published 09/10/2011 at 18:12 BST by Edward Pearce
Conservative minister with a passion for Pushkin and cricket
Iain Sproat, who has died aged 72 after suffering from multiple myeloma, must count as one of the unluckiest and most hard-working of parliamentarians. From 1970 he was Conservative MP for Aberdeen South, but lost his seat at the very moment – 1983 – when Thatcherish younger men were coming into their kingdom. Having fought his way back to become MP for Harwich in 1992, after a nine-year gap, and served as an energetic minister at the Department of National Heritage, he lost his new seat in circumstances freakish even for the Labour landslide of 1997.
Sproat, born at Dollar, Clackmannanshire, was educated at St Mary's school, Melrose, and Winchester college, before Magdalen College, Oxford, and a year at the University of Aix-en-Provence. Having worked in advertising, he got off to an early start in 1970, winning Aberdeen South, a seat that attracted quality representation, by defeating Donald Dewar.
Sproat had a name in those days for being aggressively rightwing, but he was overall an enlightened, thoughtful Tory, free market rather too soon for his own good, but no extremist. However, he made an enduring enemy in Willie Whitelaw, whose good humour was highly selective. Even so, he made junior office at the Department of Trade in 1981 where, inter alia, he was a bustling advocate of free ports.
Married in 1979 to Judith Kernot, with whom he started to restore the Elizabethan Snore Hall in Norfolk, and, set for advancement, he made something worse than a mistake – a mistake that was misunderstood. Aberdeen South was then, as ever, highly marginal. Sproat gave up the seat and ran instead for Roxburgh, where he was defeated by the Liberal candidate (while South Aberdeen stuck with the Tories).
He was generally supposed to have ratted and made a run for something safer. The truth was that he had given up Aberdeen South at the urgent bidding of his association chairman and committee, who were convinced of certain defeat and solicitous for their admired member. There was a safe west of England seat evidently his for the asking, but Sproat wanted to stay in Scotland, and thus to qualify as a future secretary of state, and so he chose to run instead for Roxburgh, another marginal.
The legend stuck, however, and, given the cut and thrust of Scottish politics, there were people keen to keep it fresh for each attempt at finding a new seat. Whenever Sproat was shortlisted, the 1983 scuttle was gleefully recirculated. Sproat found useful and reasonably remunerative things to do, but, politically, endured a seven-year nightmare until he was selected at Harwich ahead of the 1992 election.
Back in parliament under John Major, to whose outlook, rather than Thatcher's, he better approximated, Sproat was active at the DNH, first as parliamentary secretary, then minister of state, to Virginia Bottomley, followed by Stephen Dorrell, both congenial but seemingly indifferent to respectively sport and the arts. Sproat, ardent about both, became vastly useful. He can take credit as minister for sport (1993-97) for ending the absurd rugby union blackball of rugby league.
Sproat's greatest contribution to the arts would come before and after his four ministerial years. Although neither a Russian speaker nor a rich man, Sproat had enough enthusiasm for Alexander Pushkin to raise the money, commission and organise the translation into English, over two periods, 1987-93 and 1997-2004, of Pushkin's entire works. He also wrote a study of PG Wodehouse (Wodehouse at War, 1981), reaching early the present consensus that the novelist's Berlin broadcasts were simple naivety. Sproat's extrapolitical achievement in sport was to have established in 1981, under his own imprint, Milner & Co, the annual publication of The Cricketers' Who's Who, an indispensable guide to the careers of all current county players.
There was, too, a quick, decisive intervention very little known about to this day. In the early 1980s, by a deft piece of benign politics, Sproat saved the Daily Telegraph Commons sketch. It had been scheduled for phasing out by the late managing editor of the paper, Peter Eastwood. I informed Sproat of the decision; he responded by using his position as chairman of the Unionist backbenchers' committee and sending to the Telegraph's proprietor Lord Hartwell a letter signed by all of them expressing shock and protesting. Hartwell at once rescinded Eastwood's decision.
Sproat was ousted from politics in 1997 when an undertaker, standing for the Referendum party, collected nearly 5,000 votes, enough to allow Labour to take Harwich from him. Although Sproat stood again in 2001, the seat remained in Labour hands. Creative, vigorous and never a mere occupant of office, Sproat was the sort of ideas-friendly man who ought to be a minister, and who was not one for long enough.
He is survived by his wife.
Iain Mac Donald Sproat, politician and publisher, born 8 November 1938; died 29 September 2011
published 09/10/2011 at 18:12 BST by Edward Pearce