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Obituary: Lord Cormack

08 March 2024

Richard Watt

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth writes:

PATRICK CORMACK, Baron Cormack of Enville, represented a Conservative party that hardly exists any more. He was a churchman, a traditionalist, and a believer in working with others to achieve workable solutions to problems. It was he who recently gave the tribute to Betty Boothroyd at her memorial service, a sign of his capacity to reach across political divides and the respect in which he was widely held.

Patrick Cormack was, first of all, a churchman, combining a great love for the Church of England with frustration at some of the changes in recent years. He served for many years as churchwarden of both St Mary’s, Enville, and St Margaret’s, Westminster. When he retired from the Commons, he moved to Lincoln, where he took huge delight in its cathedral. Indeed, in the Lords, he joked that he could be seen as an alternative bishop of Lincoln.

He served on the General Synod from 1995 to 2005. Both within Parliament and without, he rarely missed a chance to champion some aspect of the church and its heritage. He opposed the ordination of women priests and bishops, but, the decision having been made, he supported their ministry and later warmly welcomed women bishops into the Lords.

If the Church was the foundation of Patrick’s life of public-service heritage, the arts more generally was another consuming passion. There was hardly a heritage or arts organisation that he was not associated with as chair or patron. In 1974, he founded Heritage in Danger, and, for 35 years, he chaired the all-party heritage group. He was one of the first advocates of a national lottery to fund the arts, and he promoted a Bill to enable historic churches to receive state grants.

Then, third, Patrick was a passionate parliamentarian. He served in the Commons for more than 40 years. On his retirement he was made a life peer and for nearly 14 years, assiduously attended the Lords almost every day and made innumerable contributions to debates. He was so much part of the procedures, building, and history of Parliament as to become himself almost part of the fabric.

Born in Grimsby and educated locally, he graduated from Hull University before teaching for a number of years. In 1969, he was appointed head of history at Brewood Grammar School, but, the next year, he was elected MP for Cannock, formerly a Labour seat held by Aneurin Bevan’s widow, Jennie Lee. As a result of boundary changes, he then represented Staffordshire South West and, after that, Staffordshire South. During his long period in the Commons, he held a wide range of appointments, including those of chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee (2005-10) and Shadow Deputy Leader of the House under William Hague.

He was knighted in 1995, and entered the House of Lords as Baron Cormack of Enville in the County of Staffordshire in 2010. He wrote several books including one on Parliament. He was also, for nearly three decades, co-editor of the politically impartial magainze The House. He was a director of the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit and chaired the History of Parliament Trust. Passionately opposed to an elected House of Lords, he was equally passionate about the need for it to be radically reformed and reduced in size.

Patrick stood for election as Speaker of the House of Commons in 2000, and then in 2016 as Lord Speaker in the Lords, but was defeated on both occasions; for, although he made genuine friendships across the political divide, he spoke too often and too ponderously to gain the votes of his peers. Another factor that went against him was his record of voting against his own party.

Indeed, he was described as a serial rebel under Margaret Thatcher, voting against the poll tax, the abolition of the GLC, imposition of charges for eye and dental checks, and cuts in unemployment benefits, as well as Sunday trading. He regularly opposed privatisation proposals.

He was often willing to support human-rights issues, and, in the Commons, became first chairman of the All-Party Committee for the release of Soviet Jewry, repeatedly being refused a Russian visa for his efforts.

In the Lords, he supported an amendment to make discrimination on the grounds of caste illegal as part of the 2010 Equality Act. Very much a one-nation Tory, he was not at ease with the mercantile element that took over his party. In his Who’s Who entry, he described one of his recreations as “avoiding sitting on fences” and another one as “opposing philistines”.

Patrick was a churchman and a conservative in the old-fashioned sense, in that he wanted to preserve what was well tried and tested, the cultural and political heritage that had proved itself over time. He was also a parliamentarian in the sense that it was the whole institution of Parliament that he valued more than support for any one party or political programme. His departure leaves a very distinctive Patrick-shaped hole in our national life. He leaves a wife, Kathleen (Mary), whom he married in 1967, and two sons.

Lord Cormack died on 25 February, aged 84.

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