Lord Archer of Sandwell: Politician who became a leading human rights campaigner
When he became Solicitor General he declined the knighthood that traditionally went with the job
Saturday 16 June 2012
In the House of Commons, the procedure known as the Early Day Motion operates as a talisman of opinion. It is an indication of the high regard in which Peter Archer was held by colleagues right across the Parliamentary Labour Party, and indeed the House of Commons itself, that any group that wished its motion to be taken seriously would approach Archer for his signature.
Archer would never sign a frivolous motion, but would agree to sign any proposition where he thought it right to do so. Archer was one of those rare politicians who made judgements and whose actions followed what he believed to be right and eschewed what was wrong. He was a selfless Methodist, and hugely influential in Parliament for a quarter of a century. He served as Solicitor General in Harold Wilson's Government, was an influential shadow minister, and remained selflessly active in public life until into his 80s.
Peter Archer's parents were working class. His father had a variety of jobs, some of which were working in the foundries of the Black Country. His mother and father were not involved in politics but encouraged Peter to go to the public library. Archer flirted with Communism but a well-known Methodist Black Country minister, the Reverend Percy Jackson, one of the leaders of the Social Credit Movement, influenced Archer back to the church. He is a classic example of Methodism being more important in British Labour politics than Marxism.
On leaving school he joined the district audit service in Birmingham, where he was fortunate in being persuaded by the district auditor, Edward Southgate, who himself had started as a postman, to study for a university degree. Southgate arranged for his young employee to begin an external degree in law at University College London. When he was 18, towards the end of the war, he wanted to do national service in the army, but instead he was instructed to work in the coal mines as a "Bevan boy".
For four years Archer used every spare moment to obtain an LLB, and an intermediate BA in Philosophy; this took some doing when he was working down the pit on shifts. On being released from the mines he went to the London School of Economics and got a degree in 1950. He won a scholarship financed by benchers of Grays Inn, whose selection committee was impressed by his energy and determination. Archer was called to the Bar in 1952 and two years later married "Myff" Smith, a deputy head teacher with whom he was to enjoy an happy and mutually supportive life.
In 1957 the young advocate was chosen to be the Labour standard bearer in Hendon South, but a by-election was to take place in his home area of Wednesbury in 1958 and he was asked by several trade unions and three local ward parties to submit his name. He declined to do so, forsaking a safe Labour seat out of loyalty to the South Hendon party. He was beaten by Sir Hugh Munro Lucas-Tooth; history might have been different if Archer, and not John Stonehouse, had taken Wednesbury.
He developed a common law practice, specialising in divorce and personal injury and becoming a recognised expert in employment and trade union disputes. In the 1959 Election he was selected for the winnable Brierley Hill but he was beaten by John Talbot. As he was beginning to despair of getting a winnable seat, against formidable opposition – Guy Barnett, later a Labour environment minister, the future Speaker Betty Boothroyd, and Bryan Stanley, general secretary of the Post Office Engineering Union – Archer won the safe seat of Rowley Regis and Tipton.
Within a year of entering the Commons he was appointed PPS to the Attorney General Sir Elwyn Jones, gaining experience invaluable seven years later when Harold Wilson appointed him as Solicitor General. In 1969 Wilson had sent him for three months to represent Britain on the United Nations' "third committee" on human rights and for the rest of his life he was a leader of parliamentary opinion on human rights and one of the moving spirits in the Anti-Slavery Society and Amnesty International. With the government's defeat in 1970, Archer concentrated on the Bar, becoming a QC in 1971; hoping for a Law Officer's position, he gained experience in the criminal courts.
When Labour returned in 1974, Archer teamed up as Solicitor General with his friend, the "lawyers' lawyer", Sam Silkin, as Attorney General. They broke precedent by declining the knighthoods which until then were automatically bestowed. My memory of Archer is of his competence at the Despatch Box on complex issues. I remember a sweltering evening in 1975 with a difficult debate on High Court attendances by Officers of the House of Commons. All the awkward squad, Michael English, Robin Maxwell-Hislop, Arthur Lewis, John Peyton and Nicholas Winterton were there, but Archer's approach was calm throughout.
One of his obligations as Solicitor General involved being ex-officia law officer for Northern Ireland, with the delicate responsibility for authorising prosecutions. This led to him later becoming Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary from 1983-87. He served the country well, cooperating with the government, and remaining devoid of partisan point-scoring. He also served the Labour Party well, one of the natural consolidators between the struggling factions of left and right. With some colleagues he founded the group "Labour First" which, though short-lived, played its part in healing the rift between party factions and making the 1997 Labour government possible.
In 1992 he stood down from the Commons and was ennobled. I believe that Neil Kinnock, then leader, had him in mind as Lord Chancellor. Archer used his time constructively, continuing as a Recorder of the Crown Court. He had been an extremely active member of the Fabian Society, and was chairman in 1980-81 and president from 1993. He also threw his energies into the presidency of the World Disarmament Campaign and One World Trust.
Archer was an idealist, but an idealist with his feet on the ground, commanding respect and using every moment of his long public life constructively. When he was over 80 he became chairman of the committee looking into the emotive subject of contaminated blood. I remember him in the 1980s asking the Conservative government about provisions for legal aid and in particular for representation before a judge in chambers in bail applications. Archer's contribution was very influential with the Royal Commission on legal services. He never wasted a moment.
Peter Kingsley Archer, lawyer and politician: born Sandwell, West Midlands 20 November 1926; MP (Labour) for Rowley Regis and Tipton 1966-1974, Warley West 1974-1992; PPS to the Attorney General 1967-1970; Solicitor General 1974-1979; cr. 1992 Life Peer; married 1954 Margaret Irene (Myff) Smith (one son); died 14 June 2012.
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