Historical Oracle Meets...Lord John Burnett
Updated: Feb 26
The day I met this edition’s TM2 guest was not a good one. The weather was horrendous, and I was in mourning following the England Rugby team’s loss in the final of the World Cup to South Africa. Not an auspicious start to the day.
However, the grump I was in was swiftly overcome once I sat down and started chatting with Lord John Burnett – one of the most fascinating people I have had the pleasure to interview.
Readers from Torridge and West Devon, or just general political enthusiasts, will more than likely know John, having been the Liberal Democrat MP for the constituency between 1997 and 2005.
While I know the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has recently promised, on the steps of Downing Street, that the public can be free from politics over Christmas, I can assure you that this interview is well worth a read – if I do say so myself…
John’s link to the military – which he has continued to champion his whole life – started early, as his dad, Lieutenant Colonel Aubone Burnett, was in the army as a lawyer. In the post-war period, this obviously entailed dealing with some of the most difficult cases the world has seen.
“He was asked, in 1945, after the victory in Europe, to get involved with the war crimes trials, which were in Nuremberg. My mum always believed that what my dad had to deal with in those terrible cases – I think he was involved in the Mengele trial – the horrendous cruelty and the unbelievable barbarity – really took its toll on my dad.”
He would go on to explain that his mum believed the stress and horrors he had endured contributed to his ill health and early death at just 48, when John was 13.
During his dad’s time in the army, the family spent time in Austria and Germany, before going to Singapore and Malaya and spending a lot of his early years in the Far East.
John would go on to attend Ampleforth College before joining the Royal Marines in January 1964.
“I was absolutely determined to join the Royal Marines. I went to 42 Commando, which was in Borneo, so I did a tour of six months in Borneo before going back to Singapore.”
It was at this point that you could tell that his love for this branch of the military still burns as deeply as ever.
“It’s the most wonderful service to be in. I am the most enthusiastic supporter of The Corps – the people are just as good as ever. They always exceed expectations.”
I asked if it was his dad that inspired him to join the Marines and, while it was to an extent, the person he named first was actually Lieutenant Colonel Robin Bridges.
Bridges and 42 Cdo successfully deterred a threatened invasion of newly independent Kuwait by the Iraqi forces of Abd al-Karim Qasim in the summer of 1961, getting there by thundering up the Persian Gulf on HMS Bulwark as fast as she would go. When the 500 Marines reached the ridge above Kuwait City, the two Iraqi Army divisions said to be on their way failed to turn up.
“I remember coming across a photo of 42 Commando in Kuwait, where they anticipated an invasion, and the commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Robin Bridges. He was standing there looking into distance. They had one commando unit versus the Iraqi Army.”
He then proceeded to tell me about a very similar situation he found himself in:
“I was involved in a similar operation some years later – Ruby Tuesday was the top of the Hit Parade! We had come back from Aiden after the withdrawal, to our base in Singapore. We thought we were going to get a bit of leave having been away on operations. Suddenly, it was early evening, Land Rovers were going around Singapore and telling anyone from the Commandos to report back to your unit because half a million Chinese troops had gone up to the border in Hong Kong. Our garrison, of about 4000 or 5000 were feeling a bit vulnerable!
“We had a massive Far East fleet and they ran the hell out of their engines getting us up there! It was a real show of strength job. Then the Chinese Army just dispersed – they left.
“I have a very good friend who was in the garrison, and he said he had never been so happy to see the Royal Marines in his life!”
It was while he was in the Far East that he would meet his future wife Billie. The story of their meeting could easily fit into a scene from a Hollywood film.
“Her dad had been the British High Commissioner in Singapore – Sir Arthur de la Mare.
‘I came back to Singapore, having been in the jungle doing some training and when I got back I had a message to ring a friend of my father. She asked if he would like to accompany the High Commissioner’s daughter to the St Patrick’s Night dinner.
‘There wasn’t much time between her asking me and me saying yes!!”
It wasn’t long after this that John decided it was time to start winding up his career in the military.
‘At that time, we were withdrawing East of Suez – I couldn’t see that things were going to get anymore interesting, and I wanted to marry Billie. So, I thought I would return home and do what a few of my ancestors had done and become a lawyer.”
I took this opportunity to ask what he considered to be his proudest achievement from his time in the Royal Marines. I think his answer summed up his deep-held love for his military family:
“Passing for duty is the greatest honour you could receive. Just being a Royal Marine. I am possibly most proud of that than anything else in my life.
‘Do you mind if I go off on a tangent?”, he asked me with his characteristic politeness. “On our 350th Anniversary dinner for the Royal Marines, in 2014, Prince Phillip was still our Captain General…and we had 350 people at this dinner.
‘Prince Phillip gave this fantastic speech – no notes – and he said to us ‘A lot of you have asked me if I was at the tercentenary at Greenwich, well I was – but I can’t remember a bloody thing about it!’.”
“Our core is full of absolutely fantastic people.”
John and Billie would go on to buy a house in London, ‘when they were a lot cheaper than they are now’, while he trained as a lawyer and completed his Articles.
Considering his career up to date, what he went on to do next caught me off guard – as my recording of our interview will testify!
“I decided that I wanted to go farming! We were both keen to get away from London and go live in the country. I got to know the Westcountry as a Royal Marine. So I went and bought a farm in Petrockstowe where we reared Devon Ruby Cattle!”
As with everything that he has turned his hand to, he didn’t do things by half and his and Billie’s cattle would become award winning.
Returning the conversation to the career in which he is most notable, I asked John about his interest in politics and how it emerged:
“It was listening to Roy Jenkins giving the Richard Dimbleby Lecture in 1992. He was a profoundly intelligent man. That really inspired me.”
When Peter Mills stepped down; the Conservative MP for Torrington from 1964 to 1974, West Devon from 1974 to 1983 and Torridge and West Devon from 1983 to 1987, John was asked to consider standing.
With his classic sense of humour, John came back with a characteristic quip:
“There’s only one problem I see – I am a Liberal! The subject, as you can imagine, was quickly closed down…”
In the 1997 election he won the seat of Devon West and Torridge as a Liberal Democrat MP. He succeeded Emma Nicholson as MP for the constituency, after her defection in 1995 from the Conservative Party to the Liberal Democrats, and her elevation as a Liberal Democrat peer. Burnett was re-elected in the 2001 General Election.
He was the Liberal Democrats front-bench Spokesperson on Home Affairs from May 1997 to July 2004 and on Justice from July 2004 to May 2005.
“It was a great honour to serve for two terms but by 2005, I was 60. Two terms was enough.”
Burnett for much of his eight years in Parliament had been regarded among his fellow Liberal Democrat MPs as ‘the cat that walked alone’: he distanced himself over his Party's stance on the war in Iraq, for example.
One of the high points of Burnett's parliamentary career was his promotion of the Bill which became the Limited Liability Partnerships Act 2000, allowing solicitors, for example, to remain in the traditional partnership arrangements while having some of the benefits of limited companies.
In the House of Lords, he has spoken primarily on armed forces issues – continuing to champion to rights of his beloved Royal Marines.
I finished off our interview by asking him who inspired him politically.
“Roy Jenkins particularly and I admire Winston Churchill, I have to say. A wonderful leader. I had great admiration for Charles Kennedy as well. He was a really, wonderful, kind man.
“I took Charlie Kennedy canvassing at the Okehampton Hospital – and he was genuinely warm, genuinely caring and genuinely kind.”
Following my question about political inspirations, I think people could do worse than modelling themselves on John. He conducts himself with the utmost politeness and kindness. He epitomises the phrase that there is far more that binds us, than divides us.
“I had friends from all parties. Great kindnesses have been shown to me. If that’s gone now, and I really hope it hasn’t, I really worry.”