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Artillery Row

In memory of Lord Cormack

Britain has lost a wise and dedicated public servant

Patrick Thomas Cormack was born in Grimsby on 18 May 1939, and died in Lincoln on 25 February 2024. Educated at St James’s Choir and Havelock Schools, Grimsby, and the University of Hull, he returned to the Choir School as Second Master (1961-6), then did a short stint as Company Education and Training Officer, the Ross Group Ltd., Grimsby, before moving to Shropshire as Assistant Housemaster at Wrekin College, and then to Brewood, Staffordshire, where he was Head of History at the local Grammar School. He was elected as Conservative Member of Parliament for Cannock (1970-4), where he ousted Aneurin Bevan’s widow, Janet (Jennie) Lee (1904-88), overturning a Labour majority of over 10,000. After that, he became MP for Staffordshire South-West (1974-83), then for the seat reorganised as Staffordshire South (1983-2010). Knighted in 1995, he was created Baron Cormack of Enville in the County of Staffordshire in 2010 when he stepped down from the House of Commons. He was, in truth, one of Britain’s longest-serving parliamentarians, with a combined total of 54 years in the Palace of Westminster.

Picture Credit: Peta Brough

During the Thatcher years Cormack was opposed to her economic policies, and honourably defied the Party Whips over many matters, including the Poll Tax, abolition of the Greater London Council, charges for eye and dental checks, and numerous privatisation plans, not least those planned for the Royal Mail. Indeed, as a frequent rebel against whatever might have been the current trend in his own Party, he took considerable pride in having voted more against the government when it was led by Margaret Thatcher than had any other Conservative MP. His independence of mind helped him to form many cross-party friendships, but explains why he never held any governmental office, despite possessing capabilities and qualities that far outstripped many who actually did. He was appalled by the decimation of old industries with resulting unemployment and dereliction: the failure to organise plans for re-education of  work-forces put out of jobs profoundly offended him, for he was a true conservative, steeped in social responsibility and noblesse oblige. This (lower-case) conservatism went hand-in-hand with his Anglicanism and love of tradition, not least his respect for The Book of Common Prayer, of which he had an impressive collection dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries, including a massive lectern-sized tome of 1845 that had been used by successive Bishops of St Asaph. He was President of the Prayer Book Society, and wrote the Foreword for a lovely reprint of the Pickering-Whittingham edition (1853), ornamented with woodcuts from design by Dürer, Holbein, and others, published in 2004. Like John Wesley, Cormack believed there was “no liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breeds more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety than the Common Prayer of the Church of England”. A Member of the General Synod (1995-2005), his Anglicanism also involved his understanding of ecclesiastical architecture, furnishings, and liturgy, and his involvement in numerous bodies concerned with the preservation of churches, the study of church monuments, the conservation of historical records, and, of course, church music. Among his recreations he listed “visiting old churches”, and his love for those of his native county of Lincolnshire was often apparent in his correspondence and wide-ranging conversation. It was fitting that he spent the last years of his life living in the Minster Yard of Lincoln cathedral, a building for which he had enormous affection. 

The Obituary of Cormack published in The Times (27 February 2024) criticised him for making speeches which “sometimes tested the goodwill of colleagues in the Palace of Westminster”, mentioning specifically the topic of bats in churches. Perhaps it might be wise to remind those who sneer that our ancient parish churches were not erected as public lavatories for bats, filthy creatures which not only spread disease, but ruin the wonderful legacy of funerary monuments, especially alabaster and latten (a form of brass) inscribed work: that legacy enriches our ancient places of worship and is intimately connected with our nation’s history. Cormack actually cared about things that matter, and possessed an innate kindliness, which, combined with unfailing courtesy, underscored his belief in the importance of civility in all human interactions, not least in the day-to-day machinery of democratic politics, something completely foreign to the wide-boys now all too obvious in the increasingly homogeneous character of all contemporary British political parties.

Patrick Cormack wrote several books, including works on English cathedrals and castles, a study of William Wilberforce (1759-1833 — dubbed “The Nation’s Conscience”), and the humane and sensible Responsible Capitalism (2010). In his writings he was always acutely aware of the fragility of everything he loved, encapsulated, perhaps, in his Heritage in Danger (1976). He was a member of several Trusts and Councils concerned with the preservation of historic churches (both locally and nationally), and took a particular interest in the importance of conserving old records and manuscripts. He chaired the Editorial Board for Parliamentary Publications, and founded and edited The House Magazine of the Houses of Lords and Commons 1983-2005, becoming thereafter its President for Life. 

He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and deplored the hounding out of distinguished Fellows for making un-PC remarks or being accused of peccadilloes on the basis of the word of one individual. He was a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of  Glaziers of the City of London; Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Staffordshire; an Honorary Citizen of Texas; the recipient of Honorary Doctorates from the Catholic University of America and the University of Hull; and Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland. He was also closely involved in Parliamentary Groups promoting friendship between Britain and Finland, Croatia, and Bosnia. With St Antony’s College, Oxford, Cormack suggested some sort of association with Parliament, and a Parliamentary Fellowship at that College was established thereafter, whereby two members from the Lords or Commons (one from the Governing Party and the other from the Opposition) were appointed each academic year from 1994-5 to the present day. Thanks to Cormack’s initiative, fruitful interactions were established between politicians and Oxford academics.

Among his other interests were public monuments and sculpture, the rational reform of the Upper House (not involving its destruction), the legacy of Lincolnshire-born Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92), the Royal Stuart Society (perhaps quixotically), fighting philistines, and a complete avoidance of any sitting on the fence. None of these had much appeal for those on the rise in the modern Conservative Party, and indeed Cormack sometimes spoke with regret and sadness about a Party he barely recognised.

I first met Patrick Cormack at a dinner in a country-house in his Staffordshire constituency. He sat opposite me, and the conversation touched on various matters which concerned both of us, although I was slightly distracted by a gun-dog under the table who insisted I held her paw throughout most of the meal, which involved incessant putting down of my fork. After dinner when the party settled down for post-prandial drinks and convivial discourse, Patrick and I found enthusiastic common cause in the church architecture and furnishings of the area (notably the astoundingly rich funerary monuments in the church of St Bartholomew, Tong, just across the Shropshire border, not far from where we sat), as well as in ecclesiastical matters generally, not least the deplorable decline in liturgical observances, the adoption of Service Books hugely inferior to the Book of Common Prayer, and the unimpressive calibre of some in Holy Orders who behaved more like apparatchiks in the Social Services Department of some Loony Leftie Local Authority devoted to Newspeak. 

But when I spoke of my travels and experiences in deprived parts of Lancashire, Yorkshire, and County Durham, and described the demoralisation of whole communities, and the horrifying and very visible physical deprivation of whole areas, including towns and villages, we were even more at one in our views, and he told me in colourful terms of how he had tried to oppose the more draconian Thatcherite policies which certainly broke the power of the Union barons, but failed to replace it with anything else. This was very much my take on matters as well. On church monuments, we could have conversed all night, and there were many other themes on which we touched where we found ourselves in agreement, especially our interest in European culture and wonderful old towns and cities known to us. As historians we were very much kindred spirits.

Thereafter, we kept in regular touch by letter, especially when there were various crises where we felt strongly, notably concerning the Antiquaries and other bodies with which we were involved, not least the necessity of training craftspeople to work on historic buildings. He was interested in my own contribution in this regard, when I ran a post-graduate Conservation Course in architecture. One of my former Doctoral students went on to work at Lincoln cathedral, and naturally that interested Cormack very much. Later, I learned that Patrick was chairing the Historic Lincoln Trust, and was involved in numerous cultural and historic charities in that city: near the end of his life he was planning further major exhibitions, including one to commemorate the contribution of the Jewish community to the history of the place, one that is long overdue, given the disgusting pogroms that were associated with vile blood-libels and the legend of St Hugh of Lincoln (d.1255), an eight-or-nine-year-old  boy found dead in a well, for which the Jews were blamed, hideously tortured, and hanged. This story is similar to other tales of children allegedly murdered by Jews, and therefore employed as excuses to kill Jews and seize all their assets, all disgraceful blots on our history. That “Little St Hugh” is not to be confused with the other St Hugh of Lincoln (c.1140-1200—Carthusian monk and Bishop of Lincoln, canonised in 1220 by Pope Honorius III [r.1216-27], the first Carthusian to receive this honour). This St Hugh’s principal cult was at Lincoln, where the circular window called The Dean’s Eye (the tracery of which was restored under my former student) records his funeral: his Relics were translated to a magnificent shrine in the famous Angel Choir in 1280, but that shrine was destroyed at the Reformation. St Hugh’s Feast-Day is 17 November. 

He mastered detail which most others could not be bothered about or waved away as unimportant

Despite the carping criticism of Lord Cormack in The Times obituary, others, more perceptive, perhaps, have noted, like Lord Finkelstein (The Times [28 February 2024] 21), that Patrick knew what he was doing: he actually believed that the traditions and conventions of Parliament matter, because they are essentials to democratic process, just as he saw (while others myopically dismiss) that churches used as public lavatories by bats should be cause for enormous concern. He mastered detail which most others could not be bothered about or waved away as unimportant.

When Patrick was honoured with the Freedom of the City of Lincoln in 2022, the Labour leader of the City Council graciously acknowledged that he had brought nothing but Good to the place. He worked tirelessly for the interests of Lincoln and its cathedral and churches, and for Lincolnshire’s historic buildings. Under the ægis of the Lincolnshire Old Churches Trust, he led annual tours of favourite ecclesiastical buildings, enriching those by drawing on his formidable knowledge and prodigious memory. He helped to raise funds to the making of a permanent home for the best of the original copies of Magna Carta, and was instrumental in bringing displays of historic documents and important art to Lincoln that are rarely seen outside London: one of the most significant was the Domesday Book. 

He will be greatly missed, and I will certainly experience a loss when no more of his cream-coloured envelopes addressed in his strong handwriting plop through my letterbox. Shortly before his death he encouraged me to contribute to The House Magazine, and the first two of my pieces published in that organ received welcome salutations from him. He was a good friend, and we shared many interests and concerns, not least the loss of the numinous in our churches and cathedrals, but most of all, probity in public life. 

Illustration reproduced with thanks to Peta Brough, who also kindly corrected clangers in the original draft of this memoir.

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