Political guru inspires through bravery in death

Philip Gould, one of the architects of modern political practice, has succumbed to oesophageal cancer at the age of 61. His courageous response to death has been widely admired.

Although he did not become a household name, Philip Gould was one of the invisible architects of modern British politics. Working for the Labour Party in the 90s, he developed a system of opinion polling and focus grouping that helped propel the young Tony Blair to the highest political office and brought in 13 years of uninterrupted Labour rule.

In 2008, as Gould’s political life was coming to an end, a new and darker journey was beginning. In January that year, he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus – a disease that is usually fatal.

For his wife and daughters, the news was a devastating shock. Many of his political friends reacted with disbelief. ‘You’re too happy to get cancer,’ was a common response. So were comforting words like: ‘You are so strong you are bound to get through this.’ That optimistic assessment has now, tragically, been proved wrong.

But, as death became first a possibility, then a likelihood, and finally a certainty, Gould found within himself previously unsuspected reserves of inner strength. ‘If you accept death,’ he told one interviewer, ‘fear disappears.’

And with that acceptance came not only courage but a new and surprising appreciation of life: ‘This period of death is astonishing,’ he said. ‘The moment you enter the death phase it is a different place. It’s more intense, more extraordinary, much more powerful.’ Simple things took on new significance. He found huge pleasure in just looking at flowers out of his open window. Walking in the park with his wife was ‘heaven’.

Most importantly of all, the knowledge that the end was in sight gave Gould a chance to set his affairs in order and try to bring any unresolved issues from his past to some sort of resolution. Religious faith also seems to have been a comfort at the end. Asked how he felt about doing his last ever interview, he replied: ‘It doesn’t worry me at all. It feels fine. On to the next thing.’

No regrets

Many will think it sounds strange to treat mortality as in any way a good thing. Gould’s ordeal was emotionally difficult and physically painful. His death deprives two daughters of their father, a wife of her husband. His life was cut short years before time.

But although the journey of cancer led to a sad destination, Gould wrote movingly before his death of the valuable lessons he had grasped along the way. ‘I have learnt,’ he said, ‘that fear can be defeated and, if it is, then human possibility is unlocked’ and ‘that the human spirit that is within us all is more powerful and more resolute than we can ever imagine... I would not choose cancer but I do not regret it.’

You Decide

  1. How might a person cope with the news that they were going to die?
  2. Does the inevitability of death make the human condition inevitably tragic?


  1. In art, a 'memento mori' is a painting that reminds the viewer that all humans must eventually die. The genre has a long tradition. Have a look at some examples from any era, and create your own.
  2. One of the most famous poems about death is by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas:Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.Read itand write a short article explaining what you think it means. Is 'raging against the dying of the light' a sensible response to death'?

Some People Say...

“Immortality would be a curse, not a blessing.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Didn't Apple founder Steve Jobs die of cancer recently too?
He did. His last words were: 'Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.' He had once said: 'Death is very likely the single best invention of life'.
That's crazy!
Philosophers have long been spinning arguments about why death is not to be feared, and might even be something welcomed. The Greek thinker Epicurus pointed out that death isn't so bad once it has happened because, after all, you're not around to feel sad about it.
I'm still not convinced.
It's not, alas, a totally airtight argument. There are others though. British philosopher Bernard Williams wrote that death was the only thing that gave meaning to life. Without death, he thought, life tends towards 'a state of boredom, indifference and coldness. Everything is joyless.'

Word Watch

Focus grouping
Political focus grouping is the practice of getting small groups of ordinary people together to discuss things like policy changes or campaign slogans. The aim is to get a rich and detailed picture of public opinion. Gould was a master of this.
A disease in which cells in the body start reproducing uncontrollably causing lumps called tumours to develop. There are many different kinds of cancer, some of which are relatively harmless. Overall, the disease is one of the world's biggest killers.
The oesophagus is the muscular tube through which food passes from the mouth to the stomach. Cancer of the oesophagus is the seventh most common kind of cancer in the UK.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.