Obituary: Lord Bonham-Carter
Wednesday 07 September 1994
TO RECALL the public positions which Mark Bonham Carter filled with distinction is to tell only part of his contribution to public and political life in Britain. He was above everything a political animal, conscious of being the grandson of HH Asquith, Britain's last Liberal prime minister, and the son of Lady Violet Bonham Carter, the person who, above all, kept alive the spirit of the old Liberal Party during the earlier post-war years. His death on Sunday while holidaying in Italy denies the public stage a gifted player and robs his friends, particularly the younger ones, of a stimulating, ever-
encouraging and loyal colleague.
There was never any doubt about Bonham Carter's liking for younger people. The endless guest-lists to his house tell their own record. But for younger people, particularly politicians, he was a laid-back figure whose war record was one to be recalled with admiration. Events here held the essential paradox which characterised Bonham Carter's entire life.
Mark Bonham Carter, like his father and grandfather before him, went to Balliol College, Oxford, and then, when the Second World War came, entered the Grenadier Guards. He was taken prisoner and moved to north Italy, but come the fall of the Mussolini regime the opportunity of escape arose for all inmates.
Only three disobeyed what was said to be the orders to the British prisoners to stay put. Bonham Carter was one of these. All the remaining prisoners were shot when the advancing German troops reached the camp. Breaking the rules where necessary was only one of Bonham Carter's unexpected characteristics. Adding to the risks by turning conventional wisdom on its head was another. Instead of heading for the Swiss border Bonham Carter moved south to the British lines and freedom.
This journey was made largely at night and depended usually on the safety of one priest's house leading to the next. No one who pushed Bonham Carter to recall these events was surprised at his angry outburst when Margaret Thatcher claimed that there was no such thing as society. It was that very web of history, friendship and shared values which provided the safe route for the young escaping British soldier.
The 1945 peace saw Bonham Carter back at Balliol to complete his degree, but not before fighting the north Devon seat of Barnstaple for the Liberals in the election of that year. His West Country connection held. In 1958 he needed no encouragement to fight the Torrington by-election. It was an historic victory - the first Liberal by-election success for almost 30 years. But it was short-lived. Bonham Carter did not return to Parliament, and even then as a life peer, until 1986, with the title Lord Bonham-Carter. Personal clashes with Margaret Thatcher led, it is said, to her removing him from an earlier honours list. Fighting people senior to himself was another of his characteristics, and one in which he particularly excelled and enjoyed indulging.
The years out of Parliament were packed with activity. More than two decades were given over to working as a director of the publishing house William Collins. Many an author was the beneficiary of Bonham Carter's ability for short, massively concentrated bouts of work - reading a manuscript, and trenchantly and constructively commenting upon it. It was during these years that Bonham Carter's range of cultural interests was both developed and enhanced.
His constructive input to public affairs was seen most clearly when Roy Jenkins, the then Home Secretary, appointed him the first chairman of the Race Relations Board. It was due in part to Bonham Carter's exercise of the opportunities of this office that the Government was led to legislate a stronger legal framework for race relations in Britain. In 1971 he became chairman of the body amalgamating the Race Relations Board and the Community Relations Commission, and what progress has been made in this field is due largely to his efforts, imagination and calm in those early days.
His list of public offices included the vice-chairmanship of the BBC and, from 1958 to 1982, a directorship of the Royal Opera House. Yet the length of the list of his public posts begins to obscure the full impact of Mark Bonham Carter's personality on public life and conduct. The paradox of being establishment-born but risk-taker extraordinary has been remarked. But Bonham Carter's true greatness derived from his ability to cope with an array of talents which fitted him for the highest office but which the turn of events denied him.
The political battlefield is littered with politicians angry at the cards fate has dealt them. In many instances bystanders feel that the cards have been not that unduly dealt. Not so with Mark Bonham Carter. Here was someone not merely born to the purple, but showing so many of the qualities which differentiated him from others in public life. His speeches in the Lords on defence and foreign affairs, where he was a Liberal Democrat spokesman, not only have a feel for the great movements in history, but give each individual event its place on the world stage. His lasting contribution to his party, probably, was that Liberalism was about an attitude and an approach to politics, not of drawing up shopping lists of policies. To a party wedded to such nostrums as free trade this was no mean feat.
It is with the clash of abilities and the limited range of opportunities offered that Bonham Carter's character showed its truly outstanding quality. It is not merely that no one could ever have felt the deep frustration that must have burned inside him at being denied the opportunities of exercising fully his political abilities. Rather it is that he took pleasure not merely in the young, but in encouraging them to try to achieve what he was denied. Never a hint here of the failure to gain a rightful reward. Nor ever a sign of a truly vibrant character turning sour upon itself.
He was, fortunately, given impressive compensations, a wife of equal courage, a stepdaughter and three daughters of his own. His links with young people naturally overlapped with his devotion to his daughters. They were an integral part of his social life. Many a party quest, and particularly at Bussento, where he died, would be involved in the most animated of conversations until dawn was approaching. And then, as guests went to bed, it would be Mark who insisted on beginning a dance. Never can a private face have been so different from what some saw as an acerbic public countenance.
Recently Mark Bonham Carter became a grandfather. The pride of knowing that the great chain of being's next link had been safely forged was a compensation which turned out to be for him of incalculable value.
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