Sir Clement Freud, 1924-2009
Clement Freud was one of the best-known faces on TV, and best-known voices on radio, when he became Liberal candidate for the Isle of Ely in the 1973 by-election. ‘Freud has them rolling in the Isle’ ran one tabloid headline. Those who did not know him were surprised that, even during a promising run of by-election successes, he should take such a gamble, and attributed it to Jeremy Thorpe’s formidable powers of persuasion. But Freud was a lifelong gambler and, more significantly, was a genuine philosophical Liberal. His commitment to fundamental liberal principles ran deep, and was to bear fruit in his parliamentary work.
As well as being a celebrity in his own right and by his own efforts, Clement Freud was the grandson of Sigmund Freud, and brother of the painter Lucien Freud. In an era when many MPs began to be criticised for never having had ‘real’ jobs, Freud provided the contrast of someone who had worked his way up. He had learned his first trade in the kitchens of the Dorchester, and was an early TV chef and food writer. He served in the Army, including duty at the Nuremburg war crimes trials. He wrote books for children. He ran the Royal Court Theatre Club. He was a columnist for the Racing Post and a sports writer for several papers. He beat Sir Hugh Fraser in a horse race over the jumps at Haydock Park. He was a regular performer on Radio 4’s ‘Just a Minute’ and helped to make the show so popular. He was elected Rector of both St. Andrews and Dundee universities. He had a remarkable 59-year marriage to Jill.
Clement Freud took the business of being a Member of Parliament much more seriously than many people either realised or expected. He was an instinctive philosophical Liberal, and his Liberal Party allegiance was a matter of conviction, not convenience. When I was elected to Parliament in 1973 I found myself sharing a small office with three other Liberal by-election winners, including Cyril Smith as well as Clement Freud. My induction training consisted of sitting at the next desk and learning the different ways in which these two celebrities worked to help their constituents. Clement Freud was regularly on the telephone to council and departmental officials, persuading them to sort out his constituents’ grievances. His celebrity status encouraged officials to sit up and take notice, and his outside income (including his successful bet on his own victory) enabled him to engage more secretarial help than the rest of us could afford in the days of miniscule allowances for office expenditure. Freud was a demanding employer, so staff came and went rather frequently, but there could be no doubt of his commitment to constituents. When he lost his seat in 1987 it was the result of boundary changes which brought in areas around Peterborough, where people had not experienced the level of service he provided.
Freud’s seriousness about his Parliamentary work was not initially recognised by some of his fellow MPs in other parties. They did not want to recognise it. Even more then than now, the Commons was suspicious of people who had made their name outside it. And when that name and face were nationally associated with cooking, gambling, comedy and spectacularly popular TV commercials for dog food, the reaction of some in the Commons was that ‘none of that counts for anything in here’. But he established himself as a spokesman on Culture and on Northern Ireland, and was a pioneer of Freedom of Information legislation. When Jim Callaghan’s government was about to fall in 1979, Freud was in Liverpool campaigning in the by-election which brought David Alton to Parliament. On the eve of poll Callaghan sent a message that if Freud would stay in Liverpool rather than returning for the vote of confidence, the government would back his Freedom of Information Bill, which they had been opposing. Unimpressed by this implausibly Damascene conversion on the part of a doomed government, he returned and sealed Labour’s fate in the lobby.
Of course, the seriousness with which Freud took his role as an MP did not rob his close colleagues of the delight, unpredictability and occasional embarrassment of his humour. His deadpan face, part of the armoury of his wit, often made it difficult to tell whether he was telling the truth or having you on. A devout Methodist colleague who shared our office, the late David Austick, never did manage to work this out. He attended prayers far more often than the booking of a seat necessitated, and Freud would look soulfully at him and say: ‘David, would you mind praying on my behalf today? I would be most grateful.’
Freud was an acknowledged expert in the put-down, and a master of arts in rudeness. In days when smoking was normal, even in the Commons Dining Room, some of us were grateful for his ability to be far more cutting than we would ever be to the smokers, insisting that they stop while we ate. The tables were, however, turned on him when dining tables were themselves the issue. One night a group of Tories had taken over the traditional Liberal table in the dining room, so Freud led a sortie to take over the only vacant table, the one normally saved for the Conservative Chief Whip. A Tory Whip retaliated by taking its remaining seat and lighting a cigarette. Freud sat through it.
Freud had the egocentric features which often go with celebrity, but he could be a deeply loyal friend, and that was never more marked than in the way he stood by Jeremy Thorpe throughout the trial, the acquittal and Jeremy’s subsequent public appearances. It was a lesson in unselfishness.
The Parliaments in which Clement Freud served were noisier, sat for far longer hours and showed much more visible hostility than today’s House of Commons. We Liberals were a very small band seeking to represent a sizeable chunk of the electorate in a House in which we had to fight for a hearing. Having Clement Freud as one of our band was immensely worthwhile, occasionally challenging, sometimes irritating, but often life-enhancing.
Clement Freud died on April 25th, 2009, having invited friends to his 85th birthday party a few days later, warning them to watch the press for news of a possible cancellation. Always competitive, he wanted the last laugh, and he got it.
This article originally appeared in the House magazine of 27 April 2009.