Saturday, October 13, 2007

"Fear God and Honour The King" - David Muffett OBE 1919-2007

"(and hardly anyone else besides)"

They don't make them like this any more.

A huge, lumbering bear of a man, 6ft 2in tall and nearly as broad, with a booming voice and bristling moustache, Muffett looked rather like a cross between Falstaff and Captain Mainwaring.

He spent 16 years in the colonial service in northern Nigeria, where he claimed to have been one of only two Britons whose name passed into the native Hausa language: "Aka yi masa mafed" (literally "One did to him Muffett"), meaning "Justice caught up with him".

In 1960 he apprehended the Tigwe of Vwuip, a northern Nigerian tribal chief who had eaten the local tax collector. The Tigwe had apparently been so impressed by the man's ability to acquire money on demand that he had — understandably — decided to try to assimilate his powers. It was not so much this particular misdemeanour that bothered Muffett; what really worried him was the fact that a UN delegation was due to visit the area, and "I wasn't about to have one of them eaten. I considered that it would be a highly retrogressive step." The Tigwe, who was surprised to learn that the colonial authorities disapproved of his eating habits, was duly sent to jail — but only "until the delegation had departed beyond the reach of his culinary aspirations."

Muffett often seemed to have magical powers of his own. He was once shot at with poisoned arrows, all of which miraculously missed his bulky frame, though one lodged in the pommel of his saddle. On another occasion a witch doctor who had pronounced a curse upon him fell down dead the next day, an event which, Muffett recalled, greatly enhanced his standing among the local population.

Another imperialist racist ?

Muffett was proud of the achievements of empire but contemptuous of British government policy towards Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, maintaining that "all the Foreign Office cared about were the white settlers. They never gave a damn for the indigenous population." He was deeply hostile to apartheid.

And he feared no one when he retired and became an English Tory.

In 1987 he intervened during the education debate at the Tory party conference to warn Baker that the government's obsession with disciplining Left-wing councils was threatening chaos in the excellent services run by Conservative councils, and that "immense and lasting damage" could be done to millions of children.

In 1992, disillusioned with what he saw as the Conservatives' betrayal of local government, he left the party, explaining in an open letter to his electors in Hartlebury, Ombersley and Fernhill Heath, near Droitwich, that although he could no longer support the government, he remained "a High Tory of the old school, one who 'fears God and honours the King' (and hardly anyone else besides)". He was re-elected in 1993 as an Independent.

It's an indictment of the Tories that they couldn't keep a figure with such qualities.

Later in life, setting a fine example of the sort of old-fashioned local government Tory who believed in leading from the front and running a tight ship, Muffett served as chairman of Hereford and Worcester education committee from 1982 to 1993. Even though budgetary constraints were tight, he was determined to improve the pupil-teacher ratio, even if that meant drastic surgery in other areas. At his insistence, the committee took the controversial step of withdrawing funding from the county school meals service in order to pay for around 100 new teachers. While many schools lost their in-house catering service, he encouraged the staff, with one-off grants, to set up on their own as private caterers, which many did successfully.

The Times Educational Supplement observed: "Depending on your taste, he runs the most cost-effective/mean education authority in the country" — a verdict which Muffett took as a compliment.

Muffett gave short shrift to incompetents and "pointy-headed bureaucrats" and took a tough line with the teaching unions. In 1987, after the NAS/UWT had called a half-day strike without giving notice, he sued the union for £48,000 damages under the Industrial Relations Act and won. Afterwards, walking away from the High Court, he was accosted while lighting up a celebratory cigar by a tabloid journalist. "Are you anti-union, Dr Muffett?" the man demanded to know. "I'm not anti-union, Buster," Muffett replied, giving the man a friendly jab in the ribs. "I'm pro-kids."

All this and a doctor of philosophy, author of several definitive books on Africa, big game hunter and professor of African studies. What a life.

As his local paper put it "No doubt St Peter has already been advised on the Muffett way of doing things".

UPDATE - his son Alec Muffett has a blog.