Edward Lyons: Politician ahead of his time in championing human rights

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One of the reasons why Bradford East constituency Labour Party selected Edward Lyons as their candidate in 1966 was that as the son of poor immigrants from Russia he was likely to empathise with the problems of those who had arrived in Bradford from the sub-continent and elsewhere.

Another was that this caring barrister, champion of many an underdog, would be an asset to the Parliamentary Labour Party – which he emphatically turned out to be. It is no exaggeration to say that Lyons educated many of us who entered the House of Commons in the 1960s in the realities and ramifications of human rights, which then was by no means the centre stage issue it has now become.

His predecessor as MP, the earthy, streetwise Frank McLeavy, warned Lyons that he was inheriting a seat beset by problems of community tensions. And so it proved.

Born within earshot of the Rangers football ground, Lyons told me that among his first childhood memories was the distant thunderous cheering emanating from the Saturday-afternoon 70,000 crowd at Ibrox Park. In 1929 the family moved to Leeds, where his father got a job as a machinist in a clothing factory run by members of the Leeds Jewish community.

After a scholarship to Roundhay High School, an education for which he was ever grateful, Lyons volunteered in 1943 for the Royal Artillery. He was selected for training at Cambridge as a Chinese interpreter, but after the atomic bomb was dropped and the Japanese war abruptly ended he was transferred to be a Russian interpreter, a language which had been used in his home. Working in contact with Red Army officials he was a member of the Allied Control Commission interpretation staff.

Lyons told me that he owed a lot to the encouragement to go to university of the man who was later to be my own headmaster, (Sir) Robert Birley, then head of the Control Commission Education Department, whose interpreter on occasions Lyons had been, albeit without the formal qualifications. Accepted by the Law Department of the University of Leeds, on the recommendation of the British authorities in Germany, he proved an assiduous mature student and was called to the Bar in 1952, pursuing a busy and successful practice on the North Eastern Circuit. Later, after Labour's defeat in 1970, he became a Recorder in 1971 and a QC in 1974.

In the House of Commons there are two categories of lawyers – those who use a law degree to become politicians, and those who remain serious lawyers. Lyons was in the second category. But perhaps it was mutterings in the PLP that he was not available for the slog of morning committee work that was the reason why he was not chosen as a minister in 1974, as his talents would surely have indicated that he should be.

In 1964, with his reputation as a champion of working people, he was chosen as the Labour standard bearer in Harrogate. His opponent was the popular Conservative Army Minister James Ramsden. In the election Ramsden scored 24,474 to the Liberals' 9,332 and Lyons' 8,655. But he had done well in what was, from a Labour point of view, infertile ground at Harrogate, and was rewarded by being chosen for Bradford East in 1966, where he scored 18,435 votes over the 8,091 of his Conservative opponent, Henry Sissling.

He said that he refrained from making his maiden speech for months because he was so concerned to be called by the Speaker on the crucial abortion debate, when David Steele introduced his memorable reforming bill. Lyons said, "I have represented those involved in abortion, both medical and lay. I have therefore seen a 30-shillings abortion, with Higginson's syringe and a soapy solution, undertaken in a kitchen by a grey-faced woman on a distraught, multi-child mother, often the wife of a drunken husband." I remember his vivid description, and along with colleagues thought that that here was a new Member bringing first-hand experience to the House of Commons: there is no substitute for fresh, first-hand experience in parliamentary debates.

Later in the parliament he went several times to South Africa and Namibia to oversee trials on behalf of the International Committee of Jurists. In what was a small cause célèbre he was refused visas to visit trials in Russia on behalf of Amnesty International.

During his time in Germany Lyons had become a passionate pro-European. On the evening of 27 October 1971, the day before the fateful vote on British entry to the Common Market Lyons told me, "Tam, you were a soldier in the British Army of the Rhine and I was a soldier working for the Allied Control Commission. We know Germany. Even though it is goodbye to being considered as a future minister, I am damned if I'm going to miss the opportunity of preventing another war in Europe."

We were two of the 68 Labour Members of Parliament who defied a three-line whip to go into the same lobby as Heath on European entry. I went unpunished by my constituency Party. But for Lyons it was the cause of endless trouble throughout the 1970s with the militant tendency in Bradford. In 1979 Lyons overcame ferocious efforts to deselect him, but in the event scored 24,309 votes to the Conservatives' 16,554 and Liberals' 3,668 - the largest swing to Labour in England in that unsuccessful general election.

He became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Roy Jenkins as Chancellor of the Exchequer and was one of the first in January 1981 to join the 28 Labour MPs who defected to the fledgling Social Democratic Party. He was very unhappy about deserting friends in the Labour Party in Bradford, but his relations with some of his parliamentary colleagues became cryogenic as he became an SDP spokesman. In the mid-1990s, approving of New Labour, Lyons rejoined the party. It says a great deal about him that in 1997 he graduated from the University of Leeds in European Studies. He was a man of great principle and passionate belief beyond self-advantage.

Edward Lyons, politician: born Glasgow 17 May 1926; educated Roundhay High School; Served Royal Artillery 1944–48, Allied Control Commission, Germany 1945–1948; BA, Leeds University 1951; Lincoln's Inn 1952, Bencher 1983, Recorder of the Crown Court 1972-1998; Labour MP, Bradford East 1966–1974, Bradford West 1974-1981, SDP MP, Bradford West 1981-1983, contested Bradford West 1983; married 1955 Barbara Katz (one son, one daughter); died 23 April 2010.

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