In April we were saddened by the passing of Lord Roy Mason - Barnsley's former Member of Parliament and one of the last surviving Cabinet Ministers from the Harold Wilson and James Callaghan governments.
Roy Mason was coal miner who became a Labour MP for Barnsley (and then Barnsley Central) from 1953 to 1987. During this time he held several ministerial positions, including Defence Secretary and Northern Ireland Secretary.
On 5th June a speical service was held in his honour in Barnsley. Here is a copy of the speech Dan gave in his memory:
Marjorie; Susan; Jill; members of the Mason family; friends; guests; ladies and gentlemen.
Today we pause to remember the son of Mary and Joseph Mason: a formidable man, a pillar of our community and a giant of the Labour movement.
Roy Mason was a man who gave his life to service.
A man from humble beginnings who reached the very heights of public life.
I look around and see so many friends and colleagues from far and wide whose lives he touched.
Today we remember the great things he did.
A son of Barnsley who represented his hometown in Parliament for over half a century.
And a determined campaigner, who served his country around the Cabinet table.
We remember the titles we knew him by.
Member of Parliament.
Peer of the realm.
Friend. Husband. Father.
Everyone who met Roy knew he was a man of genuine warmth and tremendous enthusiasm.
I first met him during my 2011 election campaign here in Barnsley.
He was full of support, full of encouragement, and willing Labour to win.
Roy won his seat in Parliament in a by-election.
I’ve always thought all the best MPs get elected in by-elections….
Roy fought his campaign across a constituency blanketed in snow, rushing from school halls to factory gates, doing all he could to win the confidence of his neighbours, one handshake at a time.
He was elected by a landslide on the 31 March 1953 – a few weeks before Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.
Every person elected to serve in House of Commons goes there shaped by the community that sent them.
They step into that chamber moulded by their experiences and the personal fires they’ve been through.
Roy Mason went there as a man who had been forged in fiery furnaces.
He was born in 1924, during the brief months of Britain’s first ever Labour Government.
He was a son of Royston – the village where his father had settled after walking over 100 miles from Staffordshire in search of work.
He grew up in a Barnsley that powered the Industrial Revolution, kept the lights on through years of war and peace, and brought enormous wealth to our economy.
As Roy once wrote,
‘Coal was the centre of our universe.’
‘My horizons were bounded by muck stacks which smoked and smouldered, casting a pall of dust over the brightest day.’
And every day began with a rattle on his bedroom window at 4:30 each morning,
As the village knocker-upper would rouse sleeping miners for work before dawn.
Roy would watch his father go into that pit and would follow him into it.
He first went underground at the age of 14.
It was a dangerous place to work, and Roy would experience his fair share of toil and tragedy.
He was on only his second shift when he watched one of his fellow workers carried out on a stretcher, never to make it home alive.
Roy almost lost his father in a terrible accident.
In a time before we had an NHS, he was nursed back to health by his mother, but never fully recovered.
Roy’s journey from those dark tunnels into the corridors of Westminster was improbable and extraordinary in equal measure.
Especially for a man who – in his own words – left school ‘more or less literate, moderately numerate and without a prospect in the world.’
But Roy never forgot where he came from.
As one of his colleagues said of him: ‘He isn’t an Englishman. He’s a Yorkshireman.’
And he always remembered the people who had sent him to Parliament.
Whether representing the families of miners who had lost their lives, securing compensation for those who had been injured, or looking out for those who had fallen on hard times.
His own beginnings as an MP were not easy.
He was sworn in as a Member of Parliament in his best suit – which Roy later pointed was his only suit.
‘My father stayed at home,’ he remembered.
‘He didn’t have money for the train fare from Barnsley to London, and I was in no position to help.’
Westminster was an institution still ill-suited to representatives from working class backgrounds.
As a new MP, Roy was given no means to pay for a secretary, an office or his mountain of constituency correspondence.
He got by, through borrowing money from his father-in-law, spending his London working week in a cheap hotel run by the Salvation Army, and cashing out his miners pension before he’d turned 30 – a decision which rewarded him with £26 for the 14 years he’d spent underground…
Not much, but as Roy said, ‘enough to keep the wolf from the door.’
It helps explains why Roy became a champion for making Parliament more accessible, becoming something of a shop steward on the backbenches.
It’s was a natural role for one of 31 former miners in parliamentary Labour Party.
And having taken his seat only a few days before his 29th birthday, Roy was also one of the youngest MPs in the whole House.
One of his first encounters in Parliament was with Clement Attlee – former Labour Prime Minister and now Leader of the Opposition.
Attlee as ever, was clipped and to the point.
‘You’re going to be here a long time Mason,’ he said. ‘Two pieces of advice.
‘Specialise. And keep out of the bar. That’s all.’
It was decent advice from one of the big beasts of the Westminster jungle.
Roy met another in the rush after a division bell when he was flattened by the colossal figure of Winston Churchill…
Over time, Roy became a sizable figure in his own right – proving himself to be a determined champion for his constituents and a very effective Member of Parliament.
A good example was his campaign for a much-needed new Barnsley hospital.
His target was the Tory Health Minister – a certain Enoch Powell.
Roy unleashed a barrage of 30 parliamentary questions on Powell in less than 3 weeks.
Overwhelmed with paperwork, a pained Powell wilted under the bombardment.
He sought Roy out in the tearoom and begged for a cease fire.
‘Please stop,’ he said.
‘Your new hospital is now at the top of my priority list and I promise it will stay there – ‘short of a war!’
The Government allocated the money for Barnsley District General Hospital in 1961.
The foundation stone was laid 6 years later.
Naturally it wasn’t long before the Labour Government called on Roy’s talents.
He served as a Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, the Post Office and Defence Equipment.
In 1968 he won his first promotion to the Cabinet – receiving a summons to see the Prime Minister at 2 o’clock in the morning.
Harold Wilson made him Minister of Power.
The pit boy from Barnsley was now the man charged with keeping the lights on.
It was the first of a number of important Cabinet roles for Roy, including President of the Board of Trade and two years as Defence Secretary.
There he oversaw a far-reaching defence review – balancing Britain’s global commitments with difficult economies at home.
His victories included winning the fight for a maritime Harrier jet, speaking up for Concorde when many in the Cabinet were opposed, and introducing safer lifejackets for the Merchant Navy – an innovation that Roy modelled himself – inviting a bank of press photographers to watch him jump into the River Thames in only his swim suit.
It wasn’t the only time Roy showed he had mastered the art of handling the media.
Always a keen angler, the press once followed him on a fishing holiday – only he hadn’t caught anything.
So he borrowed a salmon from the kitchen at his hotel and posed with it for the local paper.
That photo was taken in county Fermanagh,
And Roy’s time in politics would come to be defined by his service as Northern Ireland Secretary.
James Callaghan asked him to do the job in 1976 when – in his words – ‘the pot had boiled over.’
It was the height of The Troubles and the role that weighed heaviest on the shoulders of any Cabinet Minister.
Roy took office in Stormont Castle on a morning when parts of Belfast were still on fire, with buses burning in the streets.
But he would fall in love with Northern Ireland, a place that reminded him of Yorkshire.
‘The trouble spots are only spots,’ he would say.
‘Its sheer beauty envelopes you and gives you a sense of warmth and peace.’
He made the island his home for three years – commuting home at weekends courtesy of lifts from the RAF back to Finningley airbase near Barnsley.
It was a difficult job that demanded tough choices.
And like his successors and predecessors, Roy’s tenure was not without controversy.
But he did all he could to steer Northern Ireland away from terror and sectarianism, and towards peace and prosperity.
The annual death toll from the violence more than halved on his watch.
And though peace would not come for two more decades, he began work for a political settlement.
But the biggest legacy from Roy’s service in Northern Ireland would be the long shadow it would cast over him and Marjorie for the rest of their lives.
We can see it in the donation he made to a Barnsley museum on his retirement:
His ministerial boxes, his pit boots and a bullet-proof vest.
For Roy and Marjorie, 1976 would be the first of over 30 years under police protection.
They included the first day of the 1979 General Election campaign, when Roy came home to be told he was on an IRA hit list, and placed under special protection.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to go through.
But those who saw how Roy did described him as ‘like a hard rubber ball – he kept bouncing.’
It is a measure of the man that he never let it get him down.
But also a measure of Marjorie – his rock – who was with him every step of the way.
And Roy was the first to acknowledge he could never have done it without her.
‘The IRA has never come close to ruining our lives,’ Roy said in 1999.
‘Of course politics sometimes demands a price. I write these words with armed guards patrolling outside my front door, as they have patrolled every day for more than 23 years. It’s undeniably a strain, but it’s bearable.
‘I’ve been blessed with 54 years of marriage, a marvellous wife, and a close loving family.
‘I’ve loved my life in politics and I know how lucky I am.
‘No level of threat can change that.’
Roy retired from the House of Commons in 1987.
Some had tried to persuade him to join the SDP during Labour’s struggles during that decade.
But Roy never did.
He was Labour to his bones.
He accepted the honour of a peerage, and was asked to select a motto to go with his title in the House of Lords.
Roy chose ‘courage and integrity.’
‘I will always have the satisfaction of knowing I never gave anything less than my best,’ he said.
‘If an MP can honestly say that at the end of his commons career, he hasn’t done too badly.’
In the final weeks of his life, Roy took the decision with his family to move into a care home.
The manager asked the Lord Mason of Barnsley what the staff should call him.
The reply was immediate.
‘Call me Roy’
It was a typical understatement from the pit boy from Barnsley.
A man who achieved so much against the odds, and who did so much for so many.
His story was an extraordinary one.
But if Roy worked for anything, it was so that his journey would not be the exception, but the expectation for all young people growing up in this town today.
We will miss him greatly.
But we walk on knowing that his legacy will stand, for all time.