Tribute to Garry Runciman

Published on: 
21 December 2020
Written by: 

Fran Bennett and Jonathan Bradshaw

Fran Bennett writes: Garry Runciman (W.G. Runciman, 3rd Viscount Runciman of Doxford, to give him his full title) died on 10 December 2020, aged 86 (D.O.B. 10.11.34), after an illness of some months.

Garry was, to say the least, a man of many parts. As explained below, he was a leading sociologist, a businessman and the chair of a Commission on criminal justice. At the same time, however, he was also an active friend and supporter of CPAG over the long term.

Garry was treasurer of CPAG from 1972 for many years, including when I was deputy director and then director, safeguarding its financial position and advising staff and committee alike. He also attended regular executive committee meetings, chaired by Peter Townsend. He tended not to participate in policy debates, however, despite his relevant expertise, but kept to his role as treasurer. Only once, when we were debating the then government’s plan to change the ‘poverty figures’, do I remember him writing to us with his views on this crucial topic.

Garry lent CPAG great credibility in the public realm. His family trust also gave generous funding over the years to support CPAG’s work. Most recently, the Northmoor Trust, as it was known, gave a substantial sum to CPAG prior to the trust’s dissolution.

After I left CPAG, I was on the board of the Northmoor Trust for over 25 years. This meant that I kept in regular touch with Garry when we held trustee meetings. The trust was remarkable in my view in giving to often unpopular causes, including work on drugs and on mental health issues, and with prisoners and refugees. The impetus for doing this, it should be said, often came from Ruth Runciman, Garry’s wife and a fellow trustee - to whom I also wish to pay tribute, for her untiring work in her own right on these crucial issues.

Garry was a one-off - not only immensely talented, but also committed to using those talents to do good in the world. I admired him enormously, got to know him better personally after leaving CPAG, and was already missing meetings with him when we dissolved the trust. He and Ruth were a formidable double act, and my thoughts are with her and their family.

Jonathan Bradshaw writes: As well as his service to CPAG, Garry was a staggeringly and diversely gifted man who has contributed to our national life in at least three other distinct ways.

First, as W.G. Runciman, the sociologist. He obtained a starred first in Classics and History at Cambridge University; but his real ambition was to become a sociologist, which at that time was taught at neither Cambridge nor Oxford. He therefore went to Harvard, Columbia and Berkeley and set about educating himself as a sociologist.

His first major work was Relative Deprivation and Social Justice, published in 1966 when he was only 32. It is an extraordinarily resourceful study that sought to explore and explain feelings of deprivation (and the absence of them) through social survey, social history, reference group theory and Rawls' theory of social justice. His conclusion - that people are inclined to feel deprived only in relation to their peers, rather than in relation to real inequalities. His major contribution to sociology has been to theory, mainly in his massive three-volume Treatise on Social Theory. He was elected to the British Academy in 1975 and served as President for five years in the early 2000s. He held honorary degrees from four universities, including York, and was a Senior Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

The second representation is as Runciman the businessman. In 1976 he succeeded his father as Chairman of Walter Runciman PLC, the shipping firm founded by his great grandfather. When his own firm was taken over by a Swedish company (to the benefit of his family trust, which quietly supported unpopular causes), he became Chairman of another, larger shipping company (Andrew Weir and Co.) and then started a new shipping firm of his own. In one of his books there is an interesting insight on this double life as a sociologist and businessman. He said he was generally viewed by fellow academics with resentment rather than contempt, and by fellow capitalists with contempt rather than resentment.

The third representation was as Lord Runciman, Chairman of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice. This was established in 1991, on the day of the release of the Birmingham Six, and followed a series of other horrendous miscarriages of justice, including the Guildford Four. The Royal Commission had to cover the entire process of criminal justice from police investigation to trial and sentencing and called for huge forensic capacity in a very short time. The report was published in July 1993 with 352 recommendations. The Government immediately accepted 130 of these and 20 were included in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.

Note: Cambridge University Press has decided, in celebration of Garry’s contribution to the social sciences, to offer a collection of his works free to read until March 2021: