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BHA mourns Lord Avebury (1928–2016), human rights campaigner and humanist

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has reacted with sadness to news that its Patron, Eric Lubbock, 4th Baron Avebury, a tireless human rights campaigner who also served as MP for Oprington and as a peer in the Liberal and Liberal Democrat parties, has died. His death occurred on Sunday 14 February.

The grandson of John Lubbock, a wealthy philanthropist and polymath who divided his time between the pursuit of science, banking, and Liberal Party politics, Eric was born into privilege. But if this had any effect on his character, it certainly did little to dull his sense of injustice in the world. Quite the contrary, from the very beginning, Eric was a believer in fair play and in the crucial role played by the community.

These convictions led him, after an education at Harrow and Balliol, to serve his country in the Welsh Guards before eventually taking on a position as a production manager and later a production engineer at Rolls-Royce. It was in politics, however, that Avebury first found fulfilment, becoming an MP in 1962, and his approach, derived as much from his humanist outlook as from his scientific training, was to approach social and ethical problems with the same clarity of mind and purpose as an engineer solving problems on the factory floor.

Avebury’s pet issues were many. He was a keen proponent of electoral reform, and believed that the country would be best served by multi-member constituencies, at a time when such beliefs were overwhelmingly unpopular in the Commons. Of his more successful campaigns as an MP, he continually pushed for a change in the law to bring the voting age down to 18, which became one of his greatest successes. The Representation of the People Bill received royal assent in 1969.

In 1970, he was unseated in Orpington by the Conservatives, but within a few weeks inherited a hereditary place in the House of Lords, from his cousin. As the Liberal Spokesman on Race Relations throughout the 1970s, it was Lord Avebury’s duty to champion racial equality in Britain at a time when racial discrimination was a widespread problem. He also founded the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, such was his belief in the role of Parliament in protecting the fundamental liberties of every citizen, on equal terms. In 1999, when hereditary peers were phased out by the Labour Government, so impressed were his Liberal (now Liberal Democrat) colleagues with his record, he was among the few such peers elected him to remain.

He also helped to bring about one of the most welcome changes to the statute of the past few decades, when in 2008 he was successful in arguing the case against the criminalisation of ‘blasphemous libel’, on which he worked with fellow BHA Patron Evan Harris MP. In one memorable 2005 statement before the Lords, he championed the new Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, saying:

‘The Bill deals with the real evil of stirring up hatred against people because of what they believe or practise. Our ancestors hated each other, sticking labels on Lollards, Catholics, Protestants and Jews. That led to the burning of heretics, religious wars that cost thousands of lives and to the Holocaust. Hatred was never brought to an end by hatred, so let the rivalry between faiths, including secularism, be conducted by means of argument or even by mockery and derision. Let poets, novelists, comedians, playwrights and broadcasters say what they please. If God exists, he does not need the protection of this or any other law.’

Commenting on his death, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said, ‘Lord Avebury was a committed humanist who believed in the power of politics to transform societies for the better. He approached his own campaigning for this cause admirably: marrying a reliance on reason and evidence to profound empathy and an appreciation for both the lessons of history and the inalienability of human rights. His death is a great loss to politics and to Humanism.’

Notes

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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