03 January 2022, The Tablet

Newly-knighted Sir John Battle pays tribute to community

Newly-knighted Sir John Battle pays tribute to community

Devout Catholic John Battle was knighted in the New Year Honours.

Sir John Battle, knighted in the New Year Honours, has paid special tribute to the activists, staff, volunteers and others who have worked with him to change lives and further the common good.

The devout Catholic former Labour MP’s campaigning work on behalf local people in Leeds was knighted for “political and public service”.

Speaking to The Tablet, he said: “Yes, the award is primarily for my ‘community’ work.”

Such work has ranged from saving a community swimming pool from closure and ensuring that thousands of children have learnt to swim, to fighting for victims of asbestos poisoning, to advocacy on housing issues.

The citation notes also that he has been co-chair of Leeds Citizens since 2015. “This joins the papal knighthood that I was given 12 years ago,” said Sir John.

Sir John was MP for Leeds West from 1987 to 2010 where, according to the citation, he was known for “representing his constituents assiduously”.  He also contributed at the highest level of government. 

He has been a front bench spokesman on housing, using his experience of being the first national coordinator of Church Action on Poverty in the 1980s.

Following the 1997 general election he became minister at the Department of Trade and Industry with responsibility for science, energy and industry, announcing the decommissioning of the nuclear power station at Dounreayt in 1998 and publishing a green paper promoting renewable and sustainable sources of energy.

He spent two years at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before becoming the Prime Minister’s envoy to faith communities from 2002 to 2010. “I thought of my work as a shuttle used in Yorkshire’s textile industry” he said. “It was sharp at both ends, representing work in both my constituency and in parliament.” During this time he chaired the all-party parliamentary friends of Cafod group.

Sir John was a leading light for more than a decade behind the successful campaign to save local Bramley Baths from closure.

He stepped down as chair last September after successfully heading the community-led management since it took over running the historic Edwardian facilities from Leeds City Council in January 2013.

He had previously chaired the two-year campaign to save the baths and convinced the council to let the community run it as a community asset.

The baths have now announced a new lifesaving competition in John’s honour and have also made him honorary president.

When we took over I was reluctant, after 23 years as an MP, to take on a full-time voluntary job leading the baths,” says John, “but I have learnt so much from it, made all the easier by brilliant teamwork from volunteer trustees and professional staff.” The baths now offer employment to around 60 people.

Sir John paid tribute to the support of the Bramley community over the years, saying they “have proved that they can save and successfully run a major service and come through the worst epidemic to hit Britain in 100 years”.

He has great faith in local empowerment: “We’ve shown that Bramley won’t just put up with people coming into a community and taking money out, we will do something about it and take ownership.”

Sir John is a key player in many local grassroots initiatives.

For example, he set up and leads a local walking group that supports vulnerable people and is believed to have contributed towards bringing down the local suicide rate.

He said: “I am one of the 20-30 people who meet up and walk every Friday morning.”

Aged 70, he is slowly building back his strength after suffering with long Covid over the past year.

He said: “The impact of Covid on physical and mental health has been massively under-assessed.” He is now a keen user of facilities he has helped to save. “I am grateful personally that we still have such fantastic facilities as the Bramley Baths for health and fitness.” 

Sir John remains heavily involved in a number of anti-poverty community projects across Leeds, including the New Wortley Community Centre, a community care volunteering hub. “I am still out every night…meetings….meetings…. meetings,” he said, laughing.

He thanked his wife and now grown-up children for being “massively supportive” over the years, acknowledging: “Mary carried the weight while I was out at meetings.”


He is a patron of the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) nationally and is “an active trustee” with the Leeds St Vincent's Centre in Leeds which has distributed thousands of food parcels and meals during Covid. Leeds United Football Club has given food support. Sir John describes the centre as “a major hub for Leeds and West Yorkshire and the local council acknowledges its effectiveness, engaging all people who are struggling, including migrants and refugees.” 


And his energy extends to on-going work with faith groups nationally to challenge unjust structures and legislation that hits the poor hardest. He is a Fellow of Blackfriars Hall in Oxford and a member of the Advisory Board of the Las Casas Institute. And rooted in his knowledge of the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching, he has maintained four decade-long support for Justice and Peace. He is Chair of Leeds Justice and Peace and a Patron of the National Justice and Peace Network of England and Wales, whose annual conference he has chaired. He describes faith communities as, “sources of hope”. At the 2019 NJPN Conference, he highlighted a favourite quote from St Oscar Romero: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.” 


He feels Pope Francis is a huge inspiration today for positive action, having called for “a Church which is poor and for the poor”, and is proud that the Catholic Church “is a Church which tackles structural injustice as well as offering charity.” Yet, he feels his most formative time was studying as a seminarian at Lancashire’s St Joseph’s College, Upholland, in the early ‘70s. “Influential teachers still keep me fresh today even though they’re dead!” he laughs, recalling the late moral theologian Fr Kevin Kelly and scripture scholar Fr Thomas Worden as major influences on his Christian spirituality. 


Yet, Sir John stresses that it is also people who have nourished it on a daily basis over the years. His favourite book is ‘Don Quixote’, a knight who felt his title meant giving service and showing compassion and I sense that he will use his knighthood as a bit of extra clout to serve the community. “I have always found the extraordinary in ordinary people.” Sir John recalls that when he was an MP returning home after difficult days at Westminster, “I would go off on my own and knock on doors of people I represented and ask them if they were alright; that listening and conversation kept me going.” 


Now local people are knocking on his door – even as I was speaking with him on the phone - to check that he was the ‘John Battle’ that was knighted. I could pick up the humorous banter and the sincere delight that Sir John’s life mission has been recognised.

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