Robert Woodthorpe Browne MBE (1943-2022)
There are those whose death leaves friends and family deeply sad – an unfilled chair at the table, a gap in the conversation, and a valued opinion missing from the discussion. Robert’s death does all of these things, but in addition it marks for me the end of a very particular era in the British Liberal contribution to the international Liberal family. The period was mainly marked by the remarkable contributions of two Scots and three Englishmen.
The Scots were Lord Russell Johnston and Lord Steel of Aikwood. Russell has passed on and David has retired from the House of Lords and public life and is no longer able to attend our international liberal events. The three Englishmen were Richard Moore, Jonathan Fryer and our dear and much-loved friend, Robert Woodthorpe Brown. There were others who made remarkable contributions to international political liberalism in the wider sense, notably two of my former colleagues in the House of Lords, Eric Avebury, and Paddy Ashdown, but no-one devoted their time and energy to the European and worldwide liberal organizations like those three liberal musketeers, Richard, Jonathan, and Robert. Robert was particularly devoted to Liberal International, and that is why, when he recently stood down from continuous service on the Bureau as Treasurer and Executive Vice-President, he was unanimously appointed a Patron of LI – a high honour, and one that I know Robert appreciated. Some LI colleagues have made remarkable efforts to be here despite snow, freezing conditions, plane cancellations and train strikes. I want to recognize the herculean efforts of Robert’s inseparable LI twin brother, Manfred Eisenbach, who made it from Germany despite the best efforts of British Airways to frustrate him.
My good friend Juli Minoves, like myself a President of Honour of LI, made it from the high mountains of Andorra, and Executive Vice President, Henrik Bach Mortenson came all the way from Denmark. I also want to note that the current LI President, Hakima El Haité from Morocco, the Deputy President, Karl-Heinz Paqué from Germany, our other President of Honour, Annemie Neyts from Belgium and Bureau members Astrid Thors from Finland and Art Eggleton from Canada had all wished to be here but were prevented by various different travel challenges. All of them specifically and personally asked me to express their grief and condolences to Robert’s wife, Barbara and son, Robert, and at the start I wish to do just that on their behalf, on my own behalf, and indeed for all of us. I also want to acknowledge the presence of Phil Bennion, a very old friend of Robert’s and himself an Executive Vice President of LI. That almost the whole top echelon of LI planned to travel such distances is itself a remarkable testament, not only to the way that his service to LI was appreciated across the globe, but also that he was loved as a person.
We are also joined by many British Liberal Democrat colleagues, including members of the Federal International Relations Committee, who have come from closer to home, but often with considerable difficulty, and others such as Baroness Sal Brinton and Joyce Onstad who were prevented by COVID infections have sent their sympathies. I trust that at this sad time this demonstration of friendship and appreciation will be some comfort to Barbara, Robert, Max, Emma, and the whole family circle here today.
We are all here not only because we appreciated Robert’s extraordinary liberal activism but also because we enjoyed his company – not something that can be said of all political colleagues. Spending time conversing over a meal, close to home or in some distant part of the world was a delight to Robert and to everyone who joined him at table to share his love of good food and wine and to hear the latest from his fund of amusing stories and fascinating anecdotes. We all have our own memories of such times. For me a very special memory is of an al fresco dinner together in Barcelona on my birthday. We were at a Liberal International meeting but when Robert heard it was a special day for me, it was typical of him that he made it into a special meal.
His love of travel was apparent from an early age. After a childhood in Woodford, Essex, and attending St Ignatius’ College, Stamford Hill, Robert studied at the Universities of Poitiers, Barcelona and Birkbeck College, London where he gained his BA Hons in Spanish. He was a very proficient linguist who loved languages and I often benefitted at international meetings from his fluency in Spanish, French and German. That love of language also served LI well when he became the natural chairman of those complicated processes, so beloved of liberals, of developing, adapting, and amending the World Today motions at LI Congresses. He revelled in the opportunity to find just the right words to enable liberals of different persuasions and parties to agree a text. It will be extremely difficult to find anyone who is able and willing to do that, indeed I just cannot imagine someone who will have the grace, skill, firmness when necessary, and the good humour that Robert brought. He was remarkably adept, and liberal colleagues from around the world loved him and his way of doing business. But Robert was not just a ‘front of house’ man for LI or the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe. His enduring support for the London based secretariat of Liberal International is well-known and he was a source of personal guidance and calm for many Secretaries-General in both political and business management challenges.
He was indeed very good at business, with an international career in reinsurance. He worked both as broker and underwriter, including membership of Lloyd’s, concentrating initially on the Third World. He took particular pride in having been the founder of the African Insurance Conference which he accomplished when working in Mauritius and he was delighted to attend and address the Conference when it celebrated its 50th anniversary this year in Nairobi, Kenya. Never one to stand still, after 20 years concentrating on Africa and the Middle East, Robert moved on to Central and Eastern Europe following the end of the Iron Curtain era, becoming a consultant to major international insurance companies there.
But it was politics that really fired him up. He stood six times for Westminster and twice for the European Parliament and had he been a conservative or a socialist I have no doubt he would have been elected to both, and indeed appointed to the House of Lords, where the peers would have loved him. Robert was however a dyed-in-the-wool Liberal and he was no mere card-carrying member, but an activist at every level of the party. In addition to campaigning for elections – local, parliamentary, and European – he ran, for many years, the International Relations Committee of the Liberal Democrats along with Jonathan Fryer, was a delegate for the Party to innumerable meetings of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, and become an irreplaceable member of the Bureau of Liberal International.
As if all of this was not enough, he was a member of the Gresham Society Committee, promoting the free lectures at the City of London’s first University College. He was an active member of the London livery company known as the Worshipful Company of World Traders and was its Master in 2016-17. He was an inveterate traveller who visited more than 150 countries so he was very appropriately a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He was a Council Member of Britain’s premier international think-tank, Chatham House, a Board and Committee member of the British German Association, Vice Chairman of the Tuberous Sclerosis Association, and Chairman of Sustainable Viability Limited. He was the driving force in the founding and activity of The Paddy Ashdown Forum, and I must express our thanks to Christopher Gleadle, the CEO of the Forum for his work in organizing today’s events – thank you very much Chris, on behalf of us all. and yes, Robert did find time for hobbies including forestry and Lowestoft porcelain.
Now, at liberal events near and far, you and I will find ourselves looking around in vain for Robert, a smile on his face, a glass in his hand, moving around talking to fellow liberals, picking up the sense of what was going on, and the latest piece of news and chat. And if we miss him, as we surely will, I fear that after COVID, the cost-of-living crisis and the Russia-Ukraine war, Robert’s death may be the last straw for some international airlines which may now go to the wall! Aside from political meetings, Robert and Barbara loved travelling to the sun and the snow, to scenery and special places. She has lost not only a fun travelling companion but a dear partner in life’s journey.
We have lost a great encourager of young, aspiring, liberal politicians, a stout defender of freedom and human rights, and a tireless worker in the liberal cause, but most of all we have lost a deeply loved friend.
I must end by returning to those with whom we are especially here to mourn, and to whom we all wish to bring comfort – to Barbara, Robert, Max, Emma, and the whole Woodthorpe Brown family circle. Our deepest sympathies go to you in your grievous loss and at this sad time.
John, Lord Alderdice