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Lord Chitnis of Ryedale

Liberator obituary

Pratap Chitnis, who has died aged 77 of cancer after a short illness, was a Liberal strategist, a radical member of the House of Lords and a highly effective chief executive of a Quaker trust. He had more influence on British politics than was apparent at the time. He was always more interested in putting ideas into practice than in spending time formulating them - though it should not be thought, as has been suggested, that he was uninterested in policy and values. In fact he was deeply concerned about social values at home and about repression abroad. Every speech of his in the House of Lords and the whole thrust of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust's work during his twenty years as Chief Executive, was designed to diminish inequality, to protect vulnerable individuals and to ensure that the political dispossessed achieved political influence.

It was because he had a fine mind, which saw quickly the political machinations required to implement policy, that he became highly impatient with the often interminable Liberal party processes. On one occasion, when he was Chief Executive if the Liberal Party, he got fed up with the then Chief Agent, Ted Wheeler, who used to regale the daily staff meeting with lengthy and somewhat idiosyncratic reports of his latest foray into the constituencies, and Pratap scribbled a note to me: "you can always tell someone with a weak mind - he always has to tell you where he was last night."

Pratap Chitnis was also a very conservative Roman Catholic. The path to this was itself somewhat curious. Born in London, of Anglo-Indian parentage, at the outbreak of war in 1939, at the age of three, he was sent away from London into the care of nuns. From there he went to Stonyhurst, near Blackburn, the Jesuit college. It is said that these decisions had their roots in his French maternal grandmother - Jeanne Marie Rey - every other close relation being Hindu. His education certainly had a deep effect on Chitnis. and he was thereafter a deeply religious man, particularly so following his retirement to a Provençal village.

He deplored the decision to promote the mass in the vernacular, believing that the Latin mass ensured that a believer anywhere in the world would be "at home" with the service. He saw no intellectual problem in being by faith a conservative catholic and by politics a radical social Liberal, and he welcomed the radical encyclicals which underpinned his beliefs. He was also ready to respond to the unofficial Catholic "whip" issued by the Duke of Norfolk on matters influenced by Catholic doctrine.

Until his involvement with the Liberal Party began in 1959, Chitnis followed no consistent path. He read English at Birmingham University, followed by a master's degree in English literature at Kansas University - with a published thesis on "Chaucer's Conception of Tragedy"! He then worked as an economist at the National Coal Board, during which time he attended a Liberal rally at the Royal Albert Hall. Even in the party's dark days it could fill huge halls with rallies of the faithful and this event was no exception. Chitnis was impressed by Jo Grimond's speech but he was even more amazed that a party he thought dead and buried could pack the Albert Hall, so much so that he joined it.

He did, however, have a family link with Liberalism through his maternal grandfather, Manmatha Chandra Mallik, who was twice a Liberal candidate, in the 1906 and December 1910 elections. He was also a member of the National Liberal Club from 1884.

Chitnis' local party was that of the St Marylebone Borough and he was immediately enlisted as a local election candidate in the 1959 May elections. The St John's Wood Terrace ward returned five councillors. The Liberals finished third, with Chitnis the bottom Liberal and, therefore, fifteenth and last, with precisely 98 votes. It was his first and last candidature! Four months later he was the full-time agent for the Liberal candidate, Michael Hydleman, in the South Kensington constituency at the general election. The presence of Sir Oswald Mosley as a fascist candidate made it a more significant constituency than it would otherwise have been. Hydleman was Jewish and Chitnis visibly of an Indian background. They tackled the Mosley presence head on and were duly met with an unpleasant and sometimes violent response. He was later a witness when Mosley's agent was charged with assault - and was awarded damages.

After the 1959 general election there were those in the Liberal Party, particularly Richard Wainwright, who believed that there needed to be a much greater emphasis on local elections and that it was crucial for party headquarters to take the lead in advising and supporting local campaigns and local councillors. Early in 1960 Pratap Chitnis was appointed as the party's first local government officer. He set about tracking down every Liberal municipal representative so that they could be mailed regularly and visited occasionally. This was less simple than it sounds. For instance, Stamford Borough, where there was little Liberal campaigning, was listed as having one Liberal. Eventually it was ascertained by contacting the local press using the devious pseudonym of the "Municipal Research Association", that Alderman E S Bowman sat as a Liberal! The unfortunate elderly alderman was thereafter in regular receipt of mailings urging him to take direct action on a range of local issues.

The work of the department rapidly expanded and in February 1962 I joined Chitnis as his assistant. He had already been appointed as the Liberal agent for the promising by-election in Orpington. He took me to three meetings in the London to show me "what we do" and announced that he was forthwith departing to Orpington. He never came back to the local government department.

His role at the by-election was crucial. He designed and implemented an organisational master plan, with the basic day-to-day organisation delegated to three full-time sub-agents and took key strategic decisions, such as keeping the inexperienced candidate, Eric Lubbock, off three-party media events when the highly articulate Conservative candidate, Peter Goldman, was included. In addition he was decisive in grasping unexpected opportunities. When the Daily Mail gave him advance information that its National Opinion Poll appearing on polling day would show the Liberals narrowly ahead, he bought nine thousand copies and had them distributed to the commuters at all the railway stations in the constituency. All this, plus the party's strong local government record in Orpington, ensured that the Labour vote collapsed and that the party had a massive majority. Chitnis once told me that he had overspent the legal limit threefold!

The effect of this result was devastating for the Conservative government and the party was determined to capitalise on it. It immediately appointed Chitnis as the party's training officer and, two years later, as its press officer. Finally, in 1966, he was appointed the party's Chief Executive. He was immediately faced with Jo Grimond's determination to resign as party leader. Though influential with Grimond - who wrote that he had early recognised his skills and "clung on" to him - Chitnis tried and failed to persuade him to stay.

One of Chitnis' ideas was to hold the party assembly in new venues. The Isle of Man was looked at, but it was pointed out that to have a Liberal conference in a place that still birched young offenders was probably not a good idea. He then turned to Scheveningen in the Netherlands, with the idea of demonstrating the party's enthusiasm for a united Europe. Unfortunately the party was advised that it was probably illegal to hold its AGM outside the UK!

The election of Jeremy Thorpe as party leader marked the beginning of the end of Chitnis' involvement at the heart of the organisation. With a few others, including Tim Beaumont, Gruffydd Evans, Geoff Tordoff and myself, he was involved in a vain attempt to stop him becoming leader, not on any grounds connected with the barely known relationship with Norman Scott, but because of a view that Thorpe had little intellectual depth and also because he had a tendency to interfere in party affairs without the authority to do so. Unlike David Steel later, who had no ongoing antipathy to those who had voted for his opponent, John Pardoe, Thorpe never forgave those who had opposed him. Pratap Chitnis' position as the head of the party's organisation became increasingly uncomfortable. In addition the party failed to follow his advice that cuts in the party's organisation were required in order to deal with the financial deficit, and, in October 1969, he resigned.

Chitnis was immediately snapped up by the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust (now the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust) in York as its first professional head, with Richard Wainwright again being influential as a trustee, and he thus began the second phase of his political effectiveness. It was an ideal appointment which enabled him to influence public policy following discussion with a small powerful group of trustess, including Jo Grimond, rather than having to go through the party debates.

He has been described as "self-effacing" but this was not the case. A very private person, yes, but he was always happy to be known as the author of a particular policy or tactic. His marriage in 1964 to Anne Brand, an employee at Liberal headquarters, came rather out of the blue but it delighted their colleagues and friends. Their son, Simon, was born in 1966. He was a bright, intelligent boy and it was a huge blow when he developed a brain tumour. What was even worse was that after being operated on by Leeds neurosurgeon, Myles Gibson, Simon would recover only to relapse again some time later. Eventually he died in 1974.

Before Chitnis' arrival at the Trust it had pursued progressive political causes but he made it into a much more proactive and often controversial body. It put its efforts into peacemaking in Northern Ireland and I was sent incognito to establish relations with liberation movements in Namibia, the then Rhodesia, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique to assist them to provide administration and services in the areas that they had liberated. This work was the cause of a bomb arriving by post at the Trust's York office. Fortunately it didn't go off.

He and I occasionally went together to Northern Ireland. When stopped in an army road bloc, Pratap commented to the soldier searching our hired car that he probably looked like the least likely terrorist he had come across. The soldier replied amiably, "I was just saying that to my colleague," as he carried on. On another occasion we drove to the Divis Street flats but soon called off any calls there as youths on the roof started throwing bricks at us. We also went down the Falls Road to observe the funeral of a leading IRA member. In the huge procession were children in uniform; Pratap remarked that he was surprised that Cubs and Brownies were involved, only to realise that they were part of a junior IRA.

He was also now in charge of the grants to the Liberal party and he was able to avoid significant funding going in ways which could be influenced by Thorpe. He was also instrumental in the introduction of the so-called "chocolate soldiers" whereby bright young assistants were attached to parliamentarians. The scheme was later taken over by the government. Being conscious that many radical groups needed but couldn't afford a London base, he got the Trust to buy a large building in Poland Street in Soho and to provide space to a host of worthy groups.

Also at this time Chitnis became a member of the Community Relations Commission, from 1970 to 1977 and of the BBC Asian Programme Advice Committee, 1972 to 1977. These appointments enabled him to claim publicly when made a Life Peer in 1977 that it was for his services to race relations and to sit on the cross benches, even though the peerage was part of the Liberal party allocation.

During his first ten years in the Lords he created a third political career as a defender of human rights, liberal immigration policies and, above all, as an outspoken opponent of authoritarian regimes that manipulated elections. He went on election monitoring missions to El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, and attempted to go to Guyana in 1986, only to be refused a visa by the regime. He therefore based himself in Trinidad and interviewed officials of the opposition there! He also went to monitor the Rhodesian election of 1979, run by Bishop Muzorewa and Rev Sithole. He travelled around the country and took direct evidence from those intimidated and assaulted by the regime. All the other monitoring bodies gave the election a favourable judgement but Chitnis condemned it in forthright terms, calling it "a gigantic confidence trick."

He had let his Liberal Party membership lapse in 1969 but when Jeremy Thorpe was finally forced to resign he was instrumental in persuading Jo Grimond temporarily to become leader again until a successor could be elected. Then when David Steel was elected leader, Chitnis became one of his advisers, particularly assisting with his election tours. He also advised Steel during the Lib-Lab Pact of 1977-78 and during the negotiations that led to the Liberal-SDP Alliance in 1981.

He retired from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in 1988 and moved to France with Anne to bury himself in Provence growing olives and attending daily mass. He took leave of absence from the House of Lords and disappointed his many friends and colleagues by virtually cutting himself off from political and social affairs and was sadly missed over the past twenty-five years.

Pratap Chidamber Chitnis, Lord Chitnis, born 1 May 1936; died 12 July 2013. He is survived by his wife Anne.