David Astor remembered: ‘MRG could not have dreamt up a more perfect champion’

By Shaun Johnson

A book on my shelf that I especially treasure is titled David Astor and the Observer.[1] In it the biographer Richard Cockett gives a fine account of the sweeping and significant life that was that of David Astor.

But the reason for my treasuring the 1991 edition above all is to do with the subject rather than the authorship. For David, in his elegantly evolved but characteristically somewhat diffident hand, had inscribed it thus at the time:

To Shaun

With thanks for getting me interested in politics again.

Yours, David

It is no secret among us legions of admirers and beneficiaries that David did, indeed, in later life get disillusioned and feel hopeless about what he often described to me as humans’ limitless ability to deceive themselves about their own actions in the services of right and wrong.

But how was it that I had the inestimable privilege of helping to get the great man reinvolved after a period of downcast withdrawal? In the mid-1980s he took me in to his home in Cavendish Avenue, St John’s Wood, after my time at Oxford ended and I contemplated the frightening prospect of going home to the fists and flames of my beloved, benighted South Africa. My country was then experiencing States of Emergency in what were (though we of course could not know it) the dying days of apartheid. He became fascinated once again by South Africa, with which he had been significantly engaged but had never visited.

David’s great friend Anthony Sampson, who had in fact introduced us, published a Festschrift in which this account was given:

In October 1986 David and Bridget spent a month in South Africa – his first visit to the country in which he and the Observer had been so long and intimately involved. They criss-crossed the country seeing famous anti-apartheid leaders on a State of Emergency tour planned and guided by Shaun Johnson, a young academic, writer and activist whom David had taken under his wing when he was studying in England on a Rhodes Scholarship, and who now worked on the Weekly Mail.

It was on this trip that I learnt of David’s seminal support for Minority Rights Group (MRG). I took him and Bridget to Durban to see his old friend and protégé Laurence Gandar, who had edited the now-defunct liberal Rand Daily Mail from 1957 to 1969 and who, after being sacked for alienating many of his white readers, moved to London (with David’s assistance) and became the first director of MRG. It was fascinating, all these years later, to listen to them reminisce about the early days of MRG.

David collected seemingly random causes, but in their globally far-flung range, you could always divine his logic when you worked out that in there someone, somewhere, somehow, was being done down unfairly. And when David Astor became convinced that someone somewhere was being done down, it was his unstoppable instinct to Somehow Do Something About It. MRG could not have dreamt up a more perfect champion and midwife if it tried.

Richard Cockett situates MRG in David’s body of works thus:

A practical illustration of David’s impartiality was the formation of the Minority Rights Group in 1961, an organization formed largely by him and Michael Scott to publicize the cause of oppressed minorities in the post-colonial world. The first director was Laurence Gandar. Others involved were Ronald Oliver, the Africa expert, and David Kessler, editor of the Jewish Chronicle. The Minority Rights Group produced studies of the plight of ethnic or national minority communities, whether they be Kurds, Palestinians or Eritreans…. The fight for the classic liberal causes of political rights and freedom thus extended from white colonial to post-colonial African or Asian rule.

Jeremy Lewis recorded the catalytic factors behind the establishment of MRG:

The Minority Rights Group stemmed from David’s and Michael Scott’s support for the Nagas, and reflected, in part, their belief that – in David’s words – ‘the United Nations, being an organization of governments, is a particularly inhospitable forum for the rights of minorities.’ Once again, it began life with a lunch…, attended by David, Michael Scott, Guy Wint and Conor Cruise O’Brien in 1962; David told Keith Kyle that it was set up ‘to act as a friend, adviser and introducer of minorities, without becoming their propagandist’.

David’s involvement in MRG lessened over time but in all the years I spent with or near him, he made it clear that it was one among his many initiatives of which he felt most proud. It is an honour for me to add these small recollections to this valuable volume, which David would have much enjoyed while habitually pooh-poohing his own contribution. That was David.

Shaun Johnson was Founding Executive Director of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation from 2003 to 2019. Besides being a renowned anti-apartheid journalist, he was also an internationally awarded author: his works include: Strange Days Indeed, the bestselling book on South Africa’s transition introduced by Nelson Mandela, and the novel The Native Commissioner, winner of numerous accolades including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in Africa. The Leverhulme Mandela Rhodes Doctoral Scholarship has been renamed the Shaun Johnson Memorial Scholarship in honour of his legacy.

Johnson passed away in February 2020. He wrote this personal recollection of his friend David Astor, MRG’s founder, just months before he died.

[1] David Astor was Editor of the Observer from 1948 to 1975.

Photo: David Astor