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Tribute to Lord Ramsbotham by Lord Howell

4 min read

Lord Ramsbotham, 6 November 1934 to 13 December 2022.
A former Commander-in-Chief of UK land forces who went on to become Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons.

To the best of my knowledge David Ramsbotham, who died on 13 December, is the only top military figure ever to have featured in the Big Issue, with a glowing article of approbation and a full page picture to go with it.

The Big Issue is a splendid publication, whose co-founder, Lord Bird, speaks robustly and pointedly in the upper House. But his magazine is not usually associated with military top brass in the league of General Lord Ramsbotham, at one time Commander-in-Chief of United Kingdom land forces and Knight Commander of the Bath, or with anything to do with soldiery and warfare at all.

Of course, David was in the Big Issue not because of his undoubted military prowess, but because of his post-military second career.

He was a man amused by life’s absurdities and pomposities

This was when, following his retirement from the army, he was appointed His (then Her) Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons, a role in which he rapidly began to make considerable waves.

If the high authorities expected him to be broadly in acceptance of the prison system and all its undoubted deficiencies, with “sound” military ideas about prison as punishment, they were in for a rapid shock. What David Ramsbotham found was not just ridiculously overcrowded prisons (Britain having long had far the biggest number of prison inmates per head of population in any European country, except Turkey) but really horrific conditions, especially but not only in women’s prisons - and he was having none of it.

In searing reports to the Home Office and in published comments he described some of the worse-than-Dickensian conditions he found. Not only was the sentencing system sending far too many to jail, but the balance between punishment and rehabilitation and training for skills was far too weak in, for him, the wrong and negative direction.

What the Home Office found they had appointed was a liberally-minded prison reformer who did not intend to keep quiet. His book Prisongate tells the whole and vivid story of what he discovered, his efforts to get the get vast tanker of slow-moving prison policy speeded up and turned in new directions and his clear proposals for policy change.
It was therefore no surprise when he did not get the full second term of his appointment. He had proved, in the classic diplomatic phraseology, “too viewy”.

In his earlier manifestation as a soldier, that of course was just what the great army bureaucracy needed. During his time in Northern Ireland, for example, where he commanded the 39th Infantry Brigade (in fact at a time coinciding with my own ministerial role there under Willie Whitelaw, although I did not know David then), he took over from General Sir Frank Kitson, the visionary instigator of “low intensity warfare” methods. Kitson’s thinking pioneered, and David developed, the new tactics needed in face of the styles and techniques of covert and terrorist operations, largely against civilians, being adopted in many places.

David’s politics and mine were not on the same wavelength but we became very good friends for various reasons when he entered the Lords in 2005 as a cross bencher. He was on the centre-left on some issues, as was his strong-minded and beloved wife Sue, who sadly died a year ago. But he was certainly not one of what the late John Gilbert (Lord Gilbert) liked to call “those CND Generals” in the House. He understood fully the critical importance of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, although like many of us, he rightly queried whether continuous-at-sea deployment (CASD) really required four, rather than three new submarines (at today’s prices of £8bn plus per unit!). 

In the Lords David carried on with his causes, busting open and helping to reverse the mess which was made on Probation Service reform and calling all the time (until his voice gave out on him) for a saner prisons policy which could bring inmate numbers down and recidivist numbers down. He was a man amused by life’s absurdities and pomposities.

These are times when we need such people – open-minded and innovative, toughly determined but also scrupulously caring, a true good soldier throughout life.

He will be missed in very many ways.  

Lord Howell is a Conservative peer

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