The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Tribute to The Lord Lyell – 20 January 2011

The text of Sir John Major’s tribute to Nicholas Lyell, The Rt Hon The Lord Lyell of Markyate, QC, at the thanksgiving service held at St.Margaret’s, Westminster, London on Thursday 20th January 2011.


“Old age creeps
Yet new each year
The roses bud and flush”.

So wrote Nick in one of his poems. Those brief lines tell you a lot about him. Nick was a countryman. He loved the countryside and all its pursuits. He knew nature in all her moods. He understood the rhythms of life – and death. He believed that, after old age, there was renewal.

That was his faith: it is why, and how, he faced death with such equanimity. It was, for Nick, merely the start of a new beginning where, one day – he had no doubt – he would be joined by his family and friends. And – in due time – the roses would bud and flush once more.

This was Nick, the Man of Faith. But there were so many Nicks. All with the same underlying characteristics.

Nick was a gentle man in every sense of the word. A little shy. Often under-stated. A conciliator, not a warrior. He weighed his words carefully. His natural manner wasn’t impassioned oratory but nuanced, thoughtful, rational, fact-backed judgement. He had – thank goodness – no notion of “spin”. What he said he meant. In Nick’s hands, the scales of natural justice were perfectly balanced. There was nothing narrow or parochial about him: in life, as in politics, he had 360 degree vision.

I came to know Nick well. Over 30 years ago, we entered Parliament on the same day. We became members of the same dining club. We shared views and instincts. We worked together – as PPSs; as Junior Ministers; and later, Nick became a close and valued adviser as Attorney-General. In all that time, I never heard him say anything in private that he would not say in public, nor saw the faintest trace of discontent when his high abilities were not recognised as swiftly as they might have been. He was – above all others I knew – the man who was most comfortable in his skin.

The main reason for this – apart from his natural temperament, and the soothing nature of his poetry and sketches – was his marriage and his family. Nick was a contented and happy man, at ease with his life, and Susanna and their children, Oliver, Alexander, Veronica and Mary Kate gave him an enviable balance, even in adversity.

And there was adversity in his political life: inevitably so, in his role as a Law Officer. Many controversies crossed his desk. And yet, in my experience, he was always a man of deep integrity who interpreted the law fairly and generously.

And when, over Matrix Churchill, he faced ill-informed criticism, he deserved – and received – the whole-hearted backing of Lord Lloyd of Berwick, and five Law Lords. I knew how much this incident worried and disturbed Nick, but told him at the time – and reiterate it now publicly – he had done nothing for which he need ever reproach himself. How could there have been anything? Nick was incapable of any action he did not believe was just. It is why he was the longest-serving Law Officer in the last 100 years.

It is twelve years since Nick first knew he had the disease that would finally defeat him. Characteristically, he confronted it head on, fought it bravely, and – with his family’s love and support – denied it an early victory. He was, to the outward eye at least, rather sanguine about it. He didn’t let it dominate his life. He remained positive. So far as possible, he carried on as normal. With Nick there was no self-pity. If he ever asked himself: “Why Me?”, he would have replied, “Why Not?”.

Whenever we lunched together or shared a drink, he was invariably “doing well”, or so he said. He remained busy – not least on his many pro-bono commitments. Whatever uncertainties or fears he had – and such an intelligent and sensitive man must have had some – he kept to himself. And when he knew the battle was lost, he slipped gracefully – and perhaps gratefully – away. “Can I go now, please?” he asked Susanna. And then – without fuss – he was gone.

I said earlier that there were many Nicks. And so there were. By profession, he was a lawyer and politician and – I think – in that order of priority. Privately, he was a poet, an artist and a countryman. Publicly, he was a Member of Parliament, Minister, Law Officer, Privy Councillor, Knight Bachelor and Peer of the Realm. But personally – and most important of all to Nick – he was a husband, father, grandfather – and friend.

So many Nicks – all wrapped up in one modest, self-effacing package. His was a life worth living. A life with a hinterland. A life lived for others as much as himself. A life to remember. A life of which to be proud – though self-regard was never one of his characteristics.
For Susanna and his family he is irreplaceable. And yet, the Nick they loved will always be there: they will hear him and see him through the thousands of memories they will carry of him in their minds, for the rest of their lives. As time moves on, the pain of their loss will ease, and their memories of Nick will be fresh and clear and unclouded. Nature is kind in that way.

And all of us, privileged to have had a walk-on part in his life, are lucky to have known him. For me, he was a cherished friend – loyal and true. In good times and bad, Nick was always there with his wise and gentle counsel.

Old age crept up – but far too soon. A new year has dawned. May the roses indeed bud and flush for you Nick, and may they be every bit as beautiful as you imagined them to be.