Christina, Dominic, Vicki, Geoffrey and members and friends of the Preston family: I am honoured to have been asked to provide a few words about our dear departed friend, John, and his pro-European activities.
I first met John in the 1990s in connection with the European policy roundtables I used to convene at Wilton Park, the Foreign and Commonwealth policy forum. At its sixteenth century country house in West Sussex, senior politicians, policymakers and opinion formers such as John discussed European and parliamentary issues. After 1993 we increasingly met across Europe as the then UK Government championed the enlargement of the European Union.
John was one of the few individuals I kept inviting back to Wilton Park. Not least, he was always ready to make the first intervention or ask the first question. After the occasional pregnant pause after some expert speaker, I knew I as Chair could always look across the table to John to say something thought provoking, that is if he hadn’t already done so!
A lover of Europe, its politics, culture, and wine, John was one of a rare breed who understood what the European project was about. Unfortunately many still don’t, or simply don’t want to. John knew the European Union was above all about peace. He knew the UK’s proper place was at the heart of Europe, not at its fringes. To this day, the one book I have on my office desk is one John gave me written by the former UK Commissioner Roy Denman. Appropriately enough, it is titled Missed Chances.
As a passionate pro-European campaigner, John would seemingly pop up everywhere. He would always sit in the front row at Chatham House events and, true to form, often be one of the first questioners. He was active in political parties and would regularly lobby his local MP. One could be sitting at home watching BBC’s Question Time or listening to Any Answers, and then one’s ears would prick up when John from Croydon made another persuasive pro-European comment. If there had been more like John, perhaps we would not be in the mess we are in today.
John’s passion, even influence, was not confined to pro-Europeanism. He was quite proud of one Wilton Park countryside walk with a Sri Lankan minister. John recounted receiving to his surprise a letter from the Minister some months later thanking him for his thoughtful advice which his Government had enacted!
After my retirement from Wilton Park, I was pleased to continue our friendship. We reciprocated visits, perhaps most notoriously enjoying some convivial lunches at the Little Bay Bistro.
John and I also often exchanged views at Federal Trust, European Movement and European Journalist events in London. He was also active in the Federal Union. Such was the weakness of pro-Europeanism in 2014 that I was invited to chair and relaunch the London branch. John provided invaluable support helping to establish London4Europe, the first of the hundreds of 4Europe groups which eventually sprung up across the country.
John was a particular breed of British gentleman who sought truth through international understanding. He and I lamented the direction this country has taken, not least the appalling conduct during the 2016 referendum campaign. John put his finger on it when he said in his earnest and considered way “Nick, he said, we (the British) have lost our art of civilised debate”.
John’s kindness and decency will be remembered. Our shared cause will not go away. We shall rediscover our European vocation, working brick by brick, and one day rejoin the EU. We owe it in particular to John, Christina, his family and friends to keep John’s patriotic flame of pro-Europeanism alive.