Death, Reputation and Obituaries – Sir Simon Milton
14 April, 2011
I find death is always shocking. When I hear the news of someone I knew whose life has ended, I feel I have to just stop for while and ponder my memories. Sir Simon Milton died suddenly this week. He’s one of the first people in public life who I have known to die and it’s curious to observe how his passing is reported in the press. He is someone I met while reporting in Westminster for a community news website. He was always helpful and supported the site. As my local councillor, he helped me out with a difficult problem, writing me a personal letter explaining how he resolved it.
Being a journalist, I was always looking for the tricky bits. It never makes me feel good to see an elected politician work for a public affairs company, which Simon did. His presence in the council during the Dame Shirley saga was highlighted in Private Eye. It wasn’t until Colin Barrow took office that they managed to deal properly with the shame of that era. His Telegraph obituary expressed in a very elegant way, what some might describe as one of his political flaws. He got along well with the Chief Clerk of the Cambridge Union, ‘an early portent of how he would work with, rather than against, the grain of established systems’.
Simon not only took satisfaction in having most of Westminster as safe seats, he wanted to take those few remaining seats that were held by opposition parties, which was funny to watch. The Conservative Association in Westminster was complacent and self-righteous. It didn’t affect their ballot, but they didn’t help the moves to reform the party until very late in the day. Simon once growled at me at an election count for suggesting that readers should vote Liberal Democrat just because it was boring and unhealthy to have the Conservatives in power all the time.
He was the perfect politician for the Tony Blair era. He was the ultimate technocrat, preaching low council tax and effective street cleansing. He was not a great speaker, but if you knew about his illness, it was inspiring to watch him in action. He once shared with me how he lay away at night worrying about what would happen if the Paddington Bridge construction project had gone over time and over budget. That was an insight into the anxieties of high office.
One curious thing about an untimely death is the silliness it can inspire, like these hyperbole from a journalist who didn’t even know him. But it just goes to show there’s not much point worrying what people will say about you in your obituaries, it may be highly positive, it may have to compete with other news stories, it can be as true or false as anything that anyone says about you when you’re alive.
I find the lives of top people intriguing. You can envy the position he achieved, but he faced formidable adversity with his leukemia and other health problems. His sexuality remained a mystery to many councillors, until the announcement of his civil partnership clarified the matter. That can’t have been easy, either. Would he have had such a distinguished career, without the adversity? Does awareness of one’s own mortality help a person to squeeze the best out of life?
Finally, there is the abrupt end of a life to come to terms with. The mystery of a life that is now over.