John (Tim) Rathbone

at King's Mead from 1944 to 1946

(obituary from the Times, 16th July 2002)

(click here for the original with photograph)

TIM RATHBONE'S 23 years as MP for Lewes, East Sussex, ended in defeat by the Liberal Democrats at the 1997 general election. Three months later, he was thrown out of the Conservative Party for criticising its policy on Europe. This was anything but the first time that Rathbone had found himself out of step with the party leadership. During the 1980s his left-of-centre, "wet" views on Europe and other issues had procluded any chance of his achieving high office.  Popular across party divides, he won the respect of his fellow MPs for his refusal to compromise his principles. He voted against the poll tax and capital punishment and campaigned for electoral reform, televising Parliament and better nursery schooling. He proved an implacable opponent of both apartheid and drug abuse. 

John Rankin Rathbone - known as Tim - was born in London in 1933. By that date his great-aunt Eleanor, who had been prominent in the women's suffrage movement, had been MP for the Combined English Universities for four years. His father - also John - entered Parliament as the member for Bodmin in 1935, when he was 25. He was called up on the outbreak of war, served as a fighter pilot and was lost in action during the Battle of Britain.  His American wife, Beatrice, stood unopposed for Bodmin in 1940 and held the seat for the next five years. In 1942, she married Paul Hervé Giraud Wright, who would go on to enjoy a distinguished career as a diplomat and be knighted in 1975.  Rathbone attended Greenvale School, Long Island, and King's Mead, Seaford. Like his father before him, he went to Eton and then Christ Church, Oxford, where he read Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He later attended Harvard Business School. Rathbone completed his National Service in 1953 as a 2nd Lieutenant with the King's Royal Rifle Corps - the 60th Rifles. 

In 1956, he joined the merchant bankers Robert Benson Lonsdale. After a couple of years, however, he decided that the City was not for him and crossed the Atlantic to New York, where he joined the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather where he worked on such accounts as Rolls-Royce, Lever Brothers and KLM. He spent seven years with the firm, rising to the rank of vice-president.  During his sojourn in New York, Rathbone met a Cuban-born girl, Margarita Sanchez y Sanchez. They married in 1960 and had three children.  In 1966 Rathbone returned to England and was recruited by the Conservative Party chairman, Edward du Cann, as the party's chief publicity and public relations officer. Du Cann and the party's leader, Ted Heath, had hoped that Rathbone would bring a little New York pizzazz to his new role, but his two years at Central Office proved unproductive and Heath's ratings took a dive in the opinion polls. Part of the problem was that Rathbone's brief was not clearly defined and overlapped with that of Gerald Brien, the Central Office press spokesman. Rathbone then joined another advertising agency, the Charles Barker Group. He would remain with the group in one capacity or another for almost 20 years. 

Rathbone had long been keen to follow his parents and great-aunt into the House of Commons. In March 1973 he was adopted by the Conservative Party as its prospective candidate for Lewes, a town close to where he had lived as a boy. In the general election one year later, he won the seat with 53 per cent of the vote and a majority of more than 14,000. He would remain MP for Lewes for the next 23 years.  After Margaret Thatcher swept to power in 1979, Rathbone was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to Gerald Vaughan, the Minister for Health, a position he held for three years. He performed the same role for the Minister of Trade between 1982 and 1983 and for the Arts Minister for a few months in 1985.  His failure to gain ministerial office freed him to pursue a series of issues close to his heart. During a visit to South Africa, he had become a fierce critic of that country's apartheid regime. Asked to fill in a hotel questionnaire, he realised that his sons and daughter - as the children of an Hispanic woman - were banned from using the same hotel as their father. 

In the general election of May 1997, Rathbone lost Lewes by little more than 1,000 votes to the Liberal Democrat candidate, Norman Baker. Recognising that the electorate had rejected the Conservative Party rather than just him, he accepted the defeat with dignity. Although some constituents had grumbled about his effectiveness in the House of Commons, Rathbone remained highly popular in Lewes after losing his seat.  In August of that year, he was expelled from the Conservative Party after advocating that voters back the breakaway Pro Euro Conservatives in the imminent Euro-elections.  His first marriage was dissolved in 1981. The next year, he married Susan Stopford Sackville. He is survived by his wife, two sons and daughter. 

John (Tim) Rathbone, MP for Lewes, 1974-97, was born on March 17, 1933. He died of
cancer on July 12, 2002, aged 69.

The Guardian obituary for Tim Rathbone

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