Remembering David Beetham – an obituary

We are sad to report that Professor David Beetham, Emeritus Professor of Politics, has died on 5 July 2022.

Words contributed by his close friend, colleague and erstwhile walking companion, John Schwarzmantel.

David Beetham was born in 1938, and his first degree was in ‘Greats’ (classics), which he studied at Merton College, Oxford. After a short period preparing to be a minister of religion (Methodist), he turned to the social sciences, undertaking postgraduate study at the University of Manchester, where he completed his PhD and became a lecturer, initially in the Philosophy Department, before transferring to the Department of Government where he was a Senior Lecturer. By the time of his appointment to the Professorship of Politics at Leeds in March 1980, succeeding Professor Ralph Miliband and taking over after a period when there had been no Professor of Politics in post, David had established a reputation as a leading scholar of European social and political theory. The publication in 1974 of his masterful study of the German sociologist Max Weber, Max Weber and the Theory of Modern Politics, established him as an eminent Weber scholar in the English-speaking world. This work was quickly followed by some seminal articles on Robert Michels and elite theory, so that at the time of his appointment at Leeds he was recognised as an outstanding authority on European political theory.

Coming in as Head of Department to the Leeds Politics Department was not an easy task. It was difficult to take over a somewhat divided department which had been without a professorial head for some time. David saw it as his mission to bring the department together, and he rapidly gained the respect and esteem of all his colleagues. He was a dedicated head of department, tolerant and sympathetic to all its members. He was unfailingly supportive of his colleagues, patient and diplomatic in dealing with the inevitable disagreements between academics with different political views. He was also determined to defend his department against threats of retrenchment and forced redundancy in the harsh climate of Thatcherism, and he made no secret of his distaste for the policies of British governments of the 1980s. He was a person of strong moral principles and political commitment, which he manifested not merely in the university context but in engagement with the peace movement and movements of protest against nuclear weapons. His academic and theoretical work was always carried out with a sense of its relevance to ‘real world’ politics and its struggles. In his years at Leeds he added to his publications an important study of Marxist theories of fascism, Marxists in Face of Fascism (1984), a work which recently has had a ‘second life’ in a new edition of 2019 with a revised foreword, making it highly relevant in current conditions of the threat posed by authoritarian leaders. His study of The Legitimation of Power (1991) soon became recognised as a classic work, with a second edition appearing with a new preface in 2013.  He also published important articles on human rights, which appeared in book form collected together in Democracy and Human Rights (1999). Human rights were for him no purely theoretical concern. He was involved in organisations like Amnesty International and Charter 88, and invited trade unionist exiles from Pinochet’s Chile to stay in his family home. In the wider university community David played an important role through his membership of numerous Chair and Readership committees. 

In his time at Leeds, David developed his work to become an internationally recognised authority on democracy and the assessment of democracy. He was the initiator of the Democratic Audit, described in his own words as ‘the simple but ambitious project of assessing the state of democracy in a single country’. This gave rise to the large-scale study (written jointly with Stuart Weir) Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain (1999), a study exposing the limited extent to which democracy was realised in practice in the United Kingdom, followed by Democracy under Blair, a democratic audit of the United Kingdom (2002). This had as its frontispiece a picture of Blair dressed up as the absolutist ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV. The principles of the democratic audit were applied internationally, in a number of case studies in which David participated. This work meant he was in great demand for a number of research consultancies, working as Director of Research for the Stockholm-based IDEA (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance), and working as consultant for UNESCO, for the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and working for the Inter-Parliamentary Union, based in Geneva, designing and compiling a guide to good practice for democratic parliaments. There can be few social scientists whose work has had such a direct application to the practice of democratic politics world-wide. 

After his retirement from the university in 2001 for reasons of ill-health, having suffered two heart attacks over a number of years, David’s work on democratic politics continued unabated. In 2005 he published Democracy, a beginner’s guide, praised by Sir Bernard Crick as ‘the author’s crowning achievement’. Like all of David’s work, this book was a text of exemplary lucidity, with a powerful critique of the shortcomings of contemporary democracy, accessible to ‘beginners’ in the field, but with much to offer to practitioners and theorists of democratic politics. It was characteristic of David that the concluding chapter was entitled ‘Getting active’, with suggestions for how the book’s readers could engage themselves in the practice of democratic politics, at however a local level, in whatever field was open to them. It also concluded with David’s ‘admission’: ‘I’m a committed activist myself!’, and referred to examples of his activism, ranging from his involvement in a local cycleway support group to his work on the Democratic Audit, and the production (through the Stockholm IDEA) of a handbook on democracy assessment, which could be used by citizen groups anywhere. This was an inspiring work, animated by a deep sense of egalitarianism and faith in the potential of citizens to improve the quality of their democracy. Its values were characteristic of David himself.

Apart from his academic and political work, David had wide interests. He was a keen walker, and achieved prodigious hiking feats in the course of several long-distance alpine treks, some of them involving strenuous ‘via ferrata’ climbing, culminating in 2012 in the Tour of Mont Blanc, a challenging 170km circular tour round Europe’s highest mountain. He had a deep interest and wide knowledge of classical music, which he shared with his companion of his final years, Ursula Vogel.

We extend our deep sympathy and condolences to his wife Margaret, to his two children Helen and Kate, to his brother Robert, and to his partner of recent years Ursula. At the time of his death David was still at work, writing on questions of democracy, and he had just completed an article on ‘legitimacy’ for the Encyclopaedia of Political Sociology, which is to be dedicated to his memory.