Remembering Bob Hughes (1932–2022) 

17 January, 2022

Humanists UK is saddened to hear of the death of its former Vice President, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG), and Labour Party peer, Lord Bob Hughes of Woodside.

Born in Pittenweem near Fife in Scotland, the young Bob Hughes came into politics after an early career as an engineer for the South African Rubber Company in Howick, South Africa, where he firsthand witnessed social divisions that would later formalise into apartheid in 1948. He left South Africa in 1954 committed to a different vision of the future. The experience had kindled in him a humanist conviction that every human being should be afforded a life of dignity on equal terms, regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, sexuality, or disability.

Having been involved in trade unionism in South Africa, he returned to the UK with a new political zeal, which carried over into his membership of the Labour League of Youth, which trained him for his first (unsuccessful) attempt at running for MP in 1959. He then devoted himself to local politics throughout the 1960s in Aberdeen. Bob was elected MP for his home of Aberdeen North in 1970, serving as a minister in the Wilson government for a time, before stepping down at the 1997 general election. In that time, he joined the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG), and often spoke up on behalf of humanist campaigns for a better society. After stepping down from the Commons, he was soon appointed a life peer in 1997, and spoke regularly at debates in the Lords in the decades that followed.

His early experiences in South Africa shaped his life service outside of political office, too. Today he is perhaps best remembered around the world for his antiracist and anti-apartheid campaigning throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. He was a key figure in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which he chaired from 1976 until its dissolution in 1995, following on from South Africa’s first successful post-apartheid elections in April 1994.

In recognition of his human rights campaigning and his work with the APPHG, Bob was appointed a Vice President of Humanists UK, and later a patron. His activism on behalf of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group remained one of his presiding political passions. He served as the group’s chair for some time, and took a particular interest in Humanists UK’s education campaigns. His work to see the end of segregation by religion in British schools invited parallels with his earlier campaigning on apartheid. The evidence was already clear, by the early 2000s, that religious selection in schools was one of the principal drivers of racial and religious segregation in British towns and communities.

In 2016, Lord Hughes joined a group of religious leaders, parliamentarians, and education experts in signing an open letter in the Times newspaper calling on Prime Minister Theresa May to drop proposals that would allow all new and existing faith schools in England to religiously select 100% of their places. That same year, he challenged the Government’s response to a High Court ruling which called for non-religious and religious worldviews to have equal footing in religious education. The Government dismissed the judgment, describing it as ‘[not] having any broader impact on any religious education curriculum’. In 2019, Lord Hughes again joined prominent campaigners in signing a letter urging the Government to oppose proposals to open 100% religiously selective schools.

In 2018, he was one of 34 prominent humanists to call on the BBC to allow humanist speakers on Thought for the Day in a high-profile open letter published in the Guardian.

Lord Hughes was also a strong supporter of the legalisation of assisted dying. In a 2006 House of Lords debate he criticised the scare tactics of some opponents of the cause: ‘The people who have indulged in those tactics should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.’

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented:

‘Bob was an invaluable supporter of Humanists UK and its campaigns. He was someone who throughout his life translated his humanist ideals into action, and in doing so, helped to bring about a fairer world for everyone. His death comes to us as an enormous loss to humanism and politics more generally. Our sincere condolences go out to the Hughes family at this difficult time.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

Humanists UK has over 180 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. The President of Humanists UK is the anatomist, author, and broadcaster, Professor Alice Roberts. She is supported by Vice Presidents Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Professor AC Grayling, Shaparak Khorsandi, and Polly Toynbee.

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