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Walter Garrison Runciman, CBE, FBA, 3rd Viscount Runciman of Doxford (1934-2020)

Professor Boyd Hilton remembers ‘Trinity’s finest recent all-rounder.’ 

Lord Runciman by Michael Noakes

Garry Runciman was Trinity’s finest recent all-rounder and something of a phenomenon. For decades he spent nearly all his working week as chairman of Walter Runciman & Co Ltd (later PLC), a family ship owning company, and ventured to Cambridge for only a day-and-a-half, first to direct and supervise for what was then the Social and Political Sciences Tripos, and later to pursue the academic studies that were his greatest passion. Despite this tight timetable he pursued them to such effect that he became not only a Fellow but President of the British Academy. Between times he made significant contributions to public life, especially as chair of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice (1991–93), as a member of the Securities and Investments Board, forerunner of the Financial Control Authority, and as a participant in many charitable activities, notably the Child Poverty Action Group.

For decades he dined at High Table almost every Wednesday, which was an incentive for me to do likewise. Despite his background and eminence he was surprisingly shy, diffident even, especially with the young, and for a time some mistook this for aloofness or condescension. Once he had learned to relax, however, he became one of the easiest and most delightful of companions—suave, engaged, and humorous, though he continued to prefer tête-à-têtes to cross-table disputation. He brought a worldly perspective to the conversation, especially in exchanges on politics and public affairs with the former Treasury official Robert Neild.

With me he loved to dispute finer points of nineteenth-century high political narrative, and with Adrian Poole the literary culture of East Coast America during the post-war period, something which he had encountered as a young Harkness Scholar and which had made a deep impression on him. Though he was not above a bit of light-hearted banter, mainly he liked to debate, to chew on a ‘thought for the day’ which he would announce immediately after the Grace and then eagerly pursue, often as far as the savoury. ‘Do you think Gladstone understood the inherent contradiction between his policy on Irish Home Rule and his approach to the problem of Egyptian debt?’ Or to Robert: ‘Might it have been possible, with much better management, to have made any of Blair’s triangulation policies bear fruit?’ Or to Anil Seal: ‘Has the time come to get out of Japan (or back in)?’

Eton, Trinity, and the Guards (Grenadier). Oppidan and Apostle. Slightly embarrassed member of ‘the Great and the Good’. His curriculum vitae has encouraged a tendency to think of Garry as an archetypal establishment figure. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anil, a near contemporary, believes that he thought of himself a maverick. He also had elements of the utopian, as indicated by his close friendship with politician Frank Field. He was a liberal rationalist to his roots, with an emphasis on the American sense of the word ‘liberal’. It would therefore be truer to describe him as a member of the intelligentsia, which in the UK though not in the US was enough to establish him as firmly anti-establishment. Needless to say, he was dismayed by the Alt-Right political tendencies of recent years.

One of his earlier books, Relative Deprivation and Social Justice (1966), grew out of discussions with the Trinity historian Peter Laslett as well as rumination on the writings of the German theorist Max Weber and the American philosopher John Rawls. In it Garry employed ideas derived from social psychology to investigate the gap between material measures of inequality and individuals’ perception of their own social status. The book provoked decades of academic disputation among historians regarding working-class political behaviour, much of it underlain by puzzlement over Labour’s loss of three general elections in a row. Garry himself, however, moved on to write the trilogy that made his reputation, A Treatise on Social Theory (1983–97), a brave attempt to re-energise sociological study by marrying theoretical analysis and empirical observation, followed by an even more ambitious attempt to demonstrate how his tentative conclusions could be validated with reference to recent British history.

Later still he helped to pioneer what he called ‘a Kuhnian paradigm’ in the study of how human cultures and societies evolve, and more precisely of how neo-Darwinian notions of heritable variation and descent can explain ‘why distinctive patterns of behaviour emerge and persist in the aggregate, on average, and over time’. This work, though recognised by fellow sociologists as a remarkable achievement, was considered to be outside the mainstream, while he himself made no secret of his distaste for much current academic sociology, especially as practised in Cambridge.

Superficially one might think of Garry as a throwback to the golden age of the gentleman scholar, but his work had too much rigour for that. A better characterisation might be that of the college-based pre-Faculty scholar: a classicist by training and temperament, who moved via Part II history into social science, and who valued his Trinity life above all for the access it gave him to the latest thinking across the disciplines, not least in biology.

With the death of stalwart friends such as Jack Gallagher and Tony Weir, probably few Fellows now appreciate just how central a part Trinity played in Garry’s own heritable descent and thereby contributed to his sense of cultural identity. It derived from his father Leslie, the second viscount; from his grandfather Walter, a prominent British minister who had been implicated in the 1938 Munich Agreement; and from his uncle Steven, a dauntingly famous, flamboyant, and successful historian.

An only child himself, Garry derived lasting love, comfort, and support from his close family life. His wife, Dame Ruth Runciman DBE, is an eminent public figure with special interests in mental health and prison reform. His son David (Trinity, 1985) is an eminent Professor of Politics in Cambridge and a respected public intellectual.

With thanks to Anil Seal and Adrian Poole.

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