Ipswich: Civic leaders gather to say farewell to friend and politician Russell Harsant

IPSWICH: Civic leaders from across the town and county came together at the funeral of veteran Conservative councillor Russell Harsant.

IPSWICH: Civic leaders from across the town and county have bid a sad goodbye to veteran Conservative councillor Russell Harsant.

Yesterday St Mary le Tower church was full of hundreds of people from all walks of life who wanted to pay their respects to Mr Harsant. The 78-year-old died on January 24 after a long battle with prostate cancer.

The mourners, from all political persuasions, were led by his widow and former borough leader Liz who was supported by other members of the family.

Former MPs Chris Mole and Michael Irvine joined the current member, Ben Gummer, in the church.

Mr Gummer delivered a touching eulogy to his party colleague and close friend.

He pointed out that Mr Harsant had only ever lived in two houses just 200 metres away from each other. Mr Harsant had been born and brought up in Alan Road before moving to Salisbury Road which was a house he had helped to design and build with his father.

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As Mr Harsant was a member of both the borough and county councils, there was a full turn-out of civic dignitaries.

Mayor and deputy mayor of Ipswich John Le Grys and Roger Fern arrived in the church with county council chairman Patricia O’Brien and deputy chairman Jeremy Pembroke.

Council political leaders were out in force – Mark Bee from the county, David Ellesmere from the borough and representatives from neighbouring districts.

There was also a substantial turnout of council officers from both authorities, led by Deborah Cadman from Suffolk and Russell Williams from Ipswich.

Mr Harsant was first elected to Ipswich council in 1983 and after a few years became leader of the Conservative group – that represented quite a journey for him because he had been born into a strong socialist household and only changed his political allegiances in the 1970s.

He was first elected to the county council in 1997 and represented Bixley on both authorities.

Do you want to pay tribute to Mr Harsant? Write to Your Letters, Ipswich Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail starletters@archant.co.uk.

Ben Gummer’s eulogy to Russell Harsant:

IT is not for us, nor is it possible, to quantify a life. Yet it is some measure of Russell that the pleasure of talking about him with Liz and with friends over the past ten days has softened the deep sadness felt by so many people across Ipswich and beyond on the news of his death.

It was as if the glint in his eye flashed at us as we remembered so many events – happy, difficult, momentous – from Russell’s life, that raucous merry laugh echoing to our own outbursts at memories of this lovely man: devoted, decent, loving, unorthodox, principled, jolly.

Russell was an Ipswich boy and an Ipswich man, whose journey of all but 200 yards over the course of his life marked his sense of stability and a deep love of this town. His attachment to Ipswich was not architectural, or historical, but to people –foremost among them that wonderful woman with whom he had founded a marriage, a force – a two-membered and very powerful union it felt like at many times – that contributed so much to our town and inspired the respect, admiration and profound affection of us and so many, many others who could not be here.

It was under the influence of another, only marginally less inspirational and certainly less charming lady, that Russell made that big decision that was to form and mould the latter half of his life.

When he talked about it, which he was happy to do – with his friends – openly, it was obvious that it was not despite his strong and true socialist background that Russell looked to Mrs Thatcher, and through her to Conservatism, but almost because of it. There was clear logic in Russell’s political world view: focused, informed by his own experience, clear and uninhibited by history or baggage.

As a single businessman who remembered what true penury felt like, that fresh recognition of the value of individual graft was invitation enough to lift the banner and join the fight. As Russell would sometimes advise, always “go towards trouble, don’t let it come to you”.

And that is precisely what he did. He won St Clements from Labour and from then on fought every election to victory, even when – as many predicted in a bad year for a Conservative in St Clements – he was certain to lose.

A dangerous opponent of the ruling Labour administration in the Borough during the 80s, he shadowed John Mowles at housing and then led the Conservative group. The heat of those debates still warms us today: rent arrears, the Odeon land swap deal – and, of course, that great issue on which it would still be unwise for a Member of Parliament to offer an opinion – the airport.

In all of these, Russell was argumentative, effective but never vindictive. He would go at Jamie Cann with hammer and tongs in the Council Chamber in the Town Hall but then retire with “Old JC”, as he would call him, to Mannings or the Black Horse.

Russell was well-suited and well versed in the role. He was an urban Conservative, completely attuned to his constituents, latterly in Bixley, and the broad sweep of the citizenry of Ipswich. It was in planning meetings that his priorities were most plainly seen – always asking what residents wished for and never afraid to confront officers with a contrary opinion if he felt their view ran counter to what people might want.

It was more a state of mind than an attitude, one that made, at times, for an uneasy relationship with the county Tories with whom he sat, often in a metropolitan minority of one, at County Hall and later Endeavour House. Those who were wise learned not to ignore his keen political antennae: he called political disputes right, because he understood – and more importantly felt – what voters thought.

Although this talent was instinctive, it was also informed by deep personal commitment to his ward constituents. Russell listened. Then he acted.

And how he loved the politics that bound it all together. Intensely political, gleefully engaging in debate whether at the association executive or on the doorstep. It was why he loved canvassing, achieving the impossible and injecting fun into the coldest and most rain-sodden afternoon. His jolly sang froid enabled him to endure the doors slammed shut when the Tories were at their nadir, turning away with a naughty smile and a faux-quizzical look, just as it did the time he was greeted by a lady fully nude and full frontal – discussing for some time with her the merits of the candidate for all the world as if she were wrapped in a winter coat.

This was all part of the game. For Russell was, as the obituarist might say, a man who always appreciated feminine charm. He loved the impromptu parties at Park Road during the last General Election campaign as much as the get-togethers at Woodham Smith, many years ago. And in his final days the draining dread of the hospice evaporated when a pretty lady appeared beside his pain-laden bed.

And that was one of many reasons why he fell for Liz. It was a model marriage, carrying a family, through storms and sunshine, every member of which he loved as his own. Utterly unselfish, his devotion sustained Liz in her own political career: as Liz has said, they were “the only couple that woke up talking about an integrated transport system”. And he basked in her success, worrying only at how she might be over-worked. For both, it can fairly be said, that neither would have achieved what they did without the other. Truly they were a sum greater even than their two considerable parts. The rest of us looked on with respect, if not – at times – a little trepidation, at what Russell would joyfully exclaim as the “greatest affair of all time”.

This was Russell: playful, mischievous, but serious in what he said. He would not speak for effect. Paradoxical – at once brilliantly un-English, never afraid to let tears show in his eyes when he remembered his father or spoke of his love for you, Liz, but also very British –undogmatic, courteous, principled, correct. It was a way of living, an adherence to principles by which he believed you should live, that he passed on to Samantha and Rachael, whom he loved so very much.

We shall all miss him: as a councillor, as a friend, as a father and as a husband. It is impossible fully to comprehend loss. We know at least that the world would be a very much better place with a few more Russells in it. We all of us were privileged – bloody lucky, as Russell would have it – to have shared even a few of his 78 years, to have held him in as much affection as we did in esteem and respect. Our lives, and Ipswich, are very much the better and happier for it.

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