Humanists UK mourns its patron Ted Graham (1925-2020)

30 March, 2020

Humanists UK is sad to learn of the death of its patron Lord (Ted) Graham, who was also a long-serving member of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG).

A firm humanist and a Labour Co-operative politician practically his whole life, Ted in many ways worked in the tradition of his forebear George Jacob Holyoake, the humanist activist and founder of the Co-operative movement who also coined the word ‘secularism’ (which back then meant something akin to humanism). Ted’s own convictions were very much like Holyoake’s: shaped by an emancipatory belief in the power of human beings, by natural means and an understanding of the world around them, to advance a better world not just for themselves, but across communities.

His description of the movement made clear how it related to his own beliefs

‘The Co-operative movement is based on men and women with the right principles at heart. It is full of splendid history and stories of progress.’

Ted’s life was spent in the Co-operative movement. Educated at the Co-operative College in Loughborough, he held several positions in the Co-operative movement from 1939, when he was just 14, later rising to  National Secretary for the Co-operative Party. While serving in the Co-operative movement, he enlisted to the Royal Marines in 1943, and was confronted very early on by the need to self-declare as a humanist. Relating the experience in a Lords debate in 2007, he spoke of being glad of having the courage to do so – as being classified as a ‘member of the other denominations’ got him out of having to attend church services!

After serving in the marines, his drive for a better world led him to a more active role in politics still. He was a Labour Co-op councillor on Enfield Borough Council from 1961, becoming council leader of the new London Borough of Enfield from 1964-1974, when he was elected MP for Edmonton.

As an MP serving under Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, he was appointed to a number of key roles, including Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, a government whip, and Lord Commissioner of the Treasury. Later, under Michael Foot, he served as an Opposition spokesman on the environment from 1980 to 1983.

After losing his seat in the 1983 general election, so impressed were his Labour colleagues that they recommended him for a life peerage in 1983, creating him Baron Graham of Edmonton, of Edmonton in Greater London. From 1990, first under Neil Kinnock, he served as Labour Chief Whip in the Lords until May 1997, throughout the party’s remaining time in Opposition.

Ted’s enthusiasm for the wider Co-operative movement never waned. In 1987, he was appointed President of the Co-operative Congress, succeeding Holyoake in the post exactly 100 years later.

In his time in Parliament, he consistently fought in lockstep with humanists on issues of moral and ethical concern. He often found himself echoing the campaigns of humanists outside of Parliament from within. For example, as LGBT Humanists was taking to the streets in protest in 1988, his was one of the loudest voices in the Lords to oppose Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which promoted greater discrimination towards lesbian, gay, and bisexual people through schools.

In a busy Lords debate on the place of humanists in society in 2007, Ted spoke up for humanists and gently batted away what seemed to him like unfair criticisms from the Bishops bench and other Lords, saying:

‘This kind of debate is valuable for many people—believers and non-believers—because it is being held in a calm atmosphere with the utmost tolerance and respect shown for other views. People have been allowed to say exactly what they want—nothing extreme or too condemnatory. I listened to every speech and, whatever the point of view of the speaker, I was able to agree and disagree with something the speaker said. It has been therapeutic. I am a member of the British Humanist Association, and I heard discrimination against those who support my views that I had not appreciated. That is not to say that they are not correct because, of course, I accept the integrity of the speakers.

‘…I speak as a socialist and someone who believes in the brotherhood of man and in tolerance and fair play. There is no religion in the world, including Christianity, that should not hang its head in shame at the acts of its followers at some time or other. However, we are living in a period when we ought to respect each other.

‘The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, whom I respect very much, said that everyone must have faith. I envy people who have faith because for them it is powerful, personal, and precious. I have never been able to embrace that. My faith is in the human spirit and the ability of ordinary people to control their affairs. I do not besmirch or belittle people who think differently. Society needs an examination of the ways in which we can work more closely together.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:

‘Ted was of a generation of humanists active in politics who were inspired by their belief in people, and their optimism for the future, to set to work reforming our society and speak up for the causes they believed in. We are all grateful to have had the benefit of his support and friendship. Personally, I always benefited from his reminders of the common foundation – both in history and in values – of the humanist and Co-operative movements, and was inspired by his commitment to both.’


Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

Humanists UK has over 170 patrons who support its work in various ways through their expertise and prominence in various fields. Existing patrons include significant figures from the spheres of science, philosophy, human rights activism, politics, the arts, and broadcasting. Alongside its patrons, Humanists UK has a President and a number of Vice Presidents. From January 2019, its President has been scientist and broadcaster Professor Alice Roberts, supported by Vice Presidents Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Shappi Khorsandi, Polly Toynbee, and Professor A C Grayling.

The All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group is a cross-party group of Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords of all the main parties, including members from the Crossbenches in the Lords. The Group has grown rapidly, from its first beginnings in the 1960s and now has over 110. The Group is not part of Humanists UK, but Humanists UK provides the secretariat for the Group.