did in the House. Eric cut a serious and effective figure throughout his years in the Commons.”

Avebury’s principal recreation was listening to music – particularly that of JS Bach. He was president of the London Bach Society and active in various societies such as the Council for Race Relations, Amnesty International and the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy.

Avebury’s first marriage was dissolved and in 1985 he married Lindsay Stewart, the daughter of the novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson. She survives him along with their son and three children from his first marriage.

He is succeeded as fifth Baron by his eldest son, the Hon Lyulph Ambrose Jonathan Lubbock.