Baroness Ruth Henig Obituary By Professor Alan Sharp

BIHG members will have been saddened by the death of Ruth Henig on 29 February. Those who knew her will understand how difficult it is to summarise a multi-talented life that had so many facets. These ranged from the academic to the political:- local activist; school governor; a long association with the law and policing both in Lancashire and nationally; life peer; fiendish bridge player; connoisseur of wine and beer; and ardent Leicester City supporter. She was a force of nature, but all her activities were marked by a profound practicality. Dismissing trivialities with a characteristic sniff she was a problem-solver, seeking consensus where possible, which explains why she came to lead or chair so many of the organisations with which she became involved, including the House of Lords where she became a Deputy Speaker in 2015. 

Born in 1943 to parents who fled Nazi Germany via Holland and who were later interned on the Isle of Man (others of her family were less fortunate), Ruth Beatrice Munzer grew up in Leicester where she attended Wyggeston Girls’ Grammar School. She graduated with First Class Honours in History from Bedford College, University of London in 1965, moving, as a postgraduate student of the League of Nations, to Lancaster University in 1966 where she was appointed as an assistant lecturer in 1968. Her entire academic career was spent at Lancaster which awarded her a PhD in 1978. She became Head of the History Department in 1995 and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities from 1997 to 2000. She retired as a senior lecturer in 2004 and became one of Lancaster’s first Honorary Fellows in 2006.

In 1973 Ruth edited a book investigating various aspects of the League of Nations and she published articles, chapters and book reviews on the subject but had never quite written the fuller treatment of League that she knew she ought. I was thus delighted when she accepted my invitation to write that volume for the Haus series on the ‘Makers of the Modern World’ commissioned by Dr Barbara Schwepcke.  The League of Nations, published in 2010, was a timely contribution to a revived interest in this pioneering international institution, and her emphasis on its often unacknowledged successes complemented the work of, amongst others, Patricia Clavin and Susan Pederson. Ruth also published Modern Europe 1870-1945 (1997) with Chris Culpin and Eric Evans, and with her son, Simon, Women and Political Power: Europe Since 1945 (2000).

Clearly a highly competent administrator, capable of guiding her Department and Faculty through some challenging times, it was her teaching that gave her most satisfaction. Her enthusiasm for her subject inspired generations of undergraduates and was recognised by a Pilkington Teaching Award.  She enjoyed working with the mature students at the Open University’s ‘War and Society’ summer schools and she was much in demand for ‘A’ level revision conferences, especially after the success of the Lancaster pamphlet series that she helped to establish. Her contributions to these concise treatments of important historical topics in the ‘A’ level syllabus included Versailles and After, 1919-1933 (1984), The Origins of the Second World War (1985), The Origins of the First World War (1989), and The Weimar Republic, 1919-1933 (1998), several of which ran to up-dated second editions. Elegantly written and summarising the most recent research, her work proved a lifeline not only for students but also lecturers seeking a rapid but dependable source for ideas and information. She was a very capable postgraduate supervisor, rescuing the research projects of several candidates who later proceeded to distinguished academic careers.

For many such a rounded career would be sufficient, but Ruth was also a political animal. In 1966 she married fellow academic Stanley Henig, their wedding preparations disrupted by the snap election called by Harold Wilson. Four days after the ceremony Stanley became the Labour MP for Lancaster, a seat he held until 1970 when boundary changes made it unwinnable, though Ruth stood for it twice in 1976 and 1992, reducing the Tory majority by two-thirds on the latter occasion. From 1981 she was a Lancashire County Councillor for Lancaster East, chairing the Council from 1999-2000. Ruth served as a JP from 1984 to 2004. She chaired the Lancashire Police Authority in 1987 and the Association of Police Authorities from 1995 to 2005. In 2006 John Reid, the Labour Home Secretary, selected her to chair the Security Industry Authority, a role she held until 2013, helping to establish an up-dated regulatory framework.  She also chaired boards of governors for several schools and the Duke’s Playhouse. In 2000 she was awarded a CBE and in 2002 she was appointed a Deputy Lord Lieutenant for Lancashire. For both the County and the University she was a tireless ambassador and, when in 2004 Tony Blair made her a life peer, she became Baroness Henig of Lancaster.

Ruth and Stanley had two sons, Simon and David, but divorced in 1993 and in 1994 she married Jack Johnstone, her long-time bridge partner. They lived first at Wray, where their house bordered a delightful stream (in the summer - in winter it was known to cause havoc to their wine cellar), before moving to London. Ruth enjoyed her time in the Lords, becoming the very successful captain of their bridge team in the annual matches with the House of Commons. She had represented Lancashire on many occasions with Jack and used that experience to create a dominant team that was mostly legitimate, though one year the winners included Jack as a late substitute, drawing praise from the Daily Telegraph’s bridge columnist for his skilful play of a difficult hand. 

Her last email to me was very up-beat, hoping to be out of hospital in time to meet for lunch, but sadly this did not happen. She was delighted with Leicester City’s progress towards a rapid return to the Premiership and had enjoyed Arsenal’s recent victory over Liverpool. It is difficult to believe that there will be no more communications, but I shall try to follow her wise advice to ‘Enjoy every sunny and pain-free day’ and emulate her pragmatism. When Jack died in 2013 the humanist celebrant at his funeral objected to Ruth’s wish to include Abide with me because it was a religious hymn. ‘It is’, she declared, ‘a football anthem’ and the matter was closed. 

Alan Sharp.

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Baroness Ruth Henig