Commentary (The Times)

Obituary: Younger [George] (1931-2003) [Scottish Secretary 1979-86, Defence Secretary 1986-89]

Document type: Press
Source: The Times , 27 January 2003
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1,550 words
Themes: Union of UK nations, Defence (general)
Times January 27, 2003

Viscount Younger of Leckie

Loyal Scottish Conservative whose decision to put party before self in the 1960s was rewarded with office as Minister of Defence more than 20 years later

If it had not been for Michael Heseltine's celebrated flounce out of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet in 1986 when he was Defence Secretary, George Younger might well have ended his political career on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Indeed, Younger's original entry into the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Scotland in 1979 owed itself to another piece of fortune - the surprise defeat of Teddy Taylor, Margaret Thatcher's candidate for the post, in the very general election which swept her to power.

But these two Cabinet posts which came Younger's way were, perhaps, no more than the just rewards of a man who in 1963 had done the decent thing and stood aside from the safe Scottish Conservative seat, for which he had been selected, in favour of Sir Alec-Douglas Home. Although he was regarded as a decent and trustworthy rather than an ambitious man, he did much better as a Cabinet minister than anyone might have foreseen.

George Kenneth Hotson Younger was born in 1931, the elder son of the 3rd Viscount Younger of Leckie. His interest in a political career was unsurprising. He was the great-grandson of the 1st Viscount who, as Sir George Younger, had been chairman of the Conservative Party organisation (and the butt of F. E. Smith's famous gibe, at the time of the Conservative divide in 1922, that "the Cabin Boy has taken charge of the political ship"). A viscountcy was his reward in 1923.

An uncle, the Hon Kenneth Younger, entered Parliament in the Labour interest, and was for a time Minister of State at the Foreign Office.

Younger was educated at Cargilfield School, Edinburgh, Winchester and New College, Oxford. He was commissioned as a National Service officer into his family regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. This was at the oubreak of the Korean War in 1950 to which 1st Argylls had been sent, but he was first posted to 1st Black Watch in Berlin as he was still under 19. As soon as he was old enough, he took a reinforcement draft of 120 men to join his own regiment. He spent four months on active service in Korea during the bitter winter of 1950-51, which included what he described as some "pretty scary" night patrol activity.

He retained his connection with the regiment after his return to civilian life, serving with its 7th Territorial Battalion from 1951 to 1965, and he was prominent in the successful campaign against the regiment's disbandment. From 1977 to 1985 he was Honorary Colonel 154 (Lowland) Transport Regiment, RCT, Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve.

The family business interests were in brewing and distilling, and from the late Fifties Younger held a number of directorships: of George Younger and Son, 1958-68; J G Thomson and Co of Leith, 1962-66; McLachlans, 1968-70; and Tennant Caledonian Breweries, 1977-79.

He had his first crack at Parliament in the general election of 1959, when he stood as a Unionist in North Lanarkshire, a constituency which had been solidly Labour since 1945. Four years later the death of the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire necessitated a by-election, and Younger, whose home was just outside the constituency at Gargunnock in Stirlingshire, was adopted as the prospective candidate.

At the age of 31 he was able to contemplate an extended tenure of one of the safest and most beautiful constituencies in Scotland. Before the writ could be issued, however, this agreeable prospect was shattered by events on the national political stage. Harold Macmillan's resignation propelled into Downing Street the 14th Earl of Home; his title disclaimed, it became a matter of urgency for the Conservative Party to find ways of propelling him back into the House of Commons.

Things were not going well for the Tories. There had been the Profumo scandal, the country was experiencing one of its periodic Liberal revivals and north of the border the Scottish Nationalists were also making waves. It seemed desirable that a Scottish Prime Minister should have a Scottish seat; the majority at Kinross was more than 12,000; it would have been foolish to look a gift horse in the mouth. Younger was invited to lunch in an hotel in Stirling by the Scottish Party chairman, who, improbably, had begun life as a coalminer. After a certain amount of discreet arm-twisting over the cheese, Younger retired with a party official to draft a statement announcing that he had decided to do the decent thing.

He followed Sir Alec to the Commons at the general election of the following year, although the vacancy that had occurred at Ayr was much less plush. Younger was returned with a majority of 1,701, and this figure shrank to 484 at the next election in 1966. The seat remained marginal throughout his parliamentary career.He entered the House with his party in Opposition for the first time in 13 years. Temperamentally he was a natural for the Whips' Office, and he served as Scottish Whip between 1965 and 1967.

He was also recruited at this time to be deputy chairman of the party in Scotland. His judgment there was not always sound. During his National Service he had served under Colonel Colin Mitchell - “Mad Mitch” of the Argylls - who had later drawn attention to himself by his adventurous behaviour in Aden. Mitchell, an energetic but only moderately intelligent man, had now left the Army and was looking for new fields to conquer. He was also being wooed by the Scottish Nationalists. Younger was instrumental in persuading him to embrace the Conservative cause, but Mitchell's wayward individualism and ignorance of politics were ill-suited to Westminster, and his career as the MP for West Aberdeenshire proved to be as short as it was undistinguished.

When Edward Heath became Prime Minister in 1970, Younger was made Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office and busied himself for four years with the development portfolio. Before the 1974 election he was briefly Minister of State for Defence; after it, when the Conservatives went into Opposition, he was for a year chairman of the party in Scotland.

When the Conservatives returned to power in 1979, he owed his appointment as Secretary of State for Scotland to the electoral misfortunes of a colleague. The job had been done in Margaret Thatcher's Shadow Cabinet by Teddy Taylor, the aggressively populist MP for Glasgow Cathcart, who was very much “one of us”. There is no doubt that shadow would have been translated into substance if Taylor had not been a surprise casualty in the general election of that year.

As it was, Younger, though not a natural Thatcherite, remained in the Cabinet for all but the last year of her three administrations. He stayed at the Scottish Office, traditionally a politician's graveyard, until 1986. He was then once again the beneficiary of chance; when Michael Heseltine staged his melodramatic departure from the post of Secretary of State for Defence in the middle of a Cabinet meeting in 1986, it was Younger who stepped into his shoes.

Younger was a quiet and cautious man, respected by his colleagues and his opponents but never regarded as a political heavyweight. Tory fortunes in Scotland were at a low ebb during his years at the Scottish Office. He did well there by keeping his head down and by demonstrating quietly that charm and diplomacy frequently achieve more than megaphone politics. He did not have a chance to make much of an impression at the Ministry of Defence.

When Margaret Thatcher's leadership of the party came under challenge Younger was drawn into the running of her campaign for re-election and attracted - unfairly - some of the blame for its eventual failure. He had by this time decided that he no longer wished to defend his own wafer-thin majority; he had left the Cabinet in 1989 and joined the board of the Royal Bank of Scotland, becoming chairman the following year. He was created a life peer, as Lord Younger of Prestwick, on stepping down from the Commons in 1992. On his father's death in 1997 he succeeded him as 4th Viscount Younger of Leckie, inheriting at the same time the baronetcy that had been created for his great-grandfather in 1911. In the interim he had been appointed KCVO in 1993 and a Knight of the Thistle (KT) in 1995.

Younger retained his close connections with the voluntary side of the party, and in 1987-88, towards the end of his ministerial career, he served as president of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Societies.

He was a brigadier in the Queen's Bodyguard for Scotland (Royal Company of Archers) and in 1968 was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant for Stirlingshire. He was, from 1998, chairman of the the Former Royal Yacht Britannia Trust. He found recreation in music, and in tennis, sailing and golf.

He is survived by his wife Diana, whom he married in 1954, and by three sons and a daughter.

Viscount Younger of Leckie, KT, KCVO, TD, PC, Secretary of State for Scotland, 1979-86, and for Defence, 1986-89, was born on September 22, 1931. He died of cancer on January 26, 2003, aged 71.