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Tribute to a lifelong European

Denis MacShane on the late Dick Leonard, former Labour MP and dedicated campaigner to the European cause

Dick Leonard, former Labour MP - Credit: Mark Leonard

From the moment he joined the party as a 14-year-old in 1945, Dick Leonard, who has died aged 90, combined two political passions: Labour and Europe.

He became a permanent advocate for those twin causes, whether setting up the Young Fabians, serving as an MP or working as a journalist and historian, explaining and exploring the complex politics of the continent.

In the 1950s, he had experienced much of this close-up, as he hitch-hiked across Europe to Yugoslavia and Poland. In 1963, he married a German-Jewish scholar, Irene Heidelberger, and so learnt fast and first-hand that the Germanophobia that animated much of the post-1945 Labour approach to European partnership and integration, from Ernie Bevin to Denis Healey, was a foolish dead-end.

His natural home would have been as a Labour MP but he wanted to represent his native London (he had first stood in 1955, the election’s youngest candidate) and only served four years in Romford 1970-74 before boundary changes handed the seat to the Tories.

The loss of his seat led to a re-invention: From 1974 to 1985 he was assistant editor of The Economist. Alas, the publication then made the fateful decision to close its Brussels bureau – just as the Single European Act was negotiated – and Dick decided to leave rather than return to the UK. The main reason was that his wife had secured a professorship at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles.

So he turned freelance and then served as the Brussels correspondent for the Observer from 1989 to 1997. He remained in Brussels until 2009, by which time he had chronicled the creation of the modern EU and written it up as the definitive guide to the union, which remains in print and is now entering its 12th edition.

When the couple finally returned to London, Dick reinvented himself again, as a historian, particularly focusing on Britain’s prime ministers. The final volume of his 1,000 page study of the subject was completed just a few weeks before his death and will be published in September. He also kept his hand in as a journalist, providing occasional contributions to The New European.

Back in London, right until his death, he involved himself in Labour politics again and was particularly invested in the election of Keir Starmer, who became a trusted friend and who visited him a few days before his death.

Dick Leonard was a warm, sharp, witty companion. His son Mark, continues his father’s work via the European Council on Foreign Relations, splitting his time between London and Berlin. His daughter, Miriam, followed her mother’s path into academia.

Shortly before he died Dick Leonard voted for Sadiq Khan in 2021 but gave his second vote to Richard Hewison of the Rejoin EU Party.