Skip to Content

Matthew Parris

The gentleness and courage of my friend Peter Campbell

The gentleness and courage of my friend Peter Campbell

14 May 2005

12:00 AM

14 May 2005

12:00 AM

The late Peter Campbell, sometime professor of politics at the University of Reading, would have enjoyed the irony. He died just before the general election. His funeral was hastily arranged for Friday 6 May, mid-morning, in Reading.

For me these were a couple of days of little sleep and intensely hard work. So Peter will forgive my confession that when his executors asked me to give the eulogy at St Luke’s Church in Reading at 11.30, the timing did not seem ideal. But to speak for him was an honour.

I am so glad I did. As all the ill temper of an exceptionally negative election campaign came to its angry climax last Thursday, the setting aside of some hours to think about Peter’s life helped me recover my own bearings. It reminded me why, for all the scrapping, the pettiness, the careerism and the human vanity, politics matters. It reminded me of the doughty souls who keep faith with the conviction that by effort and persuasion a just cause can triumph in a democracy. It reminded me of the persistence of reason.

You will forgive my quoting some of what I said at St Luke’s. I was trying to assess what we can and cannot know about another person, and how far we can or cannot sum up the value of their work.

When a man dies (I said) who leaves no partner, no children and no close relatives — a man neither unconvivial nor unloved, but who was never part of a circle of intimates who knew each other’s minds, hearts and stories — then who is to speak for him?

Asked to (I said), one hesitates. Was there nobody who knew him better? Surely someone closer survives who could paint a picture of the whole man, assemble for us an album of what is known and felt about our now fallen friend?


Peter left no survivor, no album. A kind and friendly man, something seemed to hold him back from close companionship. His extensive Who’s Who entry, a dry parchment of positions held, made bleak reading: the entry which, three years ago and ever candid, Peter advised his executors was ‘unlikely to need revision, except for the date of death’.

It was enough to say what everyone knew: he was a distinguished academic and an outstanding political scientist.

As impressive was his voluntary work. Peter was a public-spirited man. A tireless member of the Electoral Reform Society, a chairman of the Society for Individual Freedom, for 30 years co-president of the Reading University Conservative Association, a leading figure in his day in the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, the Albany Society and the Conservative Group for Homosexual Equality (where I met him), with which he was associated as chairman or as vice-president through almost all the Thatcher years. Peter’s beliefs (I said) were gently, earnestly, persistently, inextinguishably, indefatigably held.

But what justice did these lists do to the human spirit which threaded through them? Where did the curriculum vitae state how brave Peter was? Having worked with him when I was a 30-year-old parliamentary vice-president of the Conservative Group for Homosexual Equality, I find it difficult today to credit how crushing were the disapproval, contempt and sometimes sheer disbelief we faced then.

At every party conference from 1979 we held a fringe meeting in the damp basement of a third-rate hotel some distance from the conference centre — whichever Peter had managed to book — and a dozen or two embarrassed-looking Tories would sidle in; and Peter was always there, first to arrive and last to leave, after clearing up.

The notice-board in the foyer would seldom spell out our organisation’s name — just the discreetly cryptic initials ‘CGHE’. Peter always spoke. He would read out the unanswered letters he had written over the year past to Norman Tebbit as party chairman and say how encouraging the turnout was this year; and everyone would applaud, rather desperately; and Peter would invite members to drink a glass of warm, bad white wine, and they would grab a handful of crisps and creep away into the evening; and Peter would say, ‘Not a bad show this year….’

In the final political reckoning, I asked (as I had asked Peter at our last lunch at the Athenaeum), did any of this organising and lobbying matter? With typical, careful logic he had replied that no, no individual contribution to national debate was ever likely to prove critical, but the totality did, and if each soldier deserted because the army could do without him, there would be no army.

Peter was more than a soldier; he was a warrior. That (I said) was why reciting lists would never do justice to a man like him. The portrait of Peter Campbell which none could paint, I concluded, resides in fragments scattered to the four winds. Little things: an undergraduate who remembers his patient kindness; an adversary who noticed his civility; a colleague who recalls his diligence; another who notes ‘Peter’s sage and timely advice in difficult situations’; three petitions, unacknowledged, in Lord Tebbit’s files; a yellowing letter to an editor of the Daily Telegraph which a million read and a handful still remember; a new MP (me) who stuck to his guns because of him; the flashlight of his intelligence illuminating this or that; a postcard or encouraging note forgotten in a drawer; a photograph of Peter when young; a thousand lunches, a thousand glasses of wine, a thousand pleasant conversations; warm memories of this man who, at the age of ten when his eyesight was failing, heard a specialist advise his mother to make sure the boy learned Braille and put him to some useful manual work.

Like shards of a shattered vase distributed carelessly and beyond recovery, the elements of a dead man’s life are all there somewhere, hopelessly scattered yet a perfect set, if only we had a magnet to draw them back from chaos. Perhaps at some Last Trump this diaspora of fragments of Peter’s life, strewn across time and place, will fly through the dark from Oxford, Manchester, Auckland, Reading, Brighton, Blackpool and Bournemouth, from all the years from 1926 to 2005, and gather on some bare mountain, and reconstitute themselves into the whole story of our dear, shy, fierce, reticent departed friend.

Until then (I said) I comforted myself with something Peter would have understood, translated from the Greek — a poem by C.P. Cavafy, called ‘Hidden Things’:

From all I did and all I said
Let no one try to find out who I was.
An obstacle was there distorting
The actions and the manner of my life.
An obstacle was often there
To stop me when I’d begin to speak.
From my most unnoticed actions,
My most veiled writing —
From these alone will I be understood.
But maybe it isn’t worth so much concern,
So much effort to discover who I really was.
Later, in a more perfect society,
Someone else made just like me
Is certain to appear and act freely.

Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times.


Show comments
Close