Humanists UK is sad to announce the death of its longtime member, activist, trustee, and former Chair, David Pollock. A towering figure in the humanist movement, David was instrumental in many of Humanists UK’s campaigns, and in recent years was a key source of institutional memory. His death will long be mourned by those who knew him.
David served as a trustee of Humanists UK from 1965-1975, and from 1997 until poor health led to his retirement in 2021. He also served as a board member and former Chair of the Rationalist Association, publisher of New Humanist magazine, and was President of the European Humanist Federation from 2006-12. In the 1960s he instigated the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group.
David Pollock devoted his life to the humanist movement and was a driving force in its considerable achievements during the 1960s and 1970s.
His involvement with Humanists UK began when he was a student at Oxford University, where he studied Classics. There he helped the Oxford University Humanist Group (OUHG) to flourish and grow, at its height, into the largest student organisation at the university, welcoming many of the brightest lights of the humanist movement as visiting speakers, while campaigning on issues from women’s admission into the Oxford Union Society to global poverty and LGBT rights. This central concern with equality, human rights, and non-discrimination animated David throughout his life. He would later write that he devoted more time to the Humanist Group than he did to his studies, and ultimately developed an online archive for the OUHG – just one example of the devotion to keeping and cataloguing which made David such a boon to historians.
Describing his commitment to organised humanism while still a student, David expressed his conviction that ‘by meeting people who have ideas that are very similar to your own but not exactly the same, you can refine your own ideas and sharpen your ideas against theirs. Not only that, of course, but by belonging to an organisation… you can try to bring about the reforms that you would like to see in the community’.
The 1960s and 70s were a time of immense activity for Humanists UK, and David was ever at the heart of it. Interviewed for the New Humanist in 1993, Harold Blackham (Humanists UK’s first Executive Director) named David (with Antony Chapman and Peter Draper) as one of the ‘student stalwarts’ who brought their energies from the university humanist movement to Humanists UK. And so began a relationship that would span six decades, and see David awarded – in 2011 – the Distinguished Service to Humanism Award at the World Humanist Congress in Oslo.
From his earliest days, David pushed for Humanists UK to have a higher public profile – believing in the capacity of people motivated by humanism to change society for the better. In a letter to The Humanist in 1963, he wrote: ‘What the Humanist movement needs at the moment is a glowing vision of the future, not an over cautious concern with preserving the past’. In his devotion to furthering the cause of humanist ideas and ideals, he was never afraid to confront or correct, nor to be hands-on in his efforts for change.
At a time when Humanists UK could not be involved in campaigning due to laws around charitable activity, David was instrumental in encouraging a humanist voice in Parliament, helping to lay groundwork for the creation of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Parliamentary Group, and initiating his own action group, Humanist Lobby, to which he gave countless hours. This group as assembled by David worked together on some of the biggest reforms of the age of reform: laws to decriminalise homosexuality, legalise abortion, and end censorship and the death penalty.
David also gave an enormous amount of his time and effort to international humanist concerns. As President of the European Humanist Federation from 2006 to 2012, he largely drove the formation of a policy platform for humanists engaging with the EU and Council of Europe. After his term was up, he became the head of Humanists International’s delegation to the Council of Europe until 2017.
An incisive thinker, David was widely recognised for his expertise in human rights and in particular the law around religion or belief. In 2016, David was the humanist representative on a high-profile group, alongside former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, convened by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to help develop the EHRC’s landmark report Religion or belief: is the law working?
As a long-serving trustee, David had a hand in setting Humanists UK’s strategy in successive decades. Ever a campaigner, after retirement David worked closely with Humanists UK’s public affairs and policy team as a full-time volunteer, donating his considerable acumen as a political and legal strategist to its lobbying and litigation work, including to its interventions at the Supreme Court on assisted dying and abortion rights, a successful High Court case securing the place of humanism in RE, and the successful legal challenge in Northern Ireland which brought about legal humanist marriages. He particularly cared about Humanists UK’s education campaigns and the legal recognition of humanist marriages. He continued to give his time and energy to Humanists UK, despite a diagnosis of cancer, until recent months, when his health began to fail him.
Outside his life as a professional humanist, David also had a successful career as a manager at the UK’s National Coal Board, before serving, across the 1990s, as the Director of the pressure group Action on Smoking and Health and then of the Continence Foundation. He was also treasurer until his death of Education and Health Trust Uganda, a charity supporting impoverished communities to thrive in Uganda.
Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:
‘David was an inspiring colleague and mentor, a devoted friend, and the best man I have known. He led an exemplary life of determined activism and service and his contributions to the humanist movement as a whole over sixty years, spanning eight decades, have changed society for the better.
‘Strategist, campaigner, thinker, planner. David was also a remarkably kind, warm, and generous person. He will be deeply missed by everyone at Humanists UK and never forgotten.’
Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented:
‘David was a tremendous friend, colleague, and mentor. His knowledge of and longstanding commitment to our shared humanist endeavours was unrivalled. And he was always extremely generous with his time and support. His humour, companionship, and sage advice will all be sorely missed.’
Early in 2020, David wrote to other members urging them to remember Humanists UK in their wills. In his letter, David said:
‘I’ve always supported Humanists UK – I’ve been a part of this movement since university, nearly 60 years ago. I’ve had a long and largely happy life, and have tried to do my best by others, not least through Humanists UK. And, given that this is the only life we have, what matters to me is trying to leave this world a better place: I want the people and causes I care about to be looked after even after I’ve gone.
‘I’m proud to be a humanist. Humanism is a profound philosophy that has emerged across the centuries and across the world because it is about humans living together in communities. I’ve been on the board of Humanists UK for many years, and I’ve seen it grow from strength to strength across decades. Today it is more influential than ever, doing valuable work and producing overdue reforms. I want that to continue, and I know it’s important to the future of our society.
‘Humanist thinking and action has been the touchstone of my life and with the continued success of Humanists UK it can be for many others.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Public Affairs Manager Karen Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07534 248 596.
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