David Beetham obituary

·3 min read

My father, David Beetham, who has died aged 83, was a human rights campaigner, political theorist and community activist. Emeritus professor of politics at the University of Leeds, he continued thinking and writing about democracy and its challenges until the end of his life.

Born in Keighley, West Yorkshire, David was the middle of three sons of Elaine (nee Elain Wade) and Tom Beetham. His parents were both devout Methodists, his father a minister. David’s earliest memories were of the blitz in Birkenhead, where he grew up, which gave him a lifelong horror of war. From Kingswood school in Bath he gained a scholarship to study classics at Merton College, Oxford; at Oxford he met Margaret Newbigin, my mother, whom he married in 1963. As they became more involved in Labour party politics he abandoned his career as a Methodist minister to study political theory at Manchester University, and this became his lifelong vocation.

David joined the department of government at Manchester as a lecturer in 1965, and in 1980 succeeded to the chair of politics at the University of Leeds, where he was based for the rest of his life. His colleagues remember an inspiring intellectual leader, a generous mentor and a fierce opponent of the managerialism that was gripping higher education. To students his door was always open: his teaching style made political theory accessible and relevant.

He is best known for his writings on democracy and human rights which he approached – like everything – with a passionate clarity. He was as proud of his textbooks for the Open University and his short handbook Introducing Democracy (1995) as he was of his contributions to political theory. His introduction to Marxists in Face of Fascism (1983) continues to inspire. With the journalist Stuart Weir and the human rights lawyer Kevin Boyle, David established the Democratic Audit, a process that supports democracy and human rights in over 20 countries.

His daughters, Kate and I, were born in 1967 and 1969. His years in the Scouts inspired his approach to family life. We remember camp fires and mountain climbs, ambitious woodwork projects, and reckless adventures in small boats. Our family house was home to political refugees and a hub for political meetings, especially of the Manchester Labour party, which David represented as a city councillor and as a parliamentary candidate. He was an early champion of CND, Amnesty and Charter 88.

David and Margaret separated in 2003 and in later life his partner was Ursula Vogel, a former colleague. Together they enjoyed films and classical music, and a lively political discussion group. Even after surviving two heart attacks, David was happiest bounding across the hills of the Lake District and the Italian Dolomites. He helped to develop the Fallowfield Cycle Loop in Manchester and planted and cared for a number of community orchards.

He gave unstinting support to others, and talked about the things that mattered to him – especially the state of contemporary politics – on equal terms with everyone.

David is survived by Kate and me, and his three grandchildren, by Ursula and by Margaret, and by his brother Robert.