The death of Sir Ralph Howell has robbed Norfolk of one of its more colourful political characters. During my time as Conservative candidate in North Norfolk in the runup to the 2005 election Ralph was unfailingly courteous and helpful to me. He was anxious not to interfere but would occasionally phone me with a piece of wise advice. Everyone in politics needs a wise old owl figure to keep them on the straight and narrow, and Ralph filled the role perfectly.
After he stood down in 1997 he was careful to leave the stage to his successor David Prior, but when I made clear I would welcome his involvement he seemed to relish a brief return to the political hustings. He said he would like to come out canvassing for a morning and it became clear to me just how revered he was by the North Norfolk electorate. Lady Margaret would join him and watch him enjoy himself from the car, for by that time she was very ill. It obviously gave her great pleasure to see her husband back in the political ring. Ralph enjoyed it so much that he came out several times during the campaign. Many candidates hate it when their predecessors reappear. I didn’t. I knew how popular Ralph was and valued his wise counsel.
It is true to say that they don’t make ‘em like Ralph Howell anymore. It’s rare for a country farmer to go into national politics, and those that do often find it not to their liking. They struggle to make an impact. Ralph Howell never achieved ministerial office, but he gained tremendous respect for his tenacity in defending the interests of North Norfolk. His ideas on ‘Workfare’, where peoples may only receive benefits if they work for them, were twenty years ahead of their time. Ralph would be amused that some of his ideas were taken up by a Labour government, rather than a Conservative one.
I'll be attending Ralph's funeral at Dereham Church on Monday. It's a certainty that it will be packed.