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Dick Leonard, political historian with a ringside seat

Former MP had worked as a journalist and been among the press corps on JFK's presidential jet

13 July, 2021 — By Mark Leonard

Dick Leonard with wife Irene

DICK Leonard, who has died aged 90, was a politician, journalist and historian.

Over a long and full life he reinvented his career several times, leaving his imprint in a number of professions, disciplines and cities.

Dick bore witness to ­– and was a player in – many of the big stories that dominate British public life today: Europe, austerity, the crisis of the left in an affluent society, the effects of polling and the media on our politics, great power struggles and geopolitical tension.

Born in 1930, he grew up with tales from his father about the Great War. His father Cyril Leonard enlisted to fight in the Royal Artillery Corps.

Dick’s mother, Katie Whyte, was a shorthand typist at a furniture store in Great Russell Street.

They married in 1926 and had their first child John. Dick was born four years later. As a child Dick began supporting the Labour Party and collected voting returns on his bicycle in the 1945 General Election.

He went to Ealing Grammar School, where he became an obsessive chess player and aimed to study politics at the London School of Economics, conditional on completing national service.

A conscientious objector, he risked prison to avoid military service. He was ordered to take on “clerical duties of national importance” – and lost his university place. Instead he studied to be a teacher at the Institute of Education and worked as a school teacher from 1953 to 1955.

He would go on to edit the National Union of Teachers newsletter, work for the Fabian Society and stand as the youngest candidate in the 1955 election, in the unwinnable seat of Harrow West.

He met Irene Heidelberger in 1960 and they married in 1963. Throughout their 60 years together, Dick and Irene had a symbiotic partnership, whilst both lived diverse and autonomous lives. They had two children, Mark and Miriam.

In 1960, Dick travelled around the USA in John F Kennedy’s presidential jet as part of the press corps for the election. He covered it for the various newspapers, lectured at universities, went to jazz clubs in Greenwich village and watched Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong perform live.

He saw the first UN General Assembly, including Khrushchev’s shoe-bashing and Fidel Castro’s five hour oration.

He worked on election coverage for the BBC in the 1964 and 1966 elections, complete with an early black and white swingometer.

A central theme in Dick’s life was Britain’s troubled relationship with Europe. His internationalism was driven by personal experience.

He had seen the dislocation of world war in his childhood, the experience of marrying a German Jew, and moving to Brussels to have a ring-side seat at the creation of the single market and the Euro.

Elected as an MP in Romford, he made the life-changing decision to vote against the Labour Party Whip in the 1971 vote on joining the European Community.

He lost his seat in 1974, and Dick reinvented himself as a journalist.

From 1974 to 1985 he was Assistant Editor of The Economist, before working freelance, writing a syndicated column for international newspapers on international affairs and serving as the Brussels and European Union correspondent for The Observer from 1989 to 1997.

Dick moved back to Albert Street in Camden Town and wrote books on contemporary and historical British politics.

The final volume of his 1,000 page study of British Prime Ministers was completed just a few weeks before his death and will be published in September 2021.

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