Lord (Patrick) Cormack (1939-2024)

Patrick Thomas Cormack was one of Britain’s longest-serving parliamentarians, with a combined total of fifty-four years in the Palace of Westminster. First elected as a Conservative MP in 1970, he served continuously until 2010 when he was elevated to the House of Lords. He was still a very active member of that chamber of parliament, and planning to speak in a foreign affairs debate in early March, when he very suddenly became ill. He died, aged 84, in hospital in Lincoln on 25 February 2024, following a severe heart attack two days earlier.

A chance meeting between Patrick and me in Moscow during the last year of the Soviet Union led, rather surprisingly, to the creation of the Visiting Parliamentary Fellowship at St Antony’s. Patrick was looking for somewhere to dine, and since I knew Moscow better than he did, I chose the restaurant and he, my wife Pat, and I had a meal together, for which Patrick paid. To reciprocate, I invited him to a St Antony’s High Table at which Ralf Dahrendorf, as Warden, was presiding over the usual lively company. Patrick, enthused by the occasion, said afterwards that it would be nice to have an association of some sort between the College and Parliament. I fully agreed and, more importantly, so did Ralf Dahrendorf, with whom Patrick and I had a subsequent meeting to discuss what might be possible. This led to my proposing to the Governing Body the creation of the Parliamentary Fellowship (for which we had found the very modest funding it required). That has brought two members from the House of Commons or the House of Lords (one from the governing party and the other from an Opposition party) to St Antony’s in each academic year from 1994-95 to the present.

Along with Labour MP Giles Radice, Patrick came in 1994 as one of the first two Visiting Parliamentary Fellows. He played a major part in arranging the seminars whose purpose from the outset has been to foster fruitful interaction between political practitioners and academics.  On weekly visits to the College, Patrick made himself available for consultation by St Antony’s students who were happy to have meetings with him. A traditionalist and a small ‘c’ as well as a capital ‘C’ Conservative, he had an unusually wide range of friends and interlocutors that cut across party lines (true of the friendship he and I developed as well). He was a frequent rebel against the current line of his own party, and took pride in having voted more against the government when it was led by Margaret Thatcher than had any other Conservative MP. That independence doubtless eased the path of his cross-party friendships, though it is also part of the explanation why he never held governmental office of any kind, despite being manifestly more capable than some of those who did. The cross-party friendships owed more, however, to his innate kindliness and courtesy, and his strong belief in the importance of civility in democratic politics – and, indeed, in human interactions more generally. Patrick was on friendlier terms with the tough Labour whip who was reluctant to let Giles Radice come to Oxford and miss one or more Commons votes than was Giles himself. On more than one occasion, it was Patrick who persuaded the Labour whip to relent on his earlier veto.

As Sir Patrick Cormack (he was knighted in 1995) and as Lord Cormack (from 2010), he continued to have a close relationship with St Antony’s and was, for some years, a Senior Associate Member. He continued to take an avuncular (or paternal) interest in the Parliamentary Fellowship, was always happy to be consulted, and ever ready to help in other ways – for example, by hosting Antonian reunions in one of the rooms of the Palace of Westminster.

The focus thus far has, naturally, been on Patrick in relation to St Antony’s. But he was active in an extraordinarily wide range of organisations, often as Chair (though Patrick preferred ‘Chairman’), as his extensive Who’s Who entry bears witness. His list of ‘recreations’ for that venerable tome consisted of ‘fighting philistines, walking, visiting old churches, avoiding sitting on fences’. He was a pillar of civil society as well as of political society. A few examples must suffice here. Religion was important for him, and he was a devout member of the Church of England (while preferring more traditional forms of worship to recent innovations); the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was among those to pay warm tribute to Patrick on the day he died. He was a member of the Church’s General Synod from 1995 to 2005, and from 2018 until his death he was Deputy High Steward of Lincoln Cathedral.  Earlier he had been Rector’s Warden, and subsequently ‘Parliamentary Warden’, of St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. It is, therefore, very appropriate that his funeral will be held in Lincoln Cathedral, and that, at a later date, there will be a London memorial service at St Margaret’s.

Patrick was an energetic conservationist, with particular devotion to old churches, and he was keenly interested in, and knowledgeable about, art. For lengthy periods he was Chair of the House of Commons Works of Art Committee, the House of Lords Works of Art Committee and the Conservative Party Arts and Heritage Committee. He had a long association with publications about parliament – as editor of The House Magazine from 1983 to 2005 and then its Life President. Among his many contributions beyond the confines of parliament, he was an active member of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, the Council for British Archaeology, the Historic Buildings Council, Heritage in Danger (Vice-Chair 1974-2000), and a member of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts from 1981 to 2003.

As one of the most active backbenchers in Parliament (while being at the same time a conscientious constituency MP for the seats he successively held in Staffordshire), he served on many parliamentary committees, including the Select Committees of the House of Commons on Foreign Affairs, on Northern Ireland, and on Education, Science and Arts. Patrick was a ‘One-Nation Tory’ of a type which began to become unfashionable in the Conservative Party during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and he was often at odds with subsequent leaderships of his party, with a particular disdain for what he regarded as Boris Johnson’s lack of integrity. During the Thatcher years, he opposed his party over cuts to child and unemployment benefits, on the poll tax, on the abolition of the Greater London Council, and on charging for eye and dental checks. He also opposed the privatisation of the Royal Mail when this was mooted during John Major’s prime ministership. It would be oversimple to conclude that this was simply the case of a social democrat or liberal in the wrong party, for on social issues Patrick was often much more conservative than liberal, opposing, for example, lowering the age of consent for homosexuality. He was also firmly opposed, both as an MP and as a peer, to replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber, though he fully accepted that its size should be greatly reduced and that it included too many people who should never have been there in the first place and whose elevation had been for wrong, and sometimes disreputable, reasons.  Patrick himself was not universally popular among his fellow-peers, quite a number of whom thought he spoke in debates too often, but his integrity was not in doubt.

Although he led an extremely busy public life, Patrick was an eminently ‘clubbable’ person (and member of the Athenaeum and of the Lincolnshire club). Yet, he also found time to write and publish a number of books (mainly between the mid-1970s and the mid-80s): Heritage in Danger, 1976; Right Turn, 1978; Westminster Palace and Parliament, 1981; Castles of Britain, 1982; Wilberforce – the Nation’s Conscience, 1983; Cathedrals of England, 1984; and Responsible Capitalism, vol. 1, 2010; vol. 2, 2017.

Patrick Cormack was born in Grimsby on 18 May 1939 and educated in that Lincolnshire town at St James’s Choir School and Havelock School, followed by a history degree at the University of Hull. He taught history as a schoolmaster before entering the House of Commons, becoming at the time one of the youngest MPs. Three years earlier, in 1967, he married Kathleen Mary McDonald, and they had two sons, Charles and Richard. Patrick and Mary were generous hosts. I have a particularly warm memory of an evening in August 2017 when Pat and I were staying overnight as their guests. The Cormacks had invited Giles and Lisanne Radice, who also lived in Lincolnshire, to join us for dinner at their home in the precincts of Lincoln Cathedral. It brought together almost a quarter of a century later the two politicians from different parties who had been the first Visiting Parliamentary Fellows of St Antony’s with the College Fellow who had been the local convener and co-organiser. It was an especially convivial evening in which political differences scarcely surfaced and the company was united by support for the values of parliamentary democracy, the belief that the UK decision to leave the European Union was an act of colossal self-harm, by fond memories of St Antony’s, and by good humour. We remain much indebted to the late Patrick Cormack, and we send our profound sympathy to Mary (Lady) Cormack, Charles and Richard in their huge loss.

Archie Brown, 27 February 2024