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Phillips Wogan

Wogan Phillips

The artist son of a ship owner, born 25th February 1902, later in life Phillips became the Lord Milford, the 2nd Baron of Milford. As such, he was famously the only Communist in the House of Lords. Despite the ridicule sometimes bestowed on this role by the mainstream media, it had not been Phillips’ choice to take his seat. Harry Pollitt had urged him to go to the Lords, as was his right under inheritance laws, to speak against the very existence of the chamber and his presence there. 

Phillips married artist Rosamund Nina Lehmann, herself the daughter of an MP, in 1928. She dedicated her acclaimed "note of music" in 1930 him; she also wrote `Dusty Answer’, which achieved her fame. Known as Ros and Wog, they were friends with Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf.

Phillips was in Spain at the outbreak of the Spanish civil war and immediately joined the Medical Aid to Spain campaign as an ambulance driver driving between Valencia and Albacete. He treated a stream of wounded from the battle of Jarama in a makeshift hospital and was wounded in the later fighting in Segovia. Phillips also used his knowledge of commercial shipping to break the fascist blockade of Spain, helping to establish the refugee ship committee, formed to evacuate Republican political refugees to Mexico. In 1937, Phillips joined the Communist Party.

During the Second World War, he failed his medical for armed service and became a farmer in the Cotswold and Chair of Cheltenham branch of the National Union of Agricultural Workers. His Butler’s Farm provided the venue for the Gloucestershire Agricultural Workers Union annual rally and was also a haven of peace for many an international progressive leader. From this time, he was a long-standing member of the national Agricultural Advisory Committee of the Party and Editor of the `Country Standard’, the Communist Party's rural & countryside journal, first established in 1935.

Wogan Phillips was an inveterate election candidate for the Communist Party both as a local candidate and for the Cirencester and Tewksbury constituency. In 1946, he won a seat as a Communist on the Cirencester District Council, loosing the seat as the Cold War began in 1948.

He staged an attempt at a come back during the 1950 General Election. Hymie Fagan, reporting on this (News & Views March 1950), stated that "the CP had organised 5,381 meetings during the election. Meetings were held in places where there had never been Communist meeting before. Thus in  Tewkesbury and Chichester, one of the most backward political constituencies in England, the handful of comrades who ran the election organised thirty-five meetings in villages with 400 inhabitants or over. 

In the words of Ernie Brown, who was working in the constituency: "When the list was completed it was found that in no place chosen had there ever been a Communist meeting before, except in Tewkesbury."  The meetings m this constituency were carried through in the teeth of the most violent hostility from the reactionaries.  In this part of Gloucestershire there are large numbers of fascist "displaced" persons—retired Army officers, landowners, wealthy farmers, landed gentry—-as well as a large colony of Mosley fascists.

These followed our comrades round from meeting to meeting, howling, shouting, threatening physical violence.  They threw potatoes, tomatoes, eggs, and even a turkey.  This was thrown from a car which, loaded with fascists,  attempted  to force the car of the  candidate, Wogan Philipps, into a ditch. Yet every meeting -was carried through to the end.  Not only that, but the comrades also sold 1,250 Socialist Roads and 800 Election Specials, mostly from door to door.  Ten thousand leaflets were distributed and 12 quire of Daily Workers sold on the three weekends prior to polling day.

Small wonder that a sort of united front grew up between the Labour Party members and our comrades. At various villages these workers shook hands and thanked our comrades for the fight they were putting up against the Tories.  On top of this, the candidate obtained 423 votes.  It was an achievement.”

He very nearly came back again in electoral politics in October 1959 when, in a local rural council by-election, he only lost election by 15 votes on a 83% turnout. He went to the Soviet Union to study agriculture there in the 1960s, with his third wife Tamara (Bill Rust’s widow and also a Communist), whom he married in 1954. (He had married for a second time, Cristina Casati Stampa di Soncino, the daughter of a Marchese, in 1944.)                                                                                              Pic: Tamara and Wogan in 1963

At one point he inherited an extensive property in Italy and successfully encouraged the farm workers to run it as a commune. Though disinherited from the family estate, first for painting a female nude complete with pubic hair and then more permanently for refusing to renounce Communism, in 1963 on the death of his father, he became Lord Milford, a title that could not be taken from him. In possibly the most original of maiden speeches in that august chamber, published as a pamphlet by the Communist Party, he called for the abolition of the un-elected Lords.

Wogan Phillips worked hard as a painter, though as a sort of hobby, throughout his life. Though he was never fashionable, he was able to successfully exhibit at different times in London, Milan and Cheltenham. His first paintings were of Rosamund, his first wife, and other, earlier paintings were often of farming scenes but later he also dealt with social and political issues. These were almost but not quite abstract and perhaps a little anarchic. One, on which he worked for years, involved a simple arrangement of a ladder and two arms, a farm worker was passing another a mug of tea; his aim was to reflect the dignity of labour. Wogan Phillips died on 30th November 1993, aged 91 years.

Sources: Michael Walker (for News and Views); Morning Star 2nd December 1993; Guardian 3rd December 1993