Renowned British secularist Lord Avebury dies aged 87
Lord Avebury, pictured above, left, with the National Secular Society’s Keith Porteous Wood, was an honorary associate of the NSS who, in 2009, was awarded joint Secularist of the Year (with Evan Harris) for his role in the abolition of blasphemy.
For more than a year he had been suffering from myelofibrosis, a form of blood cancer, and had spoken publicly in support of assisted dying.
He supported countless human rights campaigns and formed the first human rights committee in parliament. His knowledge of foreign affairs, particularly of remote parts of the developing world, was second to none. The weak and oppressed in these places have lost a true champion.
He was always disarmingly frank and pragmatic about his death and he told me once how long a consultant said he had to live. He took the prediction very literally and precisely; I even joked with him he seemed to be treating it like an appointment and we both laughed.
He worked tirelessly on removing mandatory daily collective worship in all maintained schools, causing such consternation with the bishops they sought assurances from the then education secretary Michael Gove that he would not permit this. Speaking in a Parliamentary debate in 2011 after an amendment to abolish the collective worship requirement had failed, Lord Avebury said: ‘Sooner or later we shall get rid of the act of compulsory worship in schools, and the sooner the better.’
I had the pleasure of meeting Lord Avebury when I attended a celebration in London after the law of blasphemy had been abolished.
The politician was the longest-serving Lib Dem member of the House of Lords, taking his place in the upper chamber after losing his seat in the Commons in 1970.
Avebury had said he hoped the assisted dying would be legalised before his own death. Writing as the issue was presented to parliament last year, he said:
I obviously have a personal stake in the bill and the future of the assisted dying campaign. Currently I am not in the latter stages of my illness and I am very hopeful that this year will not be my last.
I know that having the right to control my death if it gets unbearable will be a great comfort to me, especially in the final weeks of my life. I am confident that, when this time comes for me, assisted dying for terminally ill people will be a legal right in the UK, and I will be able to plan the death that I want.
Sadly, it was not to be.
Paying tribute to Avebury, the Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, said the peer would be sorely missed.
He was a true Liberal who will be remembered as much for his unyielding commitment to fighting for Liberal causes as his sensational by-election victory in Orpington in 1962.
He campaigned to lower the voting age, founded the parliamentary human rights group and fought for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, taking up the cases of hundreds of individuals fleeing persecution.
He was a committed internationalist, regularly promoting human rights around the world. He was a strong supporter of citizenship rights for British minorities in Hong Kong and campaigned against the persecution of religious minorities across many countries.