‘You have been an inspiration to me’: a letter to Anthony King

A letter from David Sanders, Regius professor at the University of Essex, to Anthony King, professor of government and a leading authority on British politics who died earlier this week

January 14, 2017

Earlier this week, I heard from Tony’s wife Jan that he had less than two weeks to live. He was returning home that day, with full hospice support, to die. I wrote this letter to Tony and sent it to him by email early the next morning. About 10 minutes after I sent it, I heard that Tony had died during the night. I wish I could have sent it in time for him to have read it.

 

Dearest Tony

It is so sad that your life is drawing to its close. With your death, the world will be a poorer place. I will miss you more than I can say.

I hope you won’t think this hyperbole, but you have been an inspiration to me, and I’m sure to many others, for over forty years.

I knew I was in the presence of a great man when I attended your First Year lectures as a Teaching Assistant in the early 1970s. Your clarity of thought and exposition were breath-taking. I would have defied anyone, no matter what their ‘ideological position’ or level of intellect, not to have understood precisely what you were arguing and why you were arguing it. In a discipline that has always thrived (and, sadly, continues to thrive) on posturing and obscurantism, this clarity had a power that I had not encountered before – and rarely have since. You were, and you remained throughout your life, the clearest articulator of an argument that I have ever encountered. You always get to the heart of any question quickly and directly. You always see the (frequently suspect) assumptions on which others’ arguments are based. In your lectures, your arguments were so compelling, and so compellingly presented, that some of the more stupid attendees would sometimes observe ‘but this is all so obvious’. What they failed to understand is that arriving at an ‘obvious’ conclusion that is difficult to challenge is the hallmark of the great mind. The conclusion is only ‘obvious’ precisely because it has been so brilliantly thought-through and presented. This is what you did; week-in, week-out; year-in, year-out for over fifty years. It was, and remains, an extraordinary achievement. I feel privileged to have observed it. During my career, I have tried, very imperfectly, to emulate it.

But if your gifts as a teacher have been outstanding, your abilities as a scholar have been remarkable. That same clarity of thinking and expression has characterised everything you have written – something that was recognised in one review of the Nolan Commission’s work, when you were rightly described as the academic participant ‘with the Rolls Royce mind’. I think the source of your research clarity has been your unfailing and deep understanding of the principles of research design. Your instinctive ability to appreciate the importance of control groups in your own work and in that of others has always been unparalleled. You may remember that when I first joined the editorial team of the British Journal of Political Science (BJPS) in 1990, you, Ivor and I spent two or three years copying each other into our letters to the authors of submitted papers. I learned so much from what you wrote. You would be the first to admit that you are not an expert in statistical analysis. Yet, even in situations where you could not possibly have understood the details of some ‘cutting edge’ statistical method, you had an unerring ability to recognise both the limitations of the methods employed for understanding the substantive question in hand and to see through false inferences. As I have repeatedly said both to you and to anyone else who would listen, you possessed the best bullshit detector in post-war western political science. Woe betide any would-be BJPS authors who sought to use fancy statistics to hide the fact that their conclusions were not supported by their empirical observations. If only more editors of contemporary journals could deploy the same principles with the same rigour.

Underpinning all of your own political views, of course, is a deep-seated commitment to liberalism. You are the most genuinely liberal person, in the most positive sense possible, I have known. You are liberal to your very core. You recognise at the deepest level that it is always best to let peopIe make their own decisions (and their own mistakes) because they are the best arbiters of their own interests. I have always found your fundamental commitment to liberal values a valuable challenge and corrective to my own instinctive authoritarianism. Thank you for helping me to avoid the worst excesses of my own deep-seated authoritarian prejudices.

Finally, I can’t let you die without referring to your incredible personal kindness. You and Jan have always been unstinting in your support for Gill and me and for our children. We have not forgotten, and will never forget, your kindness, which we know you and Jan have extended to many other individuals and families. Your ability to share your enthusiasm for serious music, and especially your passion for live music, is infectious. One memory that will always stay with me is the evening you and I were at the Barbican for a Maxim Vengerov concert. From the moment Vengerov began to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto, I had goose bumps that continued throughout the performance – even when he broke a string and seized the first violinist’s instrument, creating a sequence of more senior violinists taking the violins from their respective juniors. Jan and I have recently discussed the possibility of creating a goose-bump-ometer to compete with the blub-ometer that she and I have enjoyed so much listening to music with you over the years. All of this, however, is mere gloss that reflects your kindness to so many people in your life. Your featurette throughout your life has been a willingness to spread your joy in the arts, in good food, good conversation and good wine to others. I feel privileged to have been one of the many beneficiaries of your generosity of spirit. Thank you so much.

As I have aged and my awareness of mortality has increased, I’ve often reflected on what makes a good man or woman. There is no gender difference here. Three things, it seems to me, matter more than all the others: courage, wisdom and kindness. You have them all in abundance. Thank you so for being in my life and for making me a better person.

With very much love,

David

David Sanders is Regius professor at the University of Essex. This letter was was originally published on the University of Essex website. You can read further tributes to Professor King here.  

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