Party leaders give thanks to humanists at Humanists UK 125th anniversary

Cross-party messages from across the UK have been delivered to mark the 125th anniversary of the founding of Humanists UK. The leaders of the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, and of the Green Party of England and Wales, as well as the First Minister of Scotland and Lord Greenhalgh, the Minister responsible for UK Government relations with humanists, have all given their congratulations.

Watch the recorded messages.

Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer MP said:

‘I’m delighted to congratulate Humanists UK on your 125th anniversary. Ever since its foundation as an ethical movement, humanists have contributed enormously to our party’s and our nation’s achievements. Labour’s first Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, was an early President of Humanists UK. Also humanists were Nye Bevan, the creator of the NHS; Jennie Lee, who created the Open University; and Dora Russell, campaigner for abortion law reform.

‘Humanists and Humanists UK have been at the forefront of the fight for social change: to decriminalise homosexuality, to end corporal punishment in schools, and to introduce free school meals. But you’ve also played an integral role in our communities: from setting up humanist housing associations and adoption agencies through to today’s very popular humanist ceremonies.

‘When a small group of radicals met 125 years ago they can scarcely have imagined the impact they would have: on our shared values, on our laws, and on social progress. Thank you to humanists and Humanists UK for all you’ve contributed to our society. Here’s to the next 125 years!’

First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon MSP said:

‘I’d like to wish Humanists UK a very happy 125th birthday and show my appreciation for the enormous contribution that humanists make to our society. 125 years ago, a small band of humanists in each of the four nations of the UK came together to create this movement and 125 years later you are still going strong.

‘In Scotland that is embodied by the Humanist Society Scotland, who do so much good work. From providing pastoral care in hospitals and universities, to initiatives like StreetCare – delivering food in communities across Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Stirling. So on this 125th anniversary I want to thank you for all that you do and wish you a very happy occasion, and many more years.’

Liberal Democrats Leader Sir Ed Davey MP said:

‘The party I lead unites a number of traditions. Liberal Democrats have always been a place where reformers and of all types have come together to take the best of their different traditions and ways of thinking, in pursuit of our common liberal goals. I am a Christian… but I recognise that for many people, religion isn’t where their main values come from. It’s not what motivates them to get up and go to work, or to care for their relatives, or to give their time to charity and the needy…

‘Liberal and humanist traditions have long been intertwined. Many liberal humanists shaped the society we live in. I think of philosophers like John Stuart Mill, liberal suffragists like Emily Hobhouse, and in the 20th century, figures like William Beveridge – father of our welfare state – and the liberal economist John Maynard Keynes…

‘As humanists and as liberals, we want many of the same things. We all want to see a tolerant and inclusive society, where decisions are made on the basis of the best available evidence, and built on a foundation of human rights, democratic values, and the rule of law. So on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I’d like to wish a very happy birthday to Humanists UK.’

Green Party of England and Wales Co-Leader Sian Berry AM said:

‘As a humanist myself, I often feel like my humanist values and Green values spring from the same place. Because to me, humanism is about recognising we came from the living world and we live within it. Our concern for other living beings, for our planet, and for future generations is core to both of these philosophies. It’s an approach to life shaped by a rational, evidence-based understanding of our society and the problems we face – not only as individuals, but collectively. These are values which are so important to humanists and to Greens alike…

‘One simple humanist conviction that inspires me, something which is evident all around me, is this: for the most part people are good, and they want to do good. I see that across all communities. I’ve found it to be true in every part of the country and every part of society. And it’s equally true of humanists and people with religious beliefs…

‘This year, we commemorate that 125 years ago, a group of activist men and women met up and put forward a positive vision of the world, with ideas like universal education, votes for women, non-discrimination in the workplace, rights for LGBT people, inclusive schools. Today millions attend humanist ceremonies, or are touched by the work of humanist pastoral carers in hospitals, or participate in humanist campaigns for free thinking and freedom of choice. And many more share these values, quietly, sometimes unnamed – doing their part for a kinder, more sustainable society.’

Conservative Minister Lord Greenhalgh, Minister of State at the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government said:

‘It is important that, on such a special anniversary, we reflect on all that humanists in the UK have achieved over the past 125 years.

‘As well as celebrating your broad contribution, we can renew our celebrations of individual humanists working in various fields such as the sciences, philosophy, defence, and the arts, who have truly reflected humanist values; to think independently and act with kindness and tolerance for the benefit of our shared society. It is good to see the work of humanists featured within your new Humanist Heritage project and website.

‘As we prepare for our national recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, I would like to thank humanists in the UK for their tireless contribution to the national effort. You have all contributed in numerous ways; with many humanists working in front line services and the NHS, some of you engaging with the Government on critical issues, but very significantly you have supported bereaved families and provided space for people to mourn and remember.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘We’re delighted to be celebrating 125 years of activism, serving those in their time of need, providing community, and changing the UK for the better. Humanists UK today is stronger than it has ever been, and as well as looking back on all that we have achieved, we look forward with excitement to what more change we can bring about in the years ahead.’

The Council of the ‘Union of Ethical Societies’ – Humanists UK’s original name – first met on 30 April 1896. It held its first annual Congress on 5 July. As a result, Humanists UK held an event to mark the anniversary on 30 April – ‘“Conscience in action”: how humanist activists shaped society’, looking back with historians and long-time humanist activists like Diane Munday, who was instrumental in bringing about legal abortion in Britain. The event also focused on the recent launch of its new Humanist Heritage website – cataloguing hundreds of humanist people, ideas, organisations, and innovations, it aims to put one of the most important social movements in UK history in the spotlight for the first time.

And it has a whole series of events and activities planned over the rest of the year. Events include to mark the 42nd anniversary of the Gay Humanist Group (now LGBT Humanists, a section of Humanists UK); on the history of race equality and humanism; and another with a focus on faith schools, marking the anniversary of the Moral Instruction League being founded in 1897.

A history of Humanists UK

Humanists UK was founded in 1896 as the Union of Ethical Societies. The ethical culture movement focused on living well and acting morally, separating both from any notions of supernatural punishment or reward. The first ethical societies trace their roots back to the 1870s, and at their peak in the 1900s there were over 70. Today there is one ethical society left in the UK, namely Conway Hall in Holborn.

In 1920, the Union of Ethical Societies was renamed the Ethical Union. In 1963-7, the Ethical Union became the British Humanist Association, with the Happy Human logo being invented in 1965. The BHA further evolved into Humanists UK in 2017, and today has around 100,000 members and supporters, more than ever before.

Along the way, notable events included the first ever global antiracism gathering, the Universal Races Congress, which was held in 1911 and featured W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as three past or future UK Prime Ministers; the 1955 BBC broadcast ‘Morals without Religion’ by Margaret Knight, psychologist and later member of the Humanist Broadcasting Council, which broke new ground as the first-ever broadcast of its type, and led to an avalanche of complaints; the founding of the Humanist Housing Association in 1955 and Agnostics Adoption Society in 1963, to provide services that in their time had not been available to non-religious people, and which had a special interest in supporting racial minorities; fighting against section 28 in the 1980s through to helping bring about legal recognition of same-sex marriages in the 2010s; to prompting the abolition of England and Wales’s blasphemy laws in 2008; and the legal recognition of humanist marriages in Scotland in 2005 and Northern Ireland in 2018.

Other notable people with a shared history include a young Gandhi, who published translations of American humanist writings and was close friends with Florence Winterbottom, Secretary of the Union of Ethical Societies; the former UK Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, who was President of the Union in the 1900s; Jennie Lee, a humanist who founded the Open University; and Wole Soyinka, who spoke at the 2014 World Humanist Congress and today is a patron of Humanists UK.