DIGBY Michael Godfrey John Willoughby, 12th Baron Middleton, who lost his seat in the last Government’s purge of the House of Lords and was a staunch defender of farming and rural life, has died aged 90.
He had a deep knowledge of farming and countryside matters, was keen to see rural life thrive and was forthright in his views. He foresaw major threats to large estates and the countryside years ahead of their time.
In 1979, he warned that a Labour Party committee recommendation to abolish blood sports, particularly fox-hunting, would have a serious effect on horse breeding, and the prosperity of its allied trades and professions, including country practices of veterinary surgeons.
In the same year, he warned that big institutions were buying large estates and that existing laws were a threat to the private landlord tenant system in agriculture.
Four years later, when president of the Country Landowners’ Association, he again highlighted the consequences of the threat to countryside sports, saying that a ban would mean the loss of 45,000 jobs which was equivalent to one quarter of the British agricultural labour force.
Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, Lord Middleton, who lived at Birdsall House, Malton on his family’s ancestral estate, was commissioned in the Coldstream Guards during the Second World War, in 1940, promoted temporary Major in 1943 and served in North West Europe between 1944 and 1945. He was awarded the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre, and was Mentioned in Despatches.
After studying at Cambridge, he became a land agent in 1951 running the family’s 12,000-acre estate.
In 1964 he entered local government when he was returned unopposed to represent Birdsall on East Riding County Council, a seat he held for 10 years until local authorities were reorganised in 1974 and he served for another three years on North Yorkshire County Council. His wife had by then been a member of Norton Rural Council for three years.
He was a Deputy Lieutenant of North Yorkshire, served as a magistrate in the East Riding, and was a member of Yorkshire and Humberside Economic Planning Council from 1968 to 1979.
It was during this period that again, well ahead of his time, he warned that English regions would suffer if Scotland and Wales were given devolved government. He particularly pointed out that Scottish MPs would be able to vote in Westminster on English matters, but Westminster would not have the same power over Scotland.
He was Honorary Colonel of the 2 Battalion Yorkshire (TAVR) Volunteers from 1976-88, a member of the Nature Conservancy Council from 1986 to 1989, and on the House of Lords Select Committee on European Community and chairman of the Food and Agriculture Sub-Committee from 1989 to 1996.
He was president of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society in 1976 and of the Country Landowners’ Association, from 198-83, and was for many years a steward at the Great Yorkshire Show. He also won the Royal Agricultural Society’s Bledislow Award for estate management.
He hunted with the Middleton with whom he had been field master, chairman and a trustee.
In 1947, he married Janet Marshall-Cornwall, who was working at the Foreign Office, the only daughter of General Sir James Marshall-Cornwall, who during the Second World War had been General Officer Commanding British Troops in Egypt, then GOC Western Command.
Lord Middleton took his seat in the House of Lords in 1971, succeeding his father to the peerage. But he was aggrieved when in 1999 he was to become one of 20 hereditary Yorkshire peers whose forbears played a part in the running of the country for more than 900 years, who lost their voting rights in the Upper House when they were abolished by Tony Blair’s Labour government.
Lord Middleton was a descendant of Frederick, Prince of Wales, the father of King George III. He is succeeded to the title by his eldest son Michael Charles James Willloughby.
In 1965 Lord Middleton, the then Hon. Michael Willloughby, and his wife, let Sophia Loren and her entourage stay in their country house near Malton while filming at Castle Howard. They moved out for the period of about five weeks and stayed with Mr Willoughby’s father, Lord Middleton, at Birdsall Hall.
Lord Middleton is survived by his wife of 63 years, three children, five grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
A memorial service is to be held at a date to be announced.