Sir John Major praises 'peerless chronicler' Sir Martin Gilbert in memorial lecture

'To him, recording history was an obligation seared deeply into his soul'


Sir John Major has paid tribute to Sir Martin Gilbert at the launch of a learning centre named for the eminent historian, describing him as a “peerless chronicler”.

The former British Prime Minister made his remarks while delivering the inaugural Sir Martin Gilbert Memorial Lecture at Highgate United Synagogue last night.

Sir Martin, one of the UK’s most respected historians, and the author of the official biography of Winston Churchill, died in 2015 at the age of 78. He also acted as an advisor to several Prime Ministers, and became a close friend of Sir John.

The former Prime Minister praised Sir Martin as “highly intelligent, inquisitive – and interested in everything”, as well as “self-effacing and modest”.

“Martin wrote one of our greatest biographies. His volumes on the life of Winston Churchill may never be bettered", Sir John said. 

"If Churchill was our greatest Briton – and it is easy to argue that he was – then Martin will be remembered as his peerless chronicler. 

 “Churchill once said that history would treat him kindly because he, himself, would write it. But it will also do so because of Martin’s monumental work.

 “Anyone who knew Martin learned very soon that he was a workaholic:  his 88 books testify to that. To him, recording history was an obligation seared deeply into his soul.”

During his speech, in which he discussed Britain’s domestic and international policies, Sir John told the 250 strong audience that Brexit might lead to Northern Ireland holding a referendum and choosing to become part of the Republic of Ireland in order to stay in the EU, which “could well lead to violence”.

“Tony Blair and I travelled together to Northern Ireland to warn of the risks to such a border – only to have our concerns dismissed", he said.

“For the last two decades, the lack of any physical border has made a vital contribution to community harmony, as well as trade between north and south.  Now, albeit in a different guise, a border is likely to return.”

 Pointing out the various options, and how they would be opposed by different groups, he continued by saying that “such an outcome also has dangers. 

“It would be likely to increase calls for a border poll, in which a divided public in Northern Ireland – who voted to remain in the EU – are asked if they still wish to do so by leaving the UK and becoming part of the Republic.  This could well lead to violence.

 “All these ramifications were not only foreseeable – they were foreseen.  Now, those who brushed them aside as of no consequence – or denied them altogether – must find a solution.”

Lady Esther Gilbert, Sir Martin’s widow, thanked all the trustees and donors of the new Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre charity.

“I have donated a set of Martin’s 88 books for the new library in the centre”, she said.

“But books and premises are only the seeds of learning, and we want to maintain and grow the vineyard in which Sir Martin laboured. To bring history to life the way he did. To be able to learn from history and change our direction, so we can view the changes and upheavals of the 21st century in light of the history that Sir Martin wrote of the last century”.

Sir Harry Solomon, a close friend of Sir Martin, described “the infinite care… [he] took to ensure there could be no doubt, or no compromise, about the authenticity and accuracy of anything he told us.”

He also noted how it was “perfectly right and proper that the centre is at this synagogue.

“After all, Sir Martin was born here [in Highgate], went to school here, and was an active member of this community.”

Rabbi Nicky Liss, Highgate United’s rabbi, paid tribute to the historian who was a part of his community, saying that “on Sir Martin’s tombstone, a phrase from Deuteronomy 32 is quoted… a verse which teaches us the Biblical imperative to study history:

“’Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation, ask your father who you’re related to, and your elders and they will tell you’.

“Martin was a historian, who gave a face, a name and a voice to so many in his quest to tell the human story.

“And it’s that legacy of telling the human story and giving meaning and value to everyone and everywhere that has encouraged us to set up the centre here and will continue to guide our thinking.”

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