The writer F Scott Fitzgerald memorably once said that ‘There are no second acts in American life’. Thankfully Christopher Chataway was British and didn’t adhere one iota to that maxim. Mirroring the standard structure of a theatrical play his biopic would be very much a Five Act affair. In this blog, I shall be focusing on his time as a Member of Parliament between 1959-1974. The original Olympian turned politician was garlanded as the changing face of Conservatism. I’ll be accessing this transition from the exhilarating triumph of Four Minute Miles to the curious backstairs dealing of Ten-Minute Bills.
This blog article was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
CHILD OF EMPIRE
Christopher Chataway was born in London in 1931. His father was a high-ranking civil servant who was posted out to Sudan as the newly appointed District Commissioner. The family joined him, and over twenty years later Chataway reflected in the Commons Chamber on this colonial experience when remarking upon the futility of empire. Like many upper-middle-class boys of the inter-war period, he was shuttled off to boarding school at a young age. In his case, it was to be the dormitories of Sherborne in Dorset.
Ancient traditions of public schooling encouraged sporting endeavours for character building. Yet it wasn’t until Chataway arrived at Oxford University to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) that he began his athletics career in earnest. While friend and fellow athlete Roger Bannister abstained from the typical undergraduate distractions Chataway just couldn’t resist a cheeky Woodbine supplemented by a surreptitious pint or two of beer.
(Read Chataway speaking about the Empire in Africa - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1959/dec/07/racial-intolerance-and-discrimination#S5CV0615P0_19591207_HOC_327)
BOY’S OWN STUFF
Despite self-confessed ‘little legs’ Chataway excelled as a middle-distance runner featuring in two Olympics. In 1954 he became a national hero beating Russian Vladimir Kuts in a televised 5000 metres race at a packed White City Stadium. As a result, he won the inaugural BBC Sports Personality of the Year edging out Roger Bannister who’d broken the fabled four-minute mile with Chataway acting as a pacemaker. An invite to appear on Desert Island Discs followed with his luxury choice being underwater breathing apparatus.
He briefly worked as a sales representative for Guinness collaborating on the novel concept of publishing a book of world records. But Chataway enjoyed media exposure and was considered a natural in front of the camera. Opting against sport journalism to concentrate on current affairs he became ITV’s first newscaster before the BBC lured him away to present Panorama. Already commentators were predicting an inevitable move into politics.
(Read Chataway speaking about sport coaching in the UK - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1963/jul/16/sport-coaching-facilities#S5CV0681P0_19630716_HOC_483 )
THE CHOSEN ONE
Profiled by The New Statesman in November 1956 the article noted that Chataway had the ‘intelligence, good nature and sense of proportion that will make an excellent MP’. In his student days, he had a Conservative Club membership though his attendance at meetings was virtually non-existent. This didn’t stop the Party hierarchy courting him for nomination as an electoral candidate in the knowledge that this would lead to a great deal of free publicity. Image was of primary importance and with his dimpled matinee idol looks Chataway was fifties box office.
He was pragmatic enough to not step into the breach too hastily diplomatically declining the offer of a fast-track. Deciding instead to serve his ‘apprenticeship’ as a London County Councillor before taking the plunge at the 1959 General Election. A mightily impressive win at Lewisham North resulted in him sharing the newspaper front pages with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
(Read Chataway’s first Parliamentary contribution - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/written-answers/1959/oct/30/refugees#S5CV0612P0_19591030_CWA_9 )
UNDER STARTER’S ORDERS
Now ensconced within the halls of power Chataway was out of the blocks in pursuit of his own internationalist agenda. Assignments for Panorama in the developing world had opened his eyes to humanitarian concerns that required immediate solution. He strove to enlighten the House of the perilous refugee crises existing in both Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In 1960 assisted by a group of journalists amongst whom was future Cabinet Minister Timothy Raison he successfully launched World Refugee Day.
For his considerable efforts, Chataway shared the Nansen Medal awarded by the United Nations with his campaign team. Plaudits galore were bestowed on him for his courageous maiden speech that viscerally highlighted the colour bar of South Africa’s apartheid doctrine. Urging English cricketers to boycott any scheduled tours until it ceased. On the opposition benches, Fenner Brockway was impressed striking up a kinship that wouldn’t be hindered by party lines.
(Read Chataway speaking on World Refugee Year - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1960/apr/26/world-refugee-problem#S5CV0622P0_19600426_HOC_352 )
GOING THE DISTANCE
Macmillan’s Conservative Government was somewhat of a dysfunctional family as witnessed in the wholesale dismantling of his cabinet forever known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. Chataway as Junior Minister for Education survived the mass cull though he confided to Tam Dalyell in the voting lobby that it was a close call. Away from the demands of his departmental role he wanted to use the Parliamentary platform to address social issues notably racial discrimination.
His predominantly working-class constituency was now home to a large Caribbean community. He was wholly sympathetic to the inequalities they had experienced since settling in the capital. Fenner Brockway introduced a Private Members Bill to end discriminatory practices involving race in 1962 and Chataway pledged his support. The proposed legislation may have failed to get to the promised land of the statute book however it was to be a precursor for the 1965 Race Relations Act.
(Read Chataway speaking about his West Indian constituents - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1959/dec/07/racial-intolerance-and-discrimination#S5CV0615P0_19591207_HOC_327)
TAKING A STAND
Embodying a progressive Conservative brand left Chataway at the mercy of a small minority of Tory traditionalists. He triggered their wrath further by joining several luminaries advocating the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Labour’s Leo Abse tabled a Sexual Offences Motion to help overturn this status quo. Chataway didn’t hesitate in putting his name forward to speak in the subsequent debate. Where he posed a deliberately loaded question. Is a homosexual act more damaging to society than adultery?
Surprisingly he lost his seat in the following year’s General Election meaning he couldn’t vote in favour of the historic Bill which became law in 1967. The death of Chichester MP Walter Loveys gave Chataway the opportunity to make a speedy return via a by-election. He duly delivered and soon after the nation went to the polls again as the Conservatives led by Edward Heath were victorious in the first election of the seventies.
(Read Chataway speaking at the Sexual Offences Bill debate - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1966/feb/11/sexual-offences-bill#S5CV0724P0_19660211_HOC_118 )
SOUND & VISION
It was a cause of regret for Chataway that he wasn’t rewarded a senior ministerial office. The nearest he came was a non-Cabinet position as Minister of Post and Telecommunications on the recommendation of the new Premier. Edward Heath saw real potential in Chataway and he didn’t let him down. Embracing emerging technologies and overseeing the establishment of a nationwide commercial radio network that achieved its governmental aim to challenge the BBC monopoly. Also devising the blueprint for a fourth television station to be part-funded by advertising that catered for less mainstream tastes. (Welcome to Channel Four!)
The consensus ideals of post-war Britain that Chataway represented was slowly drowned out by the white noise of 1970s industrial strife. A posting at the Department for Trade & Industry put him at the coalface of the divisiveness. Disillusioned by the situation he walked away from Westminster in October 1974 never looking back.
(Read Chataway proposing a fourth TV channel - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1971/dec/15/television-fourth-channel#S5CV0828P0_19711215_HOC_361 )
The realm of business was Chataway’s next port of call. Directorships with companies ranging from Crown Communications to the Dorchester Hotel brought financial stability. This allowed him to pursue numerous extra-curricular activities including being treasurer for ActionAid an international development charity whose Vicky’s Water Project built freshwater facilities across Ethiopia. Always a bit of a Europhile as Chairman for the National Campaign for Electoral Reform he flew the flag for incorporating a Proportional Representation system that a host of nations on the continent had in place. He accepted a knighthood in 1991.
Athletics remained a passion chairing the Commonwealth Games Council as the institution sought to extend its influence beyond the organisation of quadrennial tournaments. Sadly, Chataway couldn’t attend any events staged at London’s Olympiad as he was receiving treatment for stomach cancer. His death in January 2014 elicited a wave of tributes testimony to his tremendous lust for life.
Oxford Dictionary National Biography, Christopher Chataway written by Martin Polley, 2018
New Statesman Profiles, Christopher Chataway written by Kingsley Martin, 1956
Better Country, 1966 General Election Pamphlet written by Christopher Chataway
Agenda for Change, Christopher Chataway, Hansard Society, 1991
Christopher Chataway, The Guardian Obituary written by Stephen Bates, January 2014
Christopher Chataway, The Independent Obituary written by Denis Kavanagh, January 2014
Christopher Chataway, New York Times Obituary written by Frank Litsky, January 2014.
Hansard Parliamentary Debates