Ian Gilmour, 1926-2007: A Tribute

Article excerpt

Ian Gilmour, Baron Gilmour of Craigmillar, Secretary of State for Defence (1974), Lord Privy Seal (1979-1981) and Chairman of The Byron Society (2002-2006), died on 21 September 2007, aged 81.

Lord Gilmour chaired The Byron Society, of which he had been a member for many years, as well as a Vice-President, with devotion, authority and urbanity. He also enthusiastically supported this journal, and skilfully oversaw its recent transition to a new Academic Editor and publisher. Remarkably, he did so at a time when his wife was seriously ill and the object of his devoted care.

Politician, man of letters and first-rate scholar - he published The Making of the Poets: Byron and Shelley in their Time in 2002 - he was universally liked and rspected within the Society. Indeed, Lord Gilmour's son, Sir David Gilmour, said at the Memorial Service held for his father at St Margaret's, Westminster, on 12 Febrary 2008, that he received 'hundreds of letters' after his father's death that 'applauded his wit, his charm, his generosity, his intellect, his fearlessness in expressing his views, his irreverence, his support for the underdog, his refusal to act from motives of self-interest'. Many members of the Society will recognise these qualities, but may have missed others that Sir David went on to describe. He talked about a man who was also 'something of a martinet about cricket': 'The window of his library at home [] overlooked our cricket net, and sometimes, goaded by our ineptness, he would open it and bellow, "Keep your head down pick your bat up straight".'

More familiar to members of The Byron Society, perhaps, are what Sir David described as his 'irony', and his capacity to keep 'winning arguments': in Sir David's words, 'he always knew what Shakespeare had said, what Aristotle had meant, what the third-longest river in China was called'. But then he meant a great many things to a great many people. As Sir David went on to say:

Some of you will remember him from his Spectator days as a critic of Suez and a champion of social reform. Others will recall his years as a politician, as both a thinker and a ministerial achiever, yet one who lacked the skills of self-promotion to link the two roles and obtain higher things. Most will remember his political insurgence in the 1980s as well as his campaign for justice for the Palestinian people, a cause he championed for most of his adult life, from the day he watched the lines of refugees crossing the River Jordan in 1967.

Many of you will remember the summer parties at Ferry House, where he and Mum lived for over fifty years and where he looked after her during her last illness. For us, at least for the moment, the abiding memory is of the benign patriarch in his ultimate years, surrounded by family, friends and his dog, Lucca.

Many Byron Society members will remember these things. They will also remember his extended support of the Society, as a gracious host in the House of Lords on the occasion of the annual dinners of the Society, and particularly helpful in the arrangement of the magnificent lunch there during the last London and Nottingham international conference. They will recall, too, a gracious and informed chair of Society meetings and recognise the 'kind, urbane, diffidently elegant man' described by Lord Patten of Barnes in his address at the memorial service. He was also a man who bore his learning lightly - yet, as Lord Patten stressed, that learning was real and considerable. Thinking back to the 1970s, when he first worked with Lord Gilmour, Lord Patten said:

Ever since Conservatives were described as 'the stupid party' it has been a feature of speeches by its leading - or not so leading - figures to include a pious section of quotations from Conservative philosophers and writers in their lectures. Disraeli plods along loyally behind David Hume and Edmund Burke with Michael Oakshott bringing up the rear. The difference between Ian Gilmour and others was that he had actually read the works of all these great men in more extensive editions than the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. …