Lord Wylie

Highly regarded lawyer who became Conservative MP for Edinburgh Pentlands
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Norman Russell Wylie, lawyer and politician: born Elderslie, Renfrewshire 26 October 1923; QC 1964; MP (Conservative) for Pentlands Division of Edinburgh 1964-74; PC 1970; Lord Advocate 1970-74; a Senator of the College of Justice in Scotland 1974-90; Member, Parole Board for Scotland 1991-93; Justice of Appeal, Republic of Botswana 1994-96; married 1963 Gillian Verney (three sons); died Edinburgh 7 September 2005.

There are lawyers who are primarily politicians, and Members of Parliament who are primarily lawyers. Norman Wylie was very definitely in the latter category. He was a lawyer first of all and secondly, very secondly, a politician. He was extremely highly regarded by his legal contemporaries, which is a rather rare accolade among lawyers who go to the House of Commons and particularly those who use the law as the stepping stone to a political career.

As a Member of Parliament who had a great deal to do with Wylie during his decade as Conservative MP for the Pentlands division of Edinburgh, 1964-74, I can say at first-hand that he was superbly conscientious and helpful in dealing with delicate constituency cases, in his capacity as head of the Crown Office.

Norman Wylie was born in 1923 into a professional legal family in Renfrewshire and went to the rigorously academic Paisley Grammar School. As an 18-year-old, he volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm and learned to fly in Swordfish aircraft and in Catalinas on patrol over the Atlantic. After the Second World War, he was a very active member of the Royal Naval Reserve and reached the rank of Lieutenant Commander in 1954.

Taking up his entrance to Oxford, he studied English Law at St Edmund Hall and was delighted to be made an Honorary Fellow of the college in 1975. Like many talented Scots, having been to Oxbridge, he acquired his legal training for a career in Scotland at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, obtaining an LRB from Glasgow in 1951.

Admitted to the faculty of advocates in 1952, he was appointed Counsel to the Air Ministry in Scotland in 1956 and an advocate depute in 1959. Owing to the shortage of lawyers among Conservative Scottish Members of Parliament, he became Solicitor-General in April 1964 before becoming the anointed successor of the Conservative Minister of Works in the Pentlands division of Edinburgh. In a tightly fought election, he beat Magnus Williamson, a prominent member of the Press Council and president of the NUJ, by 20,181 votes to 17,794, with the liberal, Charles Abernethy, a distinguished civil engineer, taking 5,862 votes. Wylie was to hold this seat by a whisker in 1966.

During the years of the Labour government, Wylie was most effective in opposition, combining with talented Conservative contemporaries, Alick Buchanan-Smith, Hector Munro and George Younger. Among the issues on which Wylie led during Scottish debates were the Criminal Procedure in Scotland Bill of 1964, the Employers' Insurance Bill, the Evidence (Road Traffic) Scotland Bill, the Highland Development Scotland Bill, the Protection from Eviction Bill and several Law Commission Bills. Wylie was one of those parliamentary workhorses who are invaluable. They do not get publicity or public acclaim - but they are crucial to the working of democracy.

In July 1965, there was the contentious issue of the Judges' Remuneration Bill, a UK measure. Wylie was most effective in countering cheap jibes against the judges, many of whom had given up the greater advantages of lucrative legal practice in order to serve on the bench. He said,

I want the Minister of State to answer this question. Why has the opportunity not been taken to increase the establishment of the Scottish bench? The Honourable Gentleman will have expected me to raise this question. He knows as well as I do that, in the last 17 years, the establishment of the Scottish bench has been raised by only three. Since 1948, three additional judges have been appointed, one under the Restrictive Trade Practices Act 1956, one under the Criminal Justice Act of 1963 and one under the Resale Prices Act of 1964. This brings the Scottish establishment at present up to 18. On each of these occasions, the legislation imposed further duties and obligations on the courts.

Wylie's championing of the Scottish bench was fully justified and adverse comment at the time that he was simply pleasing a body of which he would inevitably become a member was wholly unjustified.

As Lord Advocate in Ted Heath's government, 1970-74, Wylie played a prominent part in domestic legislation in Scotland and was most helpful to those of his English colleagues, such as Sir Geoffrey Howe (now Lord Howe), who had the responsibility of tackling the legal problems associated with their prime minister's drive to enter the European Community. Wylie told me that, because of his wartime experiences and passionate belief that there must never, ever again be a European war, he was absolutely committed to the European vision. As one of those Labour MPs who, on 28 October 1971, went into the same lobby as Ted Heath and Norman Wylie, I talked to him about many of the legal knots of European entry. I was deeply impressed at his painstaking scholarship.

Wylie left the House of Commons of his own volition in February 1974, amicably allowing a young candidate by the name of Malcolm Rifkind to inherit the Conservative candidature. Unlike every Lord Advocate other than one (John Wheatley), he did not appoint himself to a position of Lord Justice Clerk or Lord President of the Council but simply as a Senator in the outer house. This reflects well on his decency and modesty.

On the Scottish bench, he earned the total confidence of his colleagues and was thought by those who appeared before him as one of the most courteous and yet shrewd judges. His distinguished colleague Lord Prosser, says, "One could always be absolutely confident that Norman would be fair and balanced in his approach and conclusions on the bench." On retirement, Norman Wylie became a member of the Parole Board for Scotland and a Justice of Appeal for the Republic of Botswana.

For 20 years, he was a trustee of the Carnegie Trust for universities in Scotland and, as the present Rector of Edinburgh University, I am in a position to know of the huge debt that Scottish universities owe to the Carnegie Trust, much of whose confidence in donating large sums to Scottish universities is due to Wylie's work.

Wylie had a deep interest in the Commonwealth and was chairman of the Scottish national committee of the English-Speaking Union of the Commonwealth.

Tam Dalyell