As a teenager at Eton College, Harold Elletson, the Conservative MP for Blackpool North between 1992 and 1997 who has died suddenly in Germany, asked the Labour prime-minister Harold Wilson for advice on how to start a career in politics.
“Know your subject,” said the state-educated prime minister who had courted his wife Mary in quiet lanes around the small manor house at Preesall owned by Elletson’s father, a Tory barrister and Lancashire county councillor.
The young Elletson claimed to have followed Wilson’s advice by perfecting his fluent Russian in 1980, during a long Soviet winter at the state university of Voronezh, and by plumbing the depths and depravity of Anglo-Irish politics as a parliamentary private secretary in Northern Ireland in post-Thatcher secret peace negotiations, just before Elletson’s own days at Westminster were ended by some drastic map-making at the Boundary Commission before the 1997 Labour landslide.
An early political career marked by service and intrigue
After founding the eLearning Africa series of debates and chairing a gathering in Zambia in 2010, Elletson could explain in mechanical and electrical detail how the millions of mobile phones owned by every third person in Africa, often electrically charged by pedal power from a bicycle, would give African children a digital education without the barriers that had impeded universal education in Europe, America and Asia.
In the summer of 1998, when the Russian Central Bank defaulted on debt and devalued the rouble, when striking coal miners blocked the Trans-Siberian Railway, Elletson published in London and New York The General Against the Kremlin, a book that revealed the instability of the Yeltsin régime.
The book was based on special knowledge of the career of General Alexander Lebed, a gruff Cossack boxer and paratrooper who had been a merciful and intelligent commander in savage wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
Lebed, son of a gulag prisoner from Novocherkassk, close to the border with Ukraine, had been sacked as secretary of Yeltsin’s security council in 1996 despite having saved Yeltsin’s life and career by refusing an order to send his 106th Guards Airborne Division to crush democratic resistance at the Moscow White House during the failed August coup of 1991. Elletson knew that subject better than anyone writing in English.
Two days before Christmas 1998, the Observer newspaper accused him of spying for the British foreign intelligence service under parliamentary cover. Three reporters described a “secret life of intrigue” and accused him of helping “Whitehall decision-making by gathering intelligence for MI6, passing on secrets gleaned while travelling under parliamentary cover”.
Jonathan Calvert, Michael Gillard and David Leigh had to admit that the prime minister John Major had given Elletson “special permission to continue his under-cover rôle while an MP” although it had been Wilson who had first asked MI6 for an assurance that they would not ask MPs to gather secrets while travelling abroad, a service previously offered to the spooks by both Winston Churchill and Lloyd George.
Elletson neither confirmed nor denied the allegation; “When asked by the Observer about his MI6 role, he said, ‘This is something we can’t talk about on the phone. We should have a meeting.’ He then failed to arrange one.”
The attack came at Christmas when Elletson was no longer in parliament but working as a professional adviser for BP Exploration in Azerbaijan and for Alstom in Siberia.
By following Wilson’s advice to “know your subject” he had, in the admiring words of the Blackpool Gazette, later quoted by the Observer, helped MI6 while “dodging bullets in the Balkans, woken by heavy artillery in Chechnya” and “cheated death in Smolensk after contracting bronchitis as an observer at the Russian elections”.
Hindered for adhering to principle
His attempt to return to parliament as a Lancashire MP in the winnable Labour-held constituency of Lancaster and Wyre was thwarted in 2002 by an astonishing decision to exclude him from the selection process, along with three other well-qualified local Conservatives, in favour of a member of the Scottish parliament and three other men without any local connections.
The selection committee included Lady Dulcie Atkins and her son James. They were accused of organising the exclusion of Elletson from the final selection as a consequence of his demand for an investigation into the jailing of the Blackpool estate agent and media tycoon Owen Oyston. Oyston had been the Labour Party’s biggest financial contributor in the Kinnock years. Elletson said the Oyston Affair showed “how easily in Britain today, democracy, accountability and good governance can be undermined, how our institutions can be corrupted and, ultimately, how even justice itself can be perverted”.
Lady Dulcie’s husband, the cricket-loving Robert Atkins, Tory MP for South Ribble, had resigned as John Major’s countryside minister after being accused in a private legal action of conspiring to defame Oyston. Esquire published transcripts of tape-recorded conversations in which Robert Atkins, as a government minister, appeared to offer to a local activist a Department of Trade and Industry investigation into the Oyston estate agency.
Elletson said, “There are lots of reasons why a local candidate might not be chosen to contest the seat. But I have been told that my support for Oyston is the reason”.
The local Tories eventually chose Ben Wallace, 32, a former officer in the Scots Guards and the MSP for North East Scotland. He is now MP for Wyre and Preston North and secretary of state for defence since 2019. Victoria Atkins, the daughter of Sir Robert and Lady Atkins, is the Conservative MP for Louth and Horncastle and financial secretary to the treasury in the Rishi Sunak government.
Joining the Liberal Democrats and founding the Northern Party
By the end of 2002 Elletson had joined the Liberal Democrats as a foreign affairs spokesman. In 2014 he co-founded the Northern Party to campaign for federal “Home Rule all round”, a slogan coined by Winston Churchill in the days when Churchill was a Liberal MP.
Elletson collaborated during the long, losing battle against Brexit with his friends John Stevens, a Tory MEP until 1999, and Dirk Hazell, a former chairman of the London Region Conservatives who had formed the Four Freedoms Party [UK EPP] after David Cameron ordered Tory MEPs at Strasbourg to break their alliance with the centrist European People’s Party [EPP] of Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy, for a formal alliance with the right-wing Czech Civic Democrats (ODS) and the occasionally racist Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS).
In December 2019, “in Brexit despair and disgust” before “the most important election since the Second World War” the former Tory MP for Blackpool North spoke from Parrox Hall to urge his neighbours in Lancaster and Fleetwood to vote for the Labour candidate, Cat Smith MP.
Harold Daniel Hope Elletson was born on 8 December, 1960, elder son of Daniel Hope Elletson, an Oxford-educated barrister, Lancashire county councillor and squire of Parrox Hall, the sixteenth-century manor house near Preesall, now preserved by a family trust. Elletsons have lived on the coastal mossland “Over Wyre” since the twelfth century.
Elletson loved Lancashire with passion and insight. He was intrigued to discover that another Elletson had been a successful investor in the construction of a small ocean-going ship called The Hope, built around 1850 in the River Wyre marshes at Wardleys Creek where Manx, Irish and Lancashire sailors used to land French brandy, American tobacco and Russian flax, well away from excisemen.
At Eton, the Elletson boys were mocked for talking broad Lancashire but it seems likely that the accent was deliberately deployed by Harold who later spoke five languages and could sustain a conversation in the Ulster dialect of Lowland Scots.
Elletson took a BA in Russian with Philosophy at the University of Exeter in 1979, including his British Council scholarship in Voronezh, followed by a postgraduate diploma in East West Studies at the University of Westminster in 1987, the year he stood unsuccessfully as a Tory in the safe Labour seat of Burnley.
At Bradford University between 1996 and 1999 he took a certificate in Turkish language studies and a PhD in Modern European Studies. In 2020 he began to read for the bar, gaining a graduate diploma distinction in law at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2021 and expecting to qualify as a practising barrister in 2023.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, as a senior fellow of the Institute of Statecraft, with contacts in the Baltic states and financial support from NATO he formed the NATO Forum on Business and Security and the New Security Foundation in a “demonstration of the principle that freedom is irrepressible.”
For most of the last 19 years he lived and worked in Berlin with his partner Rebecca Stromeyer, founder in 1995 of Online Educa Berlin, an annual, global cross-sector conference on digital learning with 2500 partcipants from 70 countries.
Elletson died suddenly in the mid-morning of 23 June at Rebecca’s country house in the village of Grunow in Märkische Schweiz, the “Switzerland of Brandenburg” north east of Berlin and “a place Harold loved”. He appears to have suffered a fatal lung embolism despite promising treatment in England and Germany for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
He leaves two sons by his divorced wife Fiona. Both sons are fluent in Arabic. Alexander, with an MA in Arabic and Persian from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, works for JP Morgan in Frankfurt am Main and married Luisa Rettschlag in Germany on 9 June.
George, 25, took a BA in Arabic and an MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages at the University of Edinburgh. After teaching English at Leon in Spain he is expected to start teaching English at an American school in Kuwait in August.